Playing the Indian Card

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Science in the Classroom

Teaching today is entirely scientific. Prospective teachers must learn to do “active research” with their classes, then use it continually to determine what does and does not work.

Unfortunately, the first thing that clearly does not work is active research. Though in theory every single teacher now teaching is doing this much of the time, nothing has ever come of it—no significant evidence that any one teaching technique consistently works better than any one other. As I understand it, this is true even of teaching itself: there is no significant evidence from “active research” that students taking a class learn their subject any faster than students studying it on their own.

True, there are at any given time well-known “good” teaching techniques that all teachers are expected to use. Today, we are supposed to be “student-centred.” We are supposed to use a “communicative approach,” and/or a “constructivist approach.” We must be “interactive” and use “intrinsic motivation.” There are even sometimes studies to back some of this up

But none of these studies ever turn out to be reproducible. It becomes a matter merely of fad or fashion. Invariably, in five year’s time, another study will conclusively disprove the current theory, and “good” teaching will involve rejecting all of the practices popular today.

This dog don’t hunt. This dog is chasing its own tail. This dog has made a dumb error, called “social science.” Teaching can never and should never be “scientific.” Human beings are far too complex and aware for science ever to understand.

Teaching, the New Testament points out, is a “gift of the spirit.” That means good teaching comes direct from God, as an inspiration—like prophecy, or speaking in tongues. You cannot teach a teacher to teach, any more than you can teach a writer to write. One is either a teacher, or one is not.

That also means that all teaching is essentially religious in nature.

We used to know this. Teaching used to be a, if not the, core religious activity. All schools, from Grade One through the Ph.D., were originally run by churches—not just in Christian culture, but in all religions. Buddhist monasteries were the local school, in Buddhist countries. In Muslim countries, the school was attached to the local mosque. In Confucian countries, the Confucian shrine was the local school, and vice versa. A Jewish synagogue is a shul, a school, no more, no less.

Not all great teachers are also religious figures; nor all religious figures also great teachers. But the exceptions are few. We all know Confucius was a teacher. But the Buddha’s essential nature, distinguishing him from uncounted unremembered enlightened beings who came before him, was that he alone took the trouble to teach the dharma to his fellow man—he is defined as a teacher. In the New Testament, Jesus is consistently addressed by his followers as “rebbe”—literally, “teacher.” One’s “guru,” the essential religious role in Hinduism, is one’s teacher; the Brahmin class is at once the priestly and the teacherly caste. It is the same function. So too in Confucianism. Every Catholic bishop is also by definition a teacher—that is his defined role.

One could learn a great deal, about teaching techniques, by reading the great books of the world’s religions. They often address the issue of form as well as content. Jesus, for example, with his parables; Confucius with his analysis of ritual, example, and ceremony; Buddhism with its koans; the Talmud with its illustrative stories. This, along with the techniques of other great teachers like Socrates, Aristotle, the Baal Shem Tov, St. Ignatius Loyola, Ngarjuna, Hui Neng, Shammai, Rumi, or Hillel, is what student teachers should be studying.

But that is not enough; content is no more arbitrary than form. Only religion ensures that we teach our students the right things—and if we do not, at best, we are wasting their time. How, without religion’s values, do we know what is of value to teach? How can we build a path without knowing its end?

In fact, to sit a child or adolescent in a classroom for five or seven hours a day, and bombard him with all sorts of things, and not touch upon religion, is to do him terrible harm. It is teaching him to avoid religion and leaving him without direction. If the child is at all bright or perceptive, this will cause a crisis some time in adolescence, when he notices that there is no apparent point to anything, no ultimate meaning or goal.

Consider this, and one must conclude that modern, “scientific” teaching is not just a failure.

It is a clear and present danger for our children.

It is teaching the best of them to commit suicide.

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