The Tin Can Telephone Part IIBy Bobby Neal Winters
This is a continuation from The Tin Can Telephone on my other blog.
It is tempting to say that teaching is all about communication. There might be some validity to that, but the plain statement itself would be easy to misinterpret. Teaching is not about getting information from the head of the teacher to the head of the student. Something like that will no doubt happen along the way, but it is a part of a much more subtle process. It is a process whose subtlety I appreciate more with each passing year.
One can model the teacher in front of the classroom with the tin can telephone as I did earlier. The teacher speaks, puts slides up, hands out activities, i.e. is a transmitter. The students listen (or not!); they take notes (or not!). That is, they are receivers.
I wrote earlier of the transmitter and the receiver each having code books. This is true in the classroom as well. The thing is this: everyone has a different code book. As students, part of the education process is learning the teacher’s code book. As a teacher, part of the education process is to facilitate this happening.
The difference in code books has been recognized more widely than just me. Each year a particular liberal arts university sends out a list of catch phrases and historical events that have over the life time of typical professor. Many of these are drawn from popular culture and would be used by academics who are trying to bridge the gap with their students. Along with the phrases and events is the assurance that the students were not yet alive when these phrases and events were current.
While others no doubt interpret this differently than I do, this list serves as a reminder to me of the futility of trying to be the “cool teacher.”
When I was a first year graduate student, teaching for the first time, I, along with the rest of the teaching assistants, met in a group for an hour each week with one of the math professors to talk about teaching. As part of this, the professor said something I will never forget: “If you are a great teacher, your students might learn 90 percent of what you know. When they teach, they will teacher their students 90 percent of what they know, and so forth. We know the direction this sequence goes. Before long, the student isn’t learning anything.”
I don’t recall the point he was making with it. I remember much less than 90 percent of what he said. But I have mediated on it over the years and have had some thoughts.
The first is that my students have to be learning from people besides me. And they do. I only get them for a very short time. They learn from people before me; they learn from people after me; and they are learning from other people at the same time.
The second is that students can draw inferences from partial information. Knowledge does not consist of isolated data items; it has structure. A contemplative mind grows knowledge.
The third is that we pass more than information. If we do our job we pass a spirit that I would call a love of learning. We can also sharpen a general love of learning into a love of our subject.
This third part is--to me--most important. It is also the most difficult thing to do. I am not sure that I’ve ever passed the love of learning to anyone, but I may have nurtured it in some or helped to focus a student’s love of learning on a particular topic.
It is in this part where the mysterious way that humans deal with other humans come into play. The Duke of Wellington supposedly said that the Battle of Waterloo was one on the playing fields of Eton. Our early lives do shape us far out of measure to the amount of time we spent living them. For most of us, it wasn’t Eton which shaped us but our families. We deal with other people in the modes we learned in dealing with our families.
When I as a teacher stand in front of my students, only in very rare cases do they know me as a person. They will not know how to deal with me as me. They will deal with me as they would someone they already know that I remind them of.
When I was a graduate student, they dealt with me as a peer. As I aged, they related to me like a cousin or a young uncle. These days as I approach 50, having children in college myself, they relate to me like a father or--because of the gray in my hair--a grandfather. I am not expected to be cool. Indeed, it’s creepy when I try; not that I try.
This is the image, the persona I come to them with. I don’t fight it. Instead, I build on it. They will take my being just a tiny bit grumpy in their stride. Indeed, they expect it. As I am aware of how they perceive me, I can use it to shape our interactions and to make aspects of myself--such as my love for the subject--be attractive enough for them to want to take it up themselves. You can learn a lot from a teacher you hate, but a love of learning is not part of that.
To conclude, I will return to the tin can telephone model for one more round. The last stage of the learning process is the student teaching himself, i.e. studying. We who teach at the university often have the expectation that the student will already have this mastered by the time we see him. I use “expectation” in that sentence not in the sense we really expect it, but in the sense we believe it is a standard the student should meet.
The reality is that many of them frequently don’t meet that standard. They haven’t mastered the art of studying. Many professors would deny its their job to teach them. I would say that it is often part of the job, and whether and how to do it is part of the art of teaching.