Dot writes: you have to be able to do something to teach it, but being able to do it doesn’t enable you to teach it. I encounter this from two ends these days – the beginnings of formal learning with my sons, in which I have to get past the very effortlessness of my own reading or basic maths to help Hugh and Frank, and a much more advanced stage in my job, for which I’m currently deep in preparation for a new course on History of the English Language. The right tools help, and a bit of patience. Hugh’s reading practice is going well, with a lot of help from the books, whose authors have worked wonders in finding interesting stories in very simple vocabulary. On the work side, I’m doing the approved thing and putting together an online resource for my course, with links to e-lectures, scanned articles (saving the poor darlings the trouble of going to the library – for selected popular items, anyway), reading lists and so forth. It’s helpful for me to collect this stuff together, and it will save the students time and make sure they have access to key items. But I know I need to do a lot more than chuck materials at my students to actually help them learn.
I’m not one of those university teachers who refuses to be told how to teach, or who doesn’t think it’s worth going on teaching courses. I’ve benefited from the courses I’ve been on and I’m keen to get better. But I can’t help noticing two things: (a) our own systems conspire to stop us following a lot of the advice we’re given; (b) a really good teacher can be good while not following the advice, and a bad one can be bad while following it.
Take lectures. Every teaching course I’ve been on has insisted that lectures are the least effective way to teach. At least, standing talking while others listen is ineffective, certainly when the others have iPhones. However, the majority of our courses are built around lectures, for simple reasons of numbers and timetabling. I’ve been on courses on large group teaching that have suggested ways to jazz up lectures and make them more interactive, and I do try to follow that advice; but there are limits to what you can do and it also eats into the available time to an amazing degree. So, knowing that lecturing isn’t much good, I spend a fair amount of my time lecturing. At least the students can see I’m working for my pay packet.
Yet, one of the best and most popular teachers I know lectures through a high proportion of classes as well as formal lectures, and the students seem to come out knowing a pretty high proportion of what they’ve been told and feeling excited about it. As they say, go figure. I think students respond to a remarkable degree to being given a sense, which a really knowledgeable and enthusiastic lecturer can give, that they are being offered a wonderful glimpse of a new world of the mind, and that the lecturer has not the slightest doubt it’s a world worth entering.
And then again, there’s a part of any learning process that a teacher simply cannot do for the students. In arts subjects in Higher Education, the really important thing is simply that the students read a lot. Of the right stuff, ideally (thus my web resource). But basically, if they aren’t putting in the hours on their own, there’s not a great deal I can do for them. One of the great evils of high fees is that it encourages the attitude that learning is something that is transferred from the teacher to the student, rather than something that is structured and guided by the teacher but that has to happen through the student’s own work. But even at primary level the most crucial stuff doesn’t happen in school. OK, in school they get the phonics worksheets, but at home they learn that reading is just something you do every day, both for fun and out of necessity, as an essential part of life. Seeing Hugh sneakily turning the night-light on so he can look at a book after bedtime, even though he isn’t anywhere near being able to read the words yet because the book is much too hard, I feel that basic lesson is being learned.