Friday, November 22, 2013

Outlawing Tire Irons

Abigail Walthausen has written a brilliant piece sure to anger some, as most brilliant pieces usually do.  She has dared to defend the classroom lecture.  Take a moment and catch your breath.  Yes, that's right.  She defends the classroom lecture.

As she points out, the lecture has drawn fire for years now, eventually giving rise to the ludicrous dichotomy between the "sage on the stage" versus the "guide on the side."  Yet she cites several articles and studies that suggest the lecture can have a meaningful place in education, but more on those in a moment.

Walthausen's key statement is, "If the community of educators has agreed to value student learning styles, why not allow adults the freedom to play to their own strengths as well?"  Let's consider that.  I have never understood why, especially in a time that embraces diversity in all things, we would rule off the table certain techniques or approaches.  The quick answer, of course, is that lectures can be boring, soporific to the point where students fail to learn anything.  The problem with this response is its lack of logic.  I find a tire iron quite helpful when changing a flat tire.  Now, it can be used to bash in someone's head or smash a window in a burglary.  In other words, it can be put to a bad use.  That, however, is no reason to outlaw tire irons.  As Walthausen points out, the lecture can be quite good, the perfect instrument even, when put in the hands of a master lecturer.

To push another analogy, I collect and use fountain pens.  I find them elegant and a delightful connection to a bygone era.  I would under no circumstances force everyone to use them.  I realize that others may prefer a ballpoint, a roller ball, or even a good old #2 pencil.  Teachers are adults, often well-educated ones.  Surely we are capable of determining for ourselves which method of instruction is best in a particular circumstance and should not have one particular tool, in this case the lecture, denigrated or removed from our choices simply because some do not know how to use it well.

In an article Walthausen cites by former Indiana University professor and general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, Mary Burgan observes that "students benefit from seeing education embodied in a master learner who teaches what she has learned."  She continues,

It is in this context, it seems to me, that teachers are irreplaceable as models of knowledgeable adults grappling with first principles in order to open their students' understanding. Indeed, surveys have shown that such modeling is critical in students' responses to their teachers: The two features of an individual instructor's pedagogy that most engage undergraduates are control of the material and concern with students' understanding of it. No matter how recondite or obscure the ideas may be, the phenomenon of a grown-up person capable of talking enthusiastically and sequentially can show students how they themselves might someday be able to think things through.

The modeling of how a human being thinks and explores the world is one of the vital roles that a teacher plays, a role eloquently examined in George Steiner's Lessons of the Masters.  Steiner's book should be required reading for anyone entering the profession of teaching or presuming to talk about it.

Another article Walthausen cites is by Dr. Richard Gunderman, also of Indiana University. In it, he sets for the purpose and the look of the ideal lecture.  "The core purpose of a great lecturer is not primarily to transmit information. The real purpose of a lecture is to show the mind and heart of the lecturer at work, and to engage the minds and hearts of learners.  A great lecturer's benefit to learners extends far beyond preparing for an exam, earning a good grade, or attaining some form of professional certification. The great lecture opens learners' eyes to new questions, connections, and perspectives that they have not considered before, illuminating new possibilities for how to work and live. Without question, it also helps learners who pay attention earn a better grade, but it manages to make the topic take on a life of its own and seem worth knowing for its own sake, beyond such narrow, utilitarian advantage.  Great lecturers often share responsibility for solving ... problems with learners, working with them in real time to find a solution."

I have been fortunate to know great teachers who utilized the lecture format as a master violinist wields a Stradivarius.  This method makes its way regularly into my own classes, not as the dry and dusty talk that some have suffered through, but, as Gunderman sees it, as an opportunity to work with students in the shared journey of discovery that is true education.  I know the effectiveness of this method, for it has produced deep and passionate conversations and writings, both between my own teachers and me and between my students and their magister.  When these happen after class, after school, through email, on Facebook, and often at a remove of several years, you can be certain in a way no multiple choice test could confirm that true education has taken place.

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