Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Steinbeck on Teaching

"On Teachingby 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 am I sitting here listening to this bloke?' You have to be worth listening to. And you have to find ways to communicate something difficult 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 children 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.

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