Thursday, January 31, 2008

On Questioning, and Helping Students Learn

"The real job for which teachers are trained and paid is to help the young to learn. It should not be necessary also to make them learn. ,"

writes Gilbert Highet in the excellent Art of Teaching. That is a distinction I want to remember. He goes on:

"I am not sure when this second necessity grew up to overshadow the first. I think it must have come with the establishment of universal education in the Western countries. ..."

"There are really two different reasons for asking questions of a class: to find out if each individual has done his work in preparation, and to expose the difficulties they have found collectively in preparing the work. The former is a method of making them learn, the latter helps them to learn. The latter is much more important, but it is sometimes forgotten. ...

It is more important to explain a new field of study to a class than to check their homework on it. It is also more creative, because a class soon learns if you are interested merely in catching them out, proving them wrong, showing them up, making them squirm; and it you are, it thinks of methods to evade and to irritate you.


On children asking questions of their parents:

Children ask thousands of questions, because their world is all new, all strange and bright. If they ask at the wrong time, when we are fishing out the laundry or trying to get them to sleep, they should --- no, they should not be shut up, they should be told: 'Ask me again, at breakfast-time, will you?" When they ask at the right time, they should always be answered. It is hateful to hear a little boy in a train asking, as he looks out of the window: 'What makes the wires go up and down?" and receiving a reply which would be downright rude from one grow-up to another, and is anyhow stupid and stupefying for a child. "Never mind" and "don't bother me now" and "Sthespeedofthtrain." What good is that?

...Of course, it is difficult to answer all their questions. It is impossible to answer some of them completely. But an answer should be given, if only to keep them interested in learning and friendly to their parents, for that is what all children are naturally, and anything else is a distortion. "
From this article I learn that he wrote poetry too, and I'm not at all surprised, since his prose is admirable. I hope the excerpts above give you some idea. According to this site, he translated the book Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture. This does not surprise me either since the Art of Teaching book struck me as being in the tradition of paideia.

The word Paideia (παιδεία) means "education" or "instruction." Paideia was "the process of educating man into his true form, the real and genuine human nature."

Since self-government was important to the Greeks, Paideia combined with ethos (habits) made a man good and made him capable as a citizen or a king.

That's essentially what the book is about -- the role, character and methods of a teacher in educating a student into his true nature and heritage. There is also a section on "great men and their teachers" and "teaching in everyday life".

Oh, and what do you know! Gilbert Highet's wife was Helen MacInnes.

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