January 9, 2012

It’s not often a month goes by without one Gaping Void’s cartoons providing cause for thought. This one came in before Christmas and i have been meaning to use it in a post for some time. Like all good cartoons it takes a bit of time to unpick but I think there are some key lessons and questions that come out of it.

  • I teach on a variety of academic programmes. Those range from my annual day on the Warwick MBA to a recent adhoc session in Sydney. The value of these is not in money, if you are lucky you get expenses, but in the interaction with people who have come to learn in a formal setting. Its very different from a conference or seminar where the needs are more immediate and also there is a higher need to also provide some entertainment.
  • It matters who you teach. The more you know about the subject, the less able you are to beginners classes. I am sure there are some people who can manage this but i haven’t found one yet. In effect to teach (which again is different from speaking) you have to be separate but close in your knowledge base. Academic audiences are good for my work as they challenge and test in a way that a conference audience rarely does. Not only that you can use words and reference concepts without explanation which means you move faster to more interesting grounds.
  • Some forms of teaching at this level are discourse, the cloister in which scholars talk with each other or the common room. Teaching between peers in a multi-disciplinary environment is more conversation, but its still teaching.
  • Remember in the apprentice model most of the formal teaching of apprentices was carried out by the journeymen, they were closer to mastery but not so close that they could not forget what it was like to learn. The master taught by example to the apprentice, by coaching to the journeyman. I

I remember when I started maths at sixth form as two separate subjects we had two very different teachers. Miss Maddock was a genius, she did the whole school timetable in her head every year then just wrote it down. She had been to the US to do her doctorate in the early part of the last century which for a woman was an amazing achievement. She also looked after a farm for her bachelor brother Tom and was generally considered a nutter by all bar those who she taught. Pure and Applied were small classes, most did them as one subject. So five of us would sit in the small classroom across from the female staff room and just live the inspiration provided, that we only ever partially understood. We learnt from textbooks after the event, and increasingly before so that we could keep up.

In contrast, for applied maths we had Mrs Shannon. In all my years to O Level I never got less than 100% in any maths exam bar the one time she deducted two marks for untidy handwriting to teach me a lesson. She had a sense of humour but she had not taught applied maths before so she was reading the text book a week ahead of us. However she told us the truth and we learnt together. It was a very different experience and both models had considerable value.

So there are different ways that we teach, different levels, but in teaching there is never a need to compromise, to speak down to your class.

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