More Thoughts on Teaching

I’m going to try leaning on that last thought a little, because I might be able to pull a more accurate and less snarky philosophy of education out of it. So the thing is, the teacher and the students have to have something to work with, whether it be an art technique or a book or a piece of music, and they’ve got to have something they’re trying to do with it; perhaps answering a question or analyzing the elements or writing an essay or making an artwork. This, like a magnet, draws everything together and attracts all the different skills and whatnot toward a common end, so that skills and materials and methods aren’t just floating about causing mischief. Some educational professionals liken a lesson plan to instructions on how to make a sandwich that actually include every little action that’s involved in making it. That would be the algorithmic teaching method, and it assumes people are very dull indeed. That’s why we write algorithms for machines: they require speed but not intelligence or interest whatever: just carry out the processes. Even most programming isn’t done at that level, though — most modern programming is done in higher-level languages that are more like human languages, and therefore more intelligible to humans. then there are other programs that can translate that into machine code so that it can actually be processed, before being sent back up to the higher-level human language or visual feedback.

There are all kind of problems with the algorithmic method of lesson planning, not least of which being that, like computer code, it’s much harder for a human to read than narrative or description or simple notes. But the biggest difficulty I have with it — and, by extension, the biggest difficulty I had with a lot of education classes where the profs. tried to practice what they preach — is that it does everything it can to rule out my very favorite thing both as a student and as a teacher. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does it’s the best. As a student it’s that moment when you say something that makes the prof think in a way he hadn’t before: that’s a very good solution; I hadn’t see things that way before; thank you Ms. Johnson, that helps me to better understand what Chaucer was saying there; I think that Mr. Grout’s point was helpful in that respect.

I had a tutor last summer, Mr Davis, director of the St John’s Graduate Institute, who was just fantastic that way. He had probably read some of those books a dozen times and knew him stuff, but every other thing he said was something some student had said; some point she had made, and he would collect it and re-phrase it “were you trying to say, Ms. Galinger, that ___?” and it would always sound way better than we had even thought to say it, and we would go “wow, we can see stuff in this text, can’t we?” He would take notes during class and recap them the next time in the same way “and the Mr. Trifle said ___, which I found to be very helpful because of ___,” and with out essays — his favorite points, or things that made him think and he thought we might like to hear as well.

As a long-term substitute I spent three months, mostly in the studio arts room. There were a lot of trials and tribulations, but there were a couple of students who really liked art and were good at it. They would make these really neat sculptures, and sometimes I would help them. It was fantastic.

Well, it seems that the thing about algorithmic lesson planning is that, while students are persistent and might very well manage to get some life into things anyway, it tends to squelch that kind of thing, where students really get to contribute. As do many of the more ingenious methods, and most group methods I’ve been the unfortunate recipient of. Because then even creativity is mostly scripted — and real creativity isn’t. I’ve only ever written anything good or worth reading, I think, sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper or a blank computer screen with my mind, and perhaps a book, and some question in my soul. The more certain my teachers were of what they wanted to produce, the more tawdry it was likely to be, especially in writing. One or two directives, on the other hand, tended to be helpful without being overbearing, so that I felt like the assignment was really an exercise in reading the prof’s mind. That’s even true with fairly technical things like geometry or ceramics, where you have to follow the steps exactly in order for the process to work. Then teachers have to de-clutter by just letting those requirements determine how things must be done — and it’s pretty obvious.

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