Friday, September 20, 2013

On Teaching

On Teaching

-----Original Message-----
From: Arjun Janah <>
To: ken
Sent: Fri, Sep 20, 2013 9:01 pm
Subject: Re: Syria

Dear Ken,

Thanks for asking. Teaching, like learning, is a joy as well as a pleasant, though often arduous, labor. It is part of our biological heritage, shared with many other animals, but especially highly developed in us. There is an instinct to teach as well as to learn, and it is commingled with parental and altruistic instincts.  So most members of our species are both good at it and enjoy it. It requires no specialized training. Mothers teach their children, and siblings teach each other, instinctively and well. (But please do see the "Added Note" below.)

So these intrinsic rewards persist. However, the situations in the schools, which are education factories, here and elsewhere, in the past and in the present, rarely are and rarely have been the best of environments for teaching and learning. That said, public education lies at the heart of much of whatever success this country and others have had in bringing the gifts of formal education to the masses.  It should be noted that formal education is by its nature limited in scope, being complementary to and dependent on informal education.  This latter includes the acquisition of the first spoken language and ethical understanding, and forms the base on which all else is built,

Over the past several decades, the situation in most public schools in this city and elsewhere in this country (and no doubt in many other countries as well) has deteriorated to the point where little remains of whatever virtue once existed in them. This is not to say privatization is the answer.

I will not go into the causes of this deterioration or the arguments for maintaining healthy and vigorous public schools. That would take too long and also be beyond my powers.

But pathology is rarely enjoyable. It behooves teachers and parents to work to make the situation better. This again cannot be done without an understanding of both the pathology and the potential. Unfortunately, this understanding does not exist publicly. It only exists underground, suppressed and fragmented. 

You may compare the situation of sincere teachers with that of well-intentioned, patriotic (in the best sense of the world) soldiers sent into a war zone.  Most armed conflicts are pathologies -- in every sense of the word. The soldier may find moments of solace, but the more he understands the pathology, the less solace he will have. It is the same with teachers.

A situation which should be one of helping children, doing what is in their best interest, and of sharing the accumulated knowledge, insights and skills of generations past -- and of one's life's labor and experience -- is turned into something else -- something that is, in fact, harmful to the children and degrades and corrupts the cultural transmission, substituting myths, gimmicks, confusion and diffidence for facts, disciplines, clarity and confidence.

Children, just like adults, cannot, beyond a certain point, be either forced or tricked into learning anything of substance. Compulsion, pressure and fear are enemies of insight, learning and creativity. At the other extreme, an aversion to any kind of intensity and duration of effort and attention, and a catering to this aversion, are also inimical to any depth of understanding, indeed, to any kind of maturing as a thinker or feeler.


Note added:  My comments regarding the lack of the need for any specialized training for teaching should not be taken out of the context of this correspondence with my friend Ken. I was referring to teaching in the general sense, as a basic life activity of our species, just like learning.  We are naturally good at both these activities. That does not mean that any person placed in a public or private school, either as a teacher or a student, will be able to teach or to learn. That is another story -- being less a commentary on our deficits as teachers and learners than on the commonsense requirements of various fields and levels of formal education and on the problems, issuing mainly and continually out of our societies, that plague our schools.

That said, one might venture that teaching and learning will occur rather spontaneously and effectively if the following conditions are met, which I list in no particular order, recognizing that this may be a partial listing at best, and that some items may not be applicable to certain subjects and levels:

(1) there is an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust between teacher and student;

(2) the teacher knows the subject that he/she is going to teach (without going into the meaning of "knows" -- which is clearly situation-dependent);

(3) the teacher has a strong desire to help the student learn the subject;

(4) the student has the pre-requisite knowledge and skills to learn the subject at the level taught (which involves attention to sequence);

(5) the student has a strong desire to learn the subject;

(6) the student and teacher are left alone to learn and to teach (and this includes many things, being about relaxed, yet sustained, focus);

(7) there is sufficient time available (and this also includes many things -- including both student time and teacher time);

(8) there are means by which the teacher gets to know what the student has learned/not learned and provides feedback and correction -- and there are means by which the student has his/her questions answered and concerns addressed;

(9) there are resources available (this again is no small thing -- including, in the case of formal education, sensible curricula, textbooks, materials, equipment, etc...).

This may sound absurdly utopian. But without these, or without at least bearing these in mind as ideals, it is difficult to have any enlightened vision and to make any meaningful progress. With these things, or things like these, in mind, we can actively work towards a better environment for teaching and learning in the schools and elsewhere. Without such ideals to guide us, all we can do is react to external pressures. We can then either acquiesce and act as executors, or else take, at best, defensive actions.  In the first case, although we are supposed to be teachers, we are behaving like soldiers, carrying out orders to the best of our abilities.  In the second case, we are continually on the retreat.  We can dodge and weave, but sooner or later we are pushed, individually or collectively, into corners or over precipices. 

Of course, the use of "student" in the singular, as I have done here, may also be considered criminally absurd. In a typical public high school here in NY city, a regular ed. teacher sees over 150 students each day. And they are often not the same students on Monday that one saw on Friday. (If one teaches labs, for example, one may see, in an extreme case, 25 different sets of 34 students, or a total of 850 students in a week.  And if your school has been shut down, the wisdom of Bloomberg and his chancellor Klein -- now replaced by Walcott -- will have you wandering for years from school to school, seeing hundreds of brand new faces each week.)  A regular-ed guidance counselor typically "counsels" and programs around 500 students. (My figure in this last case may be dated -- and low.)

The Teacher  

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