Heave-Ho

It’s not uncommon for those who teach to say that “teaching something is the best way to learn it.” On one level this sounds stupidly obvious: it’s enormously helpful to know what you’re talking about when you have to explain it to others. Indeed, the fear of exposure in the classroom as a know-nothing is a powerful inducement to hit the books with a bit more resolve. I’ve even been known to insert new material into my courses as a way of forcing myself to learn it. Sometimes I think that I’ve learned how to learn far more as a professor than I ever did as a student.

Surely I am not the first person to notice this; nor am I the first to wonder how this insight might be exploited in the classroom. 'If only,’ I have often thought, 'I could get the students to teach this stuff. Then they would really know it.’ But my attempts to turn students into teachers have generally failed. The following is a good example.

For years I have wanted to get students to pose better questions about the material we are reading. This desire arose from thinking about the way I prepare to teach. I generally read something through once and then work my way back a second and third time writing questions in the margins that I plan to ask in class. In a sense, I’m reverse engineering the book, finding the major premises, the key definitions, and underlying assumptions, and then simply inverting all these into questions.

If you leafed through any of the paperbacks I use for class, you would see margins peppered with questions like this: “Why’s she laying it out in this order?” “Why doesn’t this passage contradict what was said in chapter two?” Often, too, there are inter-textual questions: “How does Plato’s analogy of the soul as a charioteer and two horses compare to Freud’s ego, id, and superego?”

Okay, so why not get the students to do this for themselves? Why not make them ask the questions instead of me? In my naïveté this seemed like a brilliant idea. So several years ago I worked up an assignment along these lines. I divided a class into groups of three or four and assigned them dates on which they were to lead discussion. To prepare they had to pose several questions about the material, write their answers using the text as support, and then take turns asking their questions in class and leading the discussion. Just to make it more challenging, I made it a rule that they could only lead the discussion by asking additional questions.

This flopped in so many ways.

First, there were a lot of ticky-tacky content questions: How many parts of the Platonic soul are there? What year was Freud born? There was a lot of serial solicitation of irrelevant opinion: Do you like this book? What was your least favorite part? As you might expect (but, alas, I did not) the students proved incapable of leading a Socratic dialog. Their questions were greeted with silence. I confess a part of me was sinfully amused by this (welcome to my private hell, I thought). After several awkward, agonizing moments, however, someone would grow uncomfortable enough to mumble an ambiguous response. Then more silence until a look of panic appeared on the discussion leader’s face as he or she peered over to me with eyes begging for rescue.

I know now, of course, why this flopped. Analyzing texts, finding juicy seams and inter-textual connections was easy for me, almost second nature. I had spent years doing it. My students hadn’t. But I didn’t give up on my question asking assignment. I was determined to make it work, so I prepped them, I showed them samples of good questions, I had them evaluate various questions against a criteria. As a result, they got only marginally better at posing analytical and comparative questions, but they never improved at Socratic questioning. That was beyond them.

In a strange way it all reminded me of an advertisement I used to see as a kid. There was this outfit in Minneapolis that ran an art correspondence school. They had spots on TV and in Reader’s Digest in which they asked you to apply by drawing the face of a pirate. The ad even laid out the four steps you needed to complete your pirate.

First step, you made an oval. Second, you drew a cross lightly over the oval to set the parameters for the eyes, nose and mouth. Third, you roughed in the features, and fourth—voila!—there was a really good drawing of a bearded pirate. The only problem was that there was a hell of a leap between steps three and four (even so, the place was a diploma mill, so I’m sure they accepted every applicant).

In effect, I had hit the wall between steps three and four with my question exercise, and try as I might I could not get the students over it. Again and again I said to myself that I wanted to teach them how to teach themselves. You know that whole “teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for life" business. But learning isn’t at all like fishing. It’s not something you can do very well by yourself. In fact, the word education is derived from the Latin word educere, which means, among other things, “to draw out.” And it sure helps the drawing out process if somebody is dug in and pulling hard on the end of the rope.

Besides, only Tom Sawyer was clever enough to fool others into doing his work for him.

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