Them as can…

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.


9 thoughts on “Them as can…

  1. Murray Jorgensen

    I am very suspicious of the PC advice given which deprecates lectures. I mathematics we have a concept called “optimisation under constraints” where we seek to maximise something, say a score, while respecting certain constraint conditions. You get no brownie points for finding a large score if you go outside the region where the constraints are satisfied. I actually think that lectures are good for communicating a lot of information in a short amount of time, though interactive discussions are good for helping “bed in” that information. Anyway it seems to me that any hypothetical teaching method claimed to be superior to lectures is likely to violate the time/space/timetable constraints of any real university.

    1. kenanddot

      Yes, lectures are a good way of delivering information; also they’re an opportunity to demonstrate methods and give students a sense of (for example) what criticism in action can look like. What we keep being told is that students don’t retain very much of what is delivered to them this way. But if you then have tutorial groups, that ought to give the opportunity for the information to bed in, as you say.

      Another thing that occurs to me is that I often get a lot out of listening to academic papers at conferences, and those are basically short lectures. But I do find it important to take notes. I’m always slightly amazed by the very high proportion of people who don’t bother.

  2. Katimum

    Soundsto me as if Hugh is well on the road to reading. I can still remebmer the sensation of understanding the words but finding them difficult to read aloud so I could show someone else I could read, so he may well e getting to that stage.. This probably looks like gibberish as for some reason the computer is not letting me see what I am typing fully.

    1. kenanddot

      I don’t know how many of the words he understands in books he looks at on his own. Usually he seems to be flicking through too fast to read them properly, so I don’t think he tries to decipher much. But he could be getting more than I realise. He is certainly improving noticeably in the reading practice we do together, and getting much more patient and – dare I say it – even quite keen. This evening he reminded me we hadn’t done his reading yet, not the other way round. The things we are reading are still very, very simple, but it’s all to the good.

  3. Helen Conrad-O'Briain

    For the student the problem with most note taking is the speed at which a lecture is given; for the lecturer the problem is the students tend to have their heads down. I know many people make good use of overheads, but I prefer to give detailed handouts (essentially the notes from which I lecture), relieving them of chasing after words with pens or keyboards so I can make eye contact and read reactions – then I can stop and take a different tack or ask questions.

    1. Dot

      You’re right, though of course we’re now encouraged to stick everything online – and for me that takes away from what I find the best scenario, which is to have a good handout that I can underline and annotate as I go. That way I’m not struggling to keep up, but I am doing something, which keeps my brain fully engaged and helps me learn. Online resources are great, but they do encourage passivity, and it is passivity that’s the problem with lectures when there is a problem.

  4. I hate that ‘those who can, do; those that can’t, teach’ stuff. Teaching is a gift.
    Anyway, fascinating post about a subject that’s important to me. I’m not a teacher or a lecturer Dot. I can’t pretend any intelligent understanding of the relevant pedagogy. But I’ve been a school pupil (in a bona fide, ‘bottom of any league table you wish to imagine’ ‘sink school’ where there were no ‘inspirational’ teachers – only burnt out trapped folk who had given up all professional hope); later a Uni student; have been married to a teacher for 23 years and now represent Secondary Teachers in ‘Fitness to Practice’ proceedings before their regulatory professional body …
    I was fortunate that I did have a couple of teachers who took an interest in me. And that helped. One was very young and enthusiastic – the other just saw ‘something’ in me and threw a lifeline.
    Thing is – ‘learning’ is personality-dependent too. The ‘learner’ brings their own experiences into the learning environment. The sink school ultimately helped me – because I had to do my learning independently. Lots of other kids at Uni with far better school results fell by the academic wayside because they had not learned how to learn…
    However, I do believe that poor teachers can destroy the short-term – at the very least – educational prospects of some kids.
    Thing is – even the best in their field are not always the best teachers in their field… Prof Samuels (that wonderful man), for instance, was interesting but sadly, not the best teacher I’ve ever met (though certainly not the worst!!).
    Genuine interest in the subject; good communication skills; a love of learning and an engaging style; respect for (and interest in) the ‘audience’ and a grasp of different learning styles – maybe just some of the ingredients which make a ‘good teacher’….
    You sound as though you have all those ingredients (and more). I envy the students who are fortunate enough to be taught by you.

    1. Dot

      You’re very kind, but I’m not sure I manage to do all the great things I mean to do! You’re certainly right about the personalities of learners, and, although individual learning styles are something we’re always being asked to consider, in fact it’s very hard to adapt to multiple different people when you’re being asked to teach them together. In universities, to a certain extent part of what students are learning is how to work with what a university offers – which is books, labs and expertise – rather than having their hands held all the time (notthat I advocate just chucking them in at the deep end, which was a common strategy at Oxford and one reason why I didn’t leave there with an overwhelming enthusiasm fo the place). When adults try to learn things as part of life the world doesn’t adapt itself to them to make the learning easier. The problem of different styles is more urgent in schools, where students cannot be expected to be so independent. Schools are much more enlightened about this than they used to be, but they are still fighting the pressure of numbers and funding squeezes.

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