Thursday, 12 April 2012

Speaking With Dead Voices

I'm still mulling over the discussion we had around what teaching is at EdCamp Waterloo the other week.

In teacher's college what seems like a long time ago, one of our profs tried to get us to explain what the process of learning was in a typical classroom.  He asked, "is what  you're doing more difficult than surgery?"  The general answer was, "no, surgery requires precision, great expertise and can kill people if done wrong; it's more difficult (and important)."

Our prof went on to try and describe what happens in a classroom as we teach people new ideas in a way that allows them to retain the knowledge and make it their own.  It's complicated in social, psychological and physical ways, and you don't get to focus on one person at a time, like that surgeon does, you typically have 90 students in circulation each semester and you're dealing with 30 at a time.  Considering the circumstances, it's amazing that teaching and learning happen as well as they do.

At Edcamp a discussion wandered into focus on this, and the complexity of the process is quite staggering.  If you truly care to understand how we teach and learn from each other, you've got to recognize the uniqueness of this ability (#11) in humans.

"Children expect to be taught, a vital difference (between humans and apes).  While most apes can copy, they do not teach each other."

Teaching isn't purely a learned behavior as many would have you believe... we're hard wired to learn!  This begins to explain why classrooms are able to teach as well as they do; it wouldn't work as well in a room full of chimpanzees.

It also helps explain why teaching is such a personalized set of skills.  Many teacher's colleges, educational experts and administration would love to develop that perfect teaching algorithm that allows them to streamline the process, make it cost effective and minimize differences in education.  This approach fails to recognize the complexity of the process.

When I became a teacher, I was surprised at how much I was imitating those teachers who had a positive effect on me when I was young.  The job is challenging, overwhelmingly so for many people.  Those who stick it out and begin to develop some mastery in this very slippery (psychological, sociological) profession might have used the same process.  

When I was a student, long before I thought of becoming a teacher, I was subconsciously apprenticing.  From Mr Rattray in grade four to Mrs Thomas in grade six, Mrs Fraser in grade seven, Mr Stern in grade 13, I was seeing what worked in master teachers, and then subconsciously imitating it when I suddenly found myself in front of a class years later.

I find it strangely comforting to sometimes find myself speaking with those voices, some of which are long gone from the Earth.  It's one of those ways that teaching reaches deep into what we are.  But if you're unlucky enough to be in a college that doesn't help you understand how vital you are to the process (by over-emphasizing curriculum, or administration, or control), you will end up a cardboard cutout, someone not being human in this most human of activities.

You might try to approach teaching as a science.  If you do, I suspect you are either not going last in the profession long, or you're going to get out of classroom teaching as soon as  you possibly can and administrate.  There is something unique and personal to every successful classroom teacher.  Some can be the stern disciplinarian and be very effective as that teacher, others can be personable and relaxed with their students and approach the same level of effectiveness as a teacher from a completely different path.  Whatever it is that they do, if it's 'put on', disingenuous, then students won't do what they have a predisposition for: learn.

Those that try and distill this most complex of professions, one that actually defines us as a species, into a statistically, standardized process fail to grasp that teaching and learning, more than medicine, science or even religion, is what makes us uniquely, and powerfully human; it has been the single most important defining factor in our evolution as a technologically advanced species.