19 November 2013

On the supposed antithesis of good teaching

I've been asked to write something about my approach to teaching for a small publication we put out for work-place mentors for our post-compulsory education students. The format is to respond to some deceptively simple questions (and there is a 500-word limit for the whole thing). One question was:
What would be your 'top tips' in relation to teaching and learning?
The ideal teaching/learning situation is a conversation. All the techniques and the technology are about enabling that conversation (which may of course be physical and practical, but still a conversation). If you are getting the conversation going, then abandon all the stuff which might interfere with it; exercises and slides and tests and plans only count when they enable the conversation.
That seemed the most succinct way of expressing my views.

But then I got an email this morning about a broken link on one of my pages, and fortuitously it was to a paper by Howard Becker--one of my sociological heroes, still going strong and still teaching at 85. Actually it was not a formal paper, but an email exchange with one of his former students (Shirah Hecht) about teaching a research methods class (1997). Read it--it distils so much wisdom about teaching into a small space, and without any jargon, and says it all so much better than I can. But in particular, here is Howie responding to a question;
Do I like teaching? To tell the truth, yes, I do. I pretty much hate most of what goes with it: departments and administrations and voting and meetings and requirements and all that. But I like sitting around with people bullshitting about interesting things, which I guess is my idea of what teaching really is, if it goes the way it should. [...]
One secret about liking it, I think, is that I don’t try to bend anything to my will. I guess this is kind of a Zen thing. I’d use another metaphor. I try to find out where things are going and help them get there. I never try to impose my will because, fundamentally, I guess I believe that people know what they want to do and it’s not up to me to tell them they’re wrong, just to help them do it. If I think it’s a dumb thing to do I’ll show them why I think that, why it won’t get them where they want to go, or tell them to go somewhere else where they could find what they’re looking for. So I never have the sense of things not going the way I want them to in class, except when I forget all this sage talk and try to get them to do something they don’t want to do or, more likely, can’t do without more help than I’ve given them.
 ...only that is the antithesis of how we are expected to teach.

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