Playing the Indian Card

Friday, September 28, 2012

On Teaching

Don John.

The essence of good teaching, if you stop and think about it, is not mysterious. It is obvious. You need three things: to entertain, to explain, and to help retain. Unfortunately, modern education schools ignore all three.

The biggest problem is the "entertain" part. It is obviously necessary—you need to be able to hold your audience's attention in order to get anywhere with them. And simply screaming "pay attention" is idiotic and an admission of incompetence. A great teacher is a great storyteller plus a stand-up comic, and if he or she can sing and dance, even better. St. John Bosco was a juggler and acrobat. Jesus made all his points in the form of stories, Confucius in aphorisms. Socrates played the fool, and Plato presented ideas in the form of plays. But this is a knack, a gift, a talent. It cannot be taught in an education school, and so it is ignored altogether.

By "explain," I mean the ability when the subject allows it to give concise, clear explanations. What could be more obviously fundamental to teaching? This again was essential to St. John Bosco's famously successful technique. Stands to reason: you need to know the goal in order to have a chance of reaching it. This, too, however, is not within the command of the average lector; the average person giving a ten minute explanation of anything is boring and confusing. Above all, it requires the ability oneself to reason well; which is no doubt why the teaching profession in the past has always been considered a proper occupation for the most intelligent among us, and given the respect this commanded.

Yet, remarkably, even making the attempt to do this is taboo in current teaching theory. Lecturing is out; no more "sage upon the stage." Why? Officially, because this is authoritarian; because the students are supposed to come up with their own reality, their own truths. But God help them if the reality they come up with is not the one the teacher expects. And in the meantime, have they learned anything, by merely saying what they already knew?

I think the true reason clear explanations are discouraged is because the typical individual who signs on to teachers' college is simply not intelligent and articulate enough to do it well; and this cannot be taught. Ergo, by default, it is best if they don't try; it just exposes their deficiency. But look at the popularity of TED Talks on the Internet, or of Glenn Beck's chalk talks on TV. These are lectures, and there is nothing folks like better than a good one. Public lectures used to be a major form of popular entertainment. 

Don Glenn

Finally, it is not enough to get the students' attention and tell them the thing so that they can understand it. They also have to remember it, or nothing has been accomplished. There is a vast technology of mnemonics, ways to remember effectively, that has been built up over millennia. Remarkably, none of it is taught in schools of education; in my experience, the average teacher does not even know what the word means. The current prescribed format for a “lesson plan” makes no provision for mnemonics or even simple repetition or review. The entire matter is ignored.

Or rather, not ignored. The current teaching is that memorization is bad. 

Why is it bad? Because it is not creative.

Perhaps it is true that memorization is not creative—although most cultures believe it is, that it creates new furniture in the soul. If so, so what? Does one good thing drive out all other good things? Isn't it a false alternative to suggest that we need to choose between remembering and creating? 

John Glenn

My secret suspicion is that memorization is really discounted in modern education schools for a different reason: because it is boring—for the teacher.

So those are my three ingredients for proper teaching: entertain, explain, and retain. Only the last can really be taught, but, to the extent that these things can be taught, they form the ancient discipline of rhetoric. That is surely the proper education for a prospective teacher.

But there is one more thing, more important than all these. A good teacher must love his students. Without this, there is nothing. This again is what Don Bosco taught.

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