How I teach, what I teach and why I teach it.Reasserting the Mystery
February 4, 2007
It is safe to say that a majority of my high school career was swallowed up in the adolescent proclivities of fads and romance. My understanding of academics took a dramatic turn about two years after my high school graduation, when wandering a field late at night, not so far from my college dormitory. My own words seem helpless in capturing what it is that I saw that night. It seems more appropriate for me to recite an ancient Hebraic word for “fear”. Phonetically pronounced “yir-ah” יראה)), in the Hebrew “fear” is better translated as “awe”, that is, “in awe of”.
Awe, when all else fails to capture what is seen. Awe, as in, “to marvel at”. While to some the stars occupy a more perdue lot amidst the brawl of the City’s go-getters, to me, at least for a moment anyway, the stars had enough power to rivet both me and all of human history to some minute corner of the infinite mystery Carl Sagan calls the Cosmos. For that moment, I was made aware of the impending force with which mystery penetrates the epistemological journey of the human psyche. It wasn’t a matter of disillusionment. It was an awakening to the breathtaking opportunity immediate to myself and every other student of the Humanities. It was an awakening to the brilliant position of the human mind, an organ oriented toward a single question: Why.
I realize now that such a question could only be answered if, for at least one moment, I could bring my students into contact with the mystery looming behind reality’s commonplace. It seems an imperative to me, since discovery is predicated on the question which prompts it.
My expectation for self-empowerment among students is equaled only by my demand to provide the most engaging academic environment possible, one in which the process of learning is a regenerative process of academic discovery. The philosopher John Dewey describes the educational experience as a “reconstructive” process, a process of continued elevation of the mind, from prior knowledge to new questions (Hansen, 2007).
Like Dewey, I cannot expect students to understand this world unless I first posit for them the need and desire to understand it. Such a need can only come when, as the poet Michael Palmer writes, “question pursues question.”
The greatest thinkers of the modern world insisted on going further. By doing so, they provided some of the most influential works humanity has ever known: Karl Marx’s Capital, Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, to name but a few. To know that such works could only be done by some sedulous attention to self-discipline and unceasing questioning, also means that to be the best teacher is to cultivate both an awareness of the Mystery, as well as an unceasing quest to conquer it, all of this driven by my hope that my students will join its ranks as this society’s most persistent inquirers.
My philosophy as a teacher is influenced by the work of John Dewey, whose major philosophical contribution to the teaching experience includes the notion that learning is kind of trajectory for the mind, that arrival at a point of knowledge is not as important as the process of transformation itself. A classroom that facilitates this continued intellectual growth would be buffered by the use of small sub-groups, supplemented by teacher- instruction as needed. This layout is viewed by some to be optimal in preserving student cultural identities (Au, 2006). This would also be accompanied by the use of subgroups organized with respect to levels of thinking. Higher level thinkers would be placed with students who struggle, so as to give the latter a cognitive level to reach for. More advanced-level thinkers would rely on teacher instruction and dialogue to ensure equally stimulating cognitive development.
To facilitate this goal, the entire classroom would be arranged to support small-group conversation, with the teacher mobile. The classroom would be comprised of up to five groups of six students, with chairs evenly placed around a table surface. The teacher’s desk is arranged in a place that can best see every student, generally from one of the corners.
Students would be arranged in groups of four or five, and situated at round tables so as to encourage conversation. Groups would be arranged with respect to three levels of cognitive development: one Level 3 student, one student at a Level 2, and two or three level 1 thinkers. The idea here is that Level 3 students will be able to provide an adequate degree of peer-to-peer instruction, maximizing the zone of proximal development.
Class time would be split into two parts. The first part would include a teacher-oriented presentation providing a necessary vocabulary, or an overview of that day’s themes. The second part would include a concentrated discussion of small groups. Each of these sections would occupy about half of the class. The purpose would be to first collect information necessary for discussion, and then follow this presentation with exercises that enable the student to practice the language of the concept, for example vocabulary terms, basic concepts and themes.
The notion of designing assignments for a class is actually quite daunting. Because so much of the curriculum is student-based, we should expect to see the general pace of the classroom localized to each table. Assignments will include group discussion and answer, with periodic assignments that place the attention on individuals. Each group should have its own personality, and work should be curtailed to accommodate those differences.
Assessment in this model would require the ability of the teacher to go around the room while students are discussing an idea. Students will be graded based on how often they participate, how well they perceive of and use the terms introduced to them during the lecture. A learning community such as this one depends on the notion that inquiry-based learning is the highest form of cognitive development. Students will be encouraged to find the answer to a problem, and then go further to explore new levels of knowledge.
Au, Kathryn (2006). Multicultural Issues and Literacy Achievement. Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., Publ.: Mahwah, NJ: 60.
Bransford, J., et. al. (2000). How People Learn. National
Academy Press. 145.
Hansen, David (2007). John Dewey on Education and the Quality of Life. Ethical Visions of Education: Philosophies in Practice. New York: Teachers College Press.
Fishman, S. (2007). No thank you, Paulo Freire’s Politics
and Pedegogy. New York, NY: Ethical Visions of Education. 21-33.