Charles Dickens Would Approve

From Joe Hoyle:   On January 1, 2013, and again on June 1, 2013, I wrote entries on this blog about my experience at linking a Government Accounting course with a Victorian Literature class.  I found it to be an interesting experiment with some excellent outcomes.   If you want to read more about what we did, the following link will take you to an article in the online version of the Chronicle of Higher Education.    If you have followed this blog for long, you know that I am a strong proponent of experimentation in education.   This one did not require a committee or a mandate or a strategic plan.   We thought the idea might work and (with the support of my dean) we just tried it to see.  I believe college education would certainly improve with more such interesting experiments.


Since I have already referred to Victorian Literature above, I will make a comment about something I recently read.   A few weeks ago, I started Hard Times by Charles Dickens.    Dickens could be brutally sarcastic about elements of daily life that he found wanting.   Apparently, he was not necessarily a big fan of certain educational practices.   At the end of Chapter Two of the first book of Hard Times, he describes a teacher (with an incredibly unusual name – another characteristic of his writings).

To quote Dickens, this teacher “had taken the bloom off the higher braches of mathematics and physical science, French, German, Latin, and Greek.   He knew all about all the Water Sheds of all the world (whatever they are), and all the histories of all the people, and all the names of all the rivers and mountains, and all the productions, manners, and customs of all the countries, and all their boundaries and bearings on the two and thirty points of the compass.   Ah, rather overdone, M’Choakumchild.  If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!”

That last line jumped out at me like a bullet:   “If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!”

Is it possible that a person can just be too smart or too well educated to be a good teacher?

Well, hopefully not, but it does present some challenges:

--If you understand material especially well, it is often difficult to comprehend why certain aspects are not readily apparent to a 19 year old college student.   In such cases, it becomes easy to skip over essential parts of the process because “anybody can see how these two steps connect.”   What is clear to a teacher is not necessarily clear to a student. 

--If you love the material (which is often why people study particular subjects so intensely), it is often difficult to comprehend why other folks might not be equally enamored.   Thus, although reading 300 pages of dense material over a week-end might be a thrill for you, a 19 year old college student might present a bit of resistance.  What is fun to a teacher is not necessarily fun to a student.

 --If you are truly excited about the material, it is often difficult not to talk on and on and on about it.   You then find it incomprehensible that a 19 year old college student could possible nod off in the middle of your monologue.  What is enthralling to a teacher is not necessarily enthralling to a student.

Obviously, you cannot unlearn material or become dumber simply because you think it might make you a better teacher.   No, but you can work to see the course more through the eyes of a student.

As I wrote last year, I like to take classes over the summer – especially in topics where I know absolutely nothing – just to help me stay aware of what it feels like to be “the dumb one in the room.”   Last summer, I took tai chi (and am still taking tai chi) and I have struggled terribly to do things that my teacher does with ease.   He makes a movement with his hands and arms and legs and then I do what seems to be exactly the same thing.   The teacher then shows me at least 9 different reasons why I am off.   Luckily, he is very patient with me.

This summer, I am taking a class in pottery.   I know nothing about pottery.   I know less about pottery than I know about tai chi.

At the first class, the teacher handed me a one-pound piece of clay and showed how to shape it into a cone.   When she did this shaping, it looked like something a 4 year old dog could have done.   It could not have looked easier.   So, of course, I messed it up completely.   She actually had to take the clay from my hands and toss it aside.   Without professional work, my effort was beyond help.   I wanted to bang my head against the wall.

For me, at those special moments, I become a better teacher.   I can actually feel how difficult it is to do something for the very first time and not the 10,000thtime.   I needed to be shown again (and again and again).   I needed for the teacher to do it incredibly slowly.   She did and, eventually, I was able to turn my clay into a cone and get it on the wheel and come up with something roughly like a cup.   For me, every step was a trial.   Nothing came easy.   It was just a whole lot tougher to be a student than I would have anticipated.   But, when I had made my cup, I was thrilled.   The educational process had worked its magic!   I had managed to succeed (or take a small first step toward success).

You have a lot of summer left.   Why not find a class like tai chi or pottery or some such and take it?   Go in as stupid as possible and see what you can learn.   Remember what it feels like to be “the dumb one in the room.”

I believe this is a good suggestion.   I hope you will try it.   From my experience, the typical response is:   “that’s a great idea” and then it never gets done.   That’s just human nature.   But it is also why improvement is often so difficult.   We want to get better; we truly do.   But we don’t necessarily want to do the things that might bring about such improvement.   Prove me wrong -- go sign up for a class.

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