The Mystery of Teaching

la nuit blancheThis summer I’m reading College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be by Columbia University humanities professor Andrew Delbanco, and I’m sharing a few observations and reflections here on the blog. Last week, I wrote about Delbanco’s definition of liberal education. This week, I take a look at some of his ideas about teaching and learning.

In Chapter 1 (“What Is College For?”) Delbanco explores the value of a college education. He notes the economic benefits that such an education provides students and, in turn, society, and he argues that liberal education prepares students to participate in healthy democracies. He then argues a third reason college is valuable, one he says isn’t presented that often: college teaches one to enjoy life. College can provide young people with time and space for learning and contemplation–a “precious chance to think and reflect before life engulfs them” (p. 35).

I agree with all of these reasons college is valuable, but, as I indicated in my last post, I think Delbanco misses the potential for college to prepare students to build, create, and solve problems of interest to themselves and others. Our world faces significant challenges–global warming, waning resources, public health–and we need bright, informed people equipped to help us address those challenges. Colleges and universities are places where this equipping can happen, if faculty and administrators see it as a goal. This view of college as a place where students learn to tackle tough problems has implications for curriculum decisions as well as teaching choices. I think we sometimes focus too much in our courses on teaching students what’s already known and not enough on preparing them to create new knowledge along with us.

Speaking of the past, Chapter 2 (“Origins”) focuses on the history of college as an institution, first in England and then in America. I’m not sure how interesting Vanderbilt’s first-year students will find this chapter (College is this year’s common reading), but I found it fascinating, in part because Delbanco connects key aspects of college’s past with its present. For instance, he notes that early colleges were, in a sense, interdisciplinary, teaching students to see connections among history, sciences, and the scriptures. He also points to ways that colleges have, over the centuries, supported the intellectual development of students, helping them to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity and to weigh evidence for conflicting claims, appropriately quoting William Perry here.

Delbanco’s arguments get a little shaky for me when he describes the mechanisms by which college teachers foster this kind of intellectual development. He states that “the moment of electric connection between teacher and student cannot be predicted or planned” (p. 47). He talks about the “surprising and powerful effects” the teacher’s “spoken word” can have on students, “yet it is impossible to say why or when this will happen for some students and not for others” (p. 48). Impossible? I’ll agree that one can’t predict with complete certainty the effects one’s teaching will have on students, but I think we know enough about how learning works to create favorable conditions for change in our students. Not guarantees, but certainly high probabilities of learning.

According to Delbanco, the Puritans, who founded many early colleges, had a word for this “invisible and inaudible force” that causes learning in some students and none in others: grace. Delbanco doesn’t mean grace in the evangelical sense of a gift given to someone unworthy. Instead, he uses the term to invoke the mystery of God’s will, the idea that some are blessed by God and others are not and mere mortals aren’t able to understand the reasons why.

(Aside: Delbanco states that “the rare student at my college who comes from an evangelical background needs no explanation” of his use of grace here (p. 49). I suspect that such students are indeed rare at Delbanco’s institution, since the ones I know would find his use of the term confusing. It is not used so much to refer to the mystery of God’s will as it is used in conjunction with mercy. In the evangelical circles I run in, mercy is not getting a punishment you deserve; grace is receiving a gift you don’t deserve. An infinite God is ultimately unknowable by finite minds, but that mystery doesn’t play out with the kind of randomness that Delbanco assigns to the term grace in this chapter.)

Delbanco writes, “While most of us who work in education today have no language to account for this mystery, that does not mean the mystery does not exist” (p. 50). We may not have language to describe this “mystery,” but we do have language to describe how learning works and how well-designed learning environments create conditions favorable to learning. See, for instance, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching by Susan Ambrose and colleagues or What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain or Teaching What You Don’t Know by Therese Huston. All do an excellent job of summarizing cognitive science research and illustrating how these findings can be leveraged in and out of the classroom.

When it comes the messages those in my profession share about effective teaching, to paraphrase humorist Dave Barry, we are not making this up.

Later in Chapter 2, Delbanco introduces a term I quite like: lateral learning. He writes about early New England colleges, “At the heart of this ‘collegiate way’ was a concept of what might be called lateral learning–the proposition that students have something important to learn from one another.” It takes 54 pages for Delbanco to get around to discussing peer learning, but when he finally does, he makes a strong case for its importance. He goes on to describe the small college classroom as a place where lateral learning can happen as students “participate in the give-and-take of discussion” (p. 57). He doesn’t mention if peer learning can happen in larger classrooms, although the book’s index tells me that Eric Mazur is mentioned on page 165, so I’ll assume he gets to this.

Delbanco also writes eloquently about the strengths and limitations of lecturing as a teaching method. On page 63, he writes, “The hallmark of the great lecturer has always been the power to provoke,” a line that received a few retweets when I shared it on Twitter. Lectures are indeed useful for motivating students to consider deeply things they might not have considered before. Lectures can also provide students with explanations of ideas and concepts they need as they develop expertise, provided the lecturer has created a “time for telling.” But, as Delbanco argues, lectures alone are insufficient, in spite of what some of my colleagues might say. Fostering the kind of critical thinking described earlier requires other kinds of interactions among students and content.

You know that line at the end of breakfast cereal commercials? The featured cereal is described as “part of this complete breakfast” as the commercial shows the cereal along with milk, orange juice, and other healthy breakfast foods. Just as a breakfast consisting of nothing but sugary cereal is unhealthy, a learning experience consisting of nothing but lecture is not optimal. Lectures are, perhaps, more useful to learning than sugary cereal is to one’s morning nutrition, but a diet of nothing but lectures doesn’t lead to significant learning for many students. And I am not making this up.

Image: “la nuit blanche,” Dom Dada, Flickr (CC)

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