Sunday, 12 October 2014

Steinbeck on Teaching

"On Teaching"
by John Steinbeck
      It is customary for adults to forget how hard and dull school is. The learning by memory all the basic things one must know is the most incredible and unending effort. Learning to read is probably the most difficult and revolutionary thing that happens to the human brain and if you don't believe that watch an illiterate adult try to do it. School is not so easy and it is not for the most part very fun, but then, if you are very lucky, you may find a teacher. Three real teachers in a lifetime is the very best of luck. I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.
      My three had these things in common. They all loved what they were doing. They did not tell - the catalyzed a burning desire to know. Under their influence, the horizons sprung wide and fear went away and the unknown became knowable. But most important of all, the truth, that dangerous stuff, became beautiful and precious.

Teaching, good teaching that is, is indeed an art, both a creative art and a performing art. It is one of the situations in life which turns human interaction into an art form. The teacher needs to attract and hold the attention of the student, provide, at all times, an answer to the question, 'Why amd I sitting here listening to this bloke?' You have to be worth listening to. And you have to find ways to communicate something diffficult to understand to someone who has no particular reason to want to understand it. If you can't do that you shouldn't be teaching.

The reality of good teaching that Steinbeck remembers is a long way from 'sit down, shut up, study chapter 5, the exam's on Friday, don't look at me, teach yourself or there'll be trouble' which is the idea a lot of teachers have, and a lot of children, as they've never known anything else.

If the teacher doesn't know why the chidlren should learn what he's teaching them, they won't learn it. Learning should be cooperation, not attrition, not conflict, not the ticking of boxes, not getting through the day. Give me children who want to learn, who are keen and sharp and have enthusiasm for life, the present and the future, who understand the importance of learning not in a dry, theoretical sense, nor a profound, mature, analytic way, but in an immediate, unreflecting, this-clearly-matters-now kind of way. Where to find such children? Give me good teachers, and I'll make them for you.


Vincent said...

The most appalling "teaching" I came across was at university. I had made the mistake of signing up for English & French Literature, with Italian as a subsidiary. (My real interest, though I discovered it too late, was philosophy.)

Senior lecturers stood up and delivered their notes about Camus, Sartre, Shakespeare, Beowulf etc without a trace of proper enthusiasm, let alone a desire to transfer that enthusiasm to the student. I simply stopped attending.

The argument was that by the time you reach university you ought to be self-motivated. I was, but my motivation in no way coincided with the syllabus, & I fell between the cracks in the system, not having the guts to quit, complain or start again. I hope things have got better in universities since the early sixties.

Whether the courses were vocational or not wasn't the issue for me. I was completely unworldly, and much of my three years was a waste, mostly my own fault but partly the remoteness of our "teaching" staff.

The Hickory Wind said...

I remember good and bad teachers, some very good and some very bad, both at school and university. My professor of algebra simply copied out and read out his notes, which hadn't changed for 30 years, because algebra mostly hadn't. His passions were beer and opera. He claimed to have visited every pub in London. Put a pint in his hand and ask him about the use of countertenors in Puccini and he was a different character altogether.

My lecturer in solar physics, on the other hand, was a young Geordie who had no airs, no side, and a great love of the stuff that goes on in the sun.

My experience as a teacher is that, though adults can generally motivate themselves, as long as they have chosen to study for a reason other than to please their parents or to put off the need to earn a living, but even so, even with older professionals, part of my job is provide a motivation, day by day and minute by minute, to back up their own more general desire to learn. Keep it simple, clear and fun. In the classroom adults don't mind being treated like children.