Sunday, July 31, 2005

Teacher As Midwife

Teacher as Midwife

I have been thinking hard about this "teaching" vs "learning". I've posted many times making the point that "learning" is always and everywhere the goal of education and that "learning" is ultimately up to the student. It is a product of ability plus consent of the faculties (heart, mind, will, imagination etc).

But "teaching" and the role of the teacher has had HUGE respect throughout all the ages practically up to this century. Jesus was called "Rabbi" as a title of great respect; the Roman word Magister had a similar value. We as parents are considered first and primary "teachers" of our children, the Church is called our "Teacher" and both parents and Church are given their teaching authority straight from God.

Now when we discuss "teaching" in these past couple of centuries, it seems to me that something happened, possibly during the Enlightenment, to change how we think of "teaching" -- as oppositional to learning, a sort of power struggle?

My tentative theory is that Locke and Rousseau muddied the waters a bit -- both, not believing in original sin, propounded different theories of education -- Locke postulated the "blank slate" theory that a child was born in a neutral state, which obviously meant that the teacher/instructor's role was VERY important because the teacher was the one who "wrote" on the blank slate and had the primary role in bringing the child to an educated state; while Rousseau believed that a child was educated from the inside out so to speak, so "teaching" was not helpful and could easily be very harmful as it hindered the free development of the child. Charlotte Mason was distinguishing herself from BOTH these thinkers in acknowledging the child as a complete but undeveloped person. The teacher does not MAKE the student but helps develop him.

This is over-simplified of course; but the point is that we in this century are still dealing with the muddled results of the essentially non-Christian educational theories which have been proposed in the last couple of centuries. Charlotte Mason still has something to say to us in that respect, which is I believe why so many homeschoolers are attracted to her methods, because they see the dangers of the Lockean and Roussean extremes.

In my early days of homeschooling, I was using Seton and before that my children attended a Catholic school -- I found that the workbooks and didactic methods squelched my children, especially my unconventional learner. Using multiple choice workbooks was like a funnel or filter for my kids' brains and temperaments -- no matter what they brought to the work, they had to let go of their individual perceptions and gifts and sort of force their minds into an exercise which could only produce one "right" answer. It was heart-breaking to me, and was the reason I became attracted to Charlotte Mason and to what I read about unschooling.

HOWEVER -- I feel like I threw out the baby with the bathwater and for a time didn't dare to utilize my teaching authority at ALL. I felt guilty whenever I did. Essentially, at that point, I was thinking in Roussean terms -- that anything I did was likely to be harmful, that the best I could do was to basically stay out of the way.

I guess my point is that while ineffective institutionalized teaching is not a good thing, that those adjectives aren't synonyms for "teaching" -- in other words, just because teaching can be done badly (which should humble us and make us vigilant), doesn't mean it should be given up altogether. In fact, in God's ecology, we CAN'T give it up -- we teach by not teaching, just as much as by over-teaching.

I do not know what Suzy Andres would say to that -- I think she is speaking against a "Lockean" form of teaching which gives way too much power to the teacher at the expense of the learner..... the "over-teaching" mentality. I think she is emphasizing the "un-teaching" form of teaching, where the person teaches by backing off. It is certainly one very effective form of teaching and a difficult one requiring self-mastery and virtue -- to "back off" -- CM calls it masterly inactivity.
But my point is, "un-teaching" is still Teaching, and that is how it should be, and must be. It still ought to be consciously an acknowledgement and acceptance of our roles, as Teacher -- maybe I'm making too big a point of this?

I think of Jesus -- as a Teacher, He drew out a humble, seeking attitude from His "students" or disciples -- He was a Servant, in that He geared His methods to His learners and was responsive to their questions and limitations. However, He didn't give them their heads or "follow" THEM -- He gave them a goal to aspire to -- He distinguished Wisdom from where they were at that point, and claimed to have something that they didn't have, yet.

I have found it easier to homeschool since I acknowledged that I, and the world, have something to give my kids that they do not have already -- that is what education IS. I feel it is an act of virtue for my kids to recognize that they are incomplete, still in the process of learning, just as I am, in fact. Of course, just as kings shouldn't be despots but rather servants, so teachers are servants of those who are learning. But also, teachers MUST have something that the students do not yet have or they can't be teachers.

Beyond that, there is a majesty to the term "Teacher" and something it implies about our responsibilities... BEING a teacher implies responsibility to the learners, and HAVING a teacher implies a responsibility to learn, which is the paradigm I feel is a bit in danger of being lost if "teaching" becomes too diametrically opposed to "learning". In the past, it was not so -- the "teacher" vs "learner" distinctions potentially enobled BOTH sides of the equation -- it was essentially a RELATIONSHIP.

In the home environment, the roles are even more explicitly relationship-oriented and reciprocal -- JPII said that children teach and sanctifiy their parents as well as vice versa, but still, the parents are the authorities because God gave them that duty and responsibility. I feel I am learning from my children every day -- and Scripture says that we must learn from little children, and try to become like them in their simplicity. Part of the reason homeschooling is wonderful is because it allows us to recognize that the teacher is learning always, and often learning from his children.

If unschooling is in a way a return to the older, more organic and relation-oriented and less tyrannic methods of teaching, then I'm on that page too. In some ways, I do think that was at least the original meaning of the term "unschooling" -- it just meant learning and teaching without modern, processed "schooling" methods which are proven to be destructive to the human spirit. Many of you on this board seem to use "unschooling" in this meaning of the term -- giving up that artificial, controlling, forcing your child's mind into a funnel type of teaching.
But for a while at least, I confused it with thinking that the "teacher" -- ME, and more generally our cultural heritage-- had no role at all -- and that muddied the waters considerably, for me. My middle kids, who had the most extensive experience with this form of unschooling, are opposed to unschooling now because they (especially dd) feel it let them drift at a time when they needed guidance and mentoring. They experienced it as a form of lovelessness "the father who loves his son, disciplines him".

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