Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Art of Teaching by Gilbert Highet

Another book recommended by the classical educators is The Art of Teaching by Gilbert Highet. This book was written in the 1950s, so after the Progressive reforms and furthermore, he’s from Teachers College of Columbia, so… let's say I was surprised that it was recommended by classical educators. But I really liked this book. He takes a different view from John Gregory and believes that teaching is much more art than science.

He begins by introducing the book with, “Our interest here, therefore, is not to distinguish the good subjects from the bad subjects, but to work out the principles by which a subject — once it has been chosen — can be well taught.” Because bad teaching can have such a tremendous impact on the students, spoiling “lives which might have been full of energy and happiness,” he felt compelled to write this book. That is a breath of fresh air to me!

He begins, like Gregory, with a discussion of the importance of the teacher. “A teacher must believe in the value and interest of his subject as a doctor believes in health. The neglect of this principle is one of the chief reasons for the bad teaching that makes pupils hate schools and universities and turn away from valuable fields of knowledge.” A teacher must know and LOVE his subject! And not only love it, but like it and desire to continue to grow in the field. In addition, the good teacher must actually like young people. “You must not be the policeman watching the mob. You must be the leader of a group.” These characteristics seem so obvious, but clearly Highet has seen examples of teachers who do not like their subject or their students.

He here inserts an aside. He believes that when the idea of universal, public education arose, it necessarily swept up people who had no interest in being a student. Simultaneously, it changed the idea of an education as a privilege to one of drudgery. I think he is onto something, however, that genie cannot be put back in the bottle. I think that is why charter schools are a good solution. At least with choice, families can feel they have a stake in the game and are more likely to see the education their child is getting as a privilege. 

Back to the teacher. He must know his students names and faces. He must see them as individuals. If the teacher wishes to mold them into “real people” he must see them as real people. At the same time, he warns against the impossibility of knowing each student on a deeply personal level. He suggests “typing” them as a way of short-handing the student. However, he says be aware that a few students will not fit a type. They are the “eccentrics.” These must be treated “with extreme care. They are explosive mixtures.” Some of these are the brooders, but some are the geniuses. They can be hard to spot at first, but the teacher must be on the lookout for those that don’t fit the normal stereotypes and work in a way to maximize their education. “The best way to avoid wasting the powers of a good pupil is to plan his work for him… Make him keep records. Make him  write… Then, at the end of three months, give him a rest and congratulate him, and while he is still elated, take him rapidly over his whole achievement. This gives him a sense of unexpected power.”

Not only do teachers need to know their subject and their students, they need to have wide and varied interests. “Teachers in schools and colleges must see more, think more, and understand more than the average man and woman of the society in which they live.” This helps the teacher connect the student to the outside world. It also tells a student that the subject under consideration is being taught by an interesting person. This reinforces the student’s desire to learn the subject and thus become interesting himself. 

The essential abilities of a teacher include a good memory, determination, and kindness. This describes someone with that essential strength of personality that exudes confidence. HIghet calls this quality “largeness of heart.” In short, a good teacher will love and enjoy his students and the world around him.

Then he moves on to the teacher’s methods. First of all, he advocates the teacher provide for a class a summary of the ground to be covered. This allows the students to see the subject matter as a cohesive whole and allows them to begin preparing questions for the material to be covered. As for what is in the plan, he says, "The first essential would be to cut down the monotonous reading and scansion, and to increase the quantity of explanatory lectures and discussions; the next would be to vary the types of teaching, so that the class should not always expect exactly the same tasks; and the third would be to conceive the subject-matter of the course not a as shapeless stream of foreign words to be read, translated, and scanned, but as an intellectual and artistic whole composed of various parts." He also cautions against "teaching the same old stuff year after year." This is a fault because the world is changing, the knowledge of the subject is changing, and therefore the teacher should be changing. He also highlights the need to read and know the original sources. This can freshen up teaching when you know the original documents and can add your own original commentary.

He moves on to a discussion of the "three main methods of communicating knowledge from teacher to pupil." The first one he deals with is lecturing. The purpose is the steady flow of information from teacher to student. A good lecturer knows the students cannot copy down everything said, so he therefore knows how to emphasize that which is noteworthy by delivering slowly and emphatically. It is also very important that the teacher, while not reading a lecture, come prepared for what he is to say. "Before he opens his mouth, the lecturer must know exactly what points he wishes to tell his audience, in what order, and with what emphasis." 

The second is the Socratic Method in which the teacher asks a series of leading questions designed to get the student to arrive at a predetermined point in his thinking. "This system is the most difficult, the least common, and the most thorough way to teach. It is most difficult because it demands constant alertness, invariable good humor, complete earnestness, an utter self-surrender to the cause of truth, on the part of both teacher and pupil.” He calls this the best form of education because if it has been done well, the student is convinced that he has not been taught, but has discovered on his own so many wonderful truths.

The third form is simply doing a lesson. “The pupil learns from three different activities: first, from doing his own work alone; second, from observing the mistakes he has missed, and also from defending himself on points where he believes he is right; third, from looking over the completed and corrected work and comparing it with the original assignment and his first draft. The first of these is the work of creation, the second is criticism, the third is appreciation of wholeness.” These must all work seamlessly together. 

Elaborating on this most common of methodology Highet says the students must first prepare privately for the class. Then the teacher fills in gaps in the understanding. Then the students are questioned to see if they have in fact prepared beforehand and if they are understanding what is being presented. This questioning should not be simply parroting back information from the text. It should be used as a means to integrate the information in a meaningful way, and make it more vivid. Allow the students to problem solve or find connections with what they just read. One method had the teacher writing, “What is the problem?” boldly on the chalkboard. Then the class discusses possible problems and solutions and comes to a conclusion. This energizes the class and leads to a spirit of competition which prods all students to really think about the issues presented. 

Like Gregory, Highet emphasizes the importance of fixing the lesson in the mind of the students. The first method is review. He cannot overemphasize the importance of this step. Never end a unit on the final lesson. Never end a lesson on the final thought. Always review. Next, use questions to fix an idea. One method that sounds particularly intriguing is called “quodlibets” which means “whatever you like.” The students fired questions at the teacher as a means of review. And the teacher makes sure to clarify any misconceptions while leaving his students with the distinct impression there is much more to be learned on the subject. Finally and obviously related, never exhaust a topic. Leave the students feeling like there is more to know and implicitly provide a challenge to go further in their studies. 

In a discussion of great teachers, Highet reminds us that a good teacher knows, “What he stimulates his pupils to think out for themselves often has a far more potent influence upon them.” In addition, “the wise father and the good teacher will challenge their sons and pupils to equal them, and help them, where it is wise, to differ and even to excel.”

As he continues to discuss great teachers he illuminates the Renaissance style of teaching. He states that they began early and immersed small children in letters, reading, and writing. “Next, the subjects were more limited in number, so that the energies of the pupils were not dissipated. But, at the same time, teaching was not rigidly departmentalized, as it tends to be nowadays.” This integration led to a more natural love of learning and little compulsion. “How did [the good schools] get the young to study difficult subjects?” The the teachers so love their subjects and "talked so interestingly about them that their pupils were fascinated.” Sometimes this flamboyance of learning led to a lack of complete accuracy, but it engendered a pure love of learning. Highet seems somewhat unconcerned about the mistakes communicated during a time that produced Shakespeare and Montaigne. Finally, the Renaissance teachers made learning fun! They incorporated games and plays. “They emphasized the fact that learning is a pleasure.” They created competitions and “encouraged the boys to compete with one another… They invented difficult tasks, challenging their best boys to complete them.”

He also gives high marks to the Jesuit teachers. Their primary characteristic was their ability to adapt. They recognized that each student and class was different. The teacher must learn to “adapt his teaching to different classes, and tread different pupils differently.” Today we call this “diversity,” a mushier version of what the Jesuits practiced. But it is interesting to know that unlike the stereotypes we hear of pre-Progressive education, teachers were well aware that students and classes differed and must be adapted to. He also points out as an aside the Jesuits' ability to talk in pictures. Everything was a metaphor. This ability to create analogies is extremely important in the teaching process. In addition, they set high expectations and used the great books to hook the souls producing “a long list of wise and learned Jesuit preachers, writers, philosophers, and scientists.”

Once again, he bemoans universal education as the source for all that ails education today. Education came under the purview of Boards and Ministries of Education and, “the result of the grim quasi-religious moral attitude of the early nineteenth century, which thought that important subjects could only be treated in a deadly serious way, which admired the discipline of floggings and harsh examinations as a preparation for life, and which believed the aim of education to be the collection of large masses of useful facts, as the aim of life was the collection of large masses of stocks, bonds, and landed properties.” In short, universal, mandated, publicly-funded education sucked the soul out of true education.

He concludes with a nod to advertisers who definitely have something to teach the teachers. They know how to communicate a message effectively. “1. Make it vivid… 2. Make it memorable…3. Make it relevant.” They might be using these techniques for “debased” ends, but they are quite effective at teaching. 

As teachers, we can offer something so much better than a new brand of toothpaste or a flashy automobile. We offer the ability to help create great souls, people who are better and more capacious than they otherwise would be except for being in our classroom. We have an amazing opportunity learn with and love young people and to help them become more. I can't wait!

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