Friday, October 7, 2016

The Examined Life

Daydream with me for a moment while I imagine my ideal classroom. The first thing that strikes you when you walk in is the arrangement of the room. Not serried ranks of desks lined up before a blackboard but comfortable seats placed in a large circle. This arrangement sends a message: here is a space for open discussion and the free exchange of ideas. On the wall is a poster of Bertrand Russell with the quotation: ‘Most people would sooner die than think, and most of them do.’ There is a display cabinet with row upon row of student dissertations, covering topics as diverse as business ethics, engineering, architecture, political history, linguistics and the philosophy of science.

The students enter, taking their places in the circle, ready for the seminar to begin. The teacher sits with them in the circle and gets straight down to business. ‘Am I the same person today as I was yesterday?’ she asks. Debate breaks out immediately. The teacher says little, interjecting occasionally to ask for clarification of a point, or to suggest that the class gives further consideration to an argument that one of the students has made.

After a lively initial exchange of ideas, things calm down a little and the teacher makes some remarks about the distinction between essential and non-essential properties. She then suggests the students read an extract from the writings of the philosopher John Locke. This stimulates further discussion and debate.

In their contributions, students draw on ideas they have encountered in different subjects. One says she is the person she is because of her DNA. The teacher asks for an explanation of the biology behind this idea. Someone questions how the theory applies to identical twins. Another student suggests that we all play roles in life and it is these roles that define our identity.

The atmosphere in the class is relaxed, collaborative, enquiring; learning is driven by curiosity and personal interest. The teacher offers no answers but instead records comments on a flip-chart as the class discusses. Nor does the lesson end with an answer. In fact it doesn’t end when the bell goes: the students are still arguing on the way out.

This is my ideal classroom. In point of fact, it is more than just a dream. My real classroom sometimes looks like this, at least occasionally. I learned when I began teaching that lessons in which students are actively involved in discussion, debate and enquiry tend to be more enjoyable and memorable both for the student and the teacher, therefore I try wherever possible to run things this way.

But the sad fact is that the vast majority of lessons are determined by a different goal. For most teachers and students, the classroom experience is shaped, down to the last detail, by the requirement to prepare for examinations. When students enter such classrooms, the focus is not on open-ended discussion or enquiry, but on learning ‘what we need to know’ to succeed in whichever examination is next on the horizon. Most likely, there will be a ‘learning outcome’ for the lesson, drawn straight from the exam syllabus. There will be textbooks with comments from the examiners, banks of possible exam questions and bullet-pointed notes with ‘model answers’. Far from being open spaces for free enquiry, the classroom of today resembles a military training ground, where students are drilled to produce perfect answers to potential examination questions. (...)

Teaching students to think for themselves is a laudable goal. But critics of this idea note that, left to themselves, the majority struggle to find the way ahead. Before students can reason independently, the argument runs, they need a great deal of background knowledge.

The point is well-made, but it is effective only as a counter to a na├»ve conception of independent learning. Its advocates claim that ‘free discovery’, in which students are given free rein to determine what and how to learn, is the best method of all. But advocates of education as a process of equipping the young to think for themselves ought to acknowledge the importance of imparting skills and information before meaningful enquiry can proceed.

Would you recommend the ‘Independent-Learning School of Driving’ to a friend’s son or daughter? Yes and no. They wouldn’t be impressed if they turned up for their first driving lesson only to be handed the keys and told to have a go and learn from their mistakes. On the other hand, we certainly want people to learn to drive independently; instructors ought to do themselves out of a job. The desirability of ‘independent learning’, then, turns on how we understand its relationship to conventional instruction.

In a sensible model of independent learning, it is not assumed that students are innately capable of thinking for themselves. Instead, this capacity is explicitly developed through teaching. It is a mildly paradoxical thought, but still true: students need to be taught to be independent. In the example with which we began, the teacher was guiding the discussion: introducing central arguments at key points, highlighting the use of reason, summarising and critiquing arguments, introducing terminology, and explaining important concepts. A great deal of guidance was provided, albeit not by a teacher at the front of the class lecturing students on how to think.

To foster the capacity of students to think for themselves it is crucial for the teacher and students to collaborate in managing a phased transition of responsibility for learning. At the outset, and even some way into the process, there might well be a fair amount of direct instruction going on, but it will be clear that its purpose is not an end in itself, but that the method is a means of developing the students’ capacity to think and work independently. They are being taught to think for themselves. As the process unfolds, independence grows.

by John Taylor, Aeon |  Read more:
Image: Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty