Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ On Teaching Being Dead

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jun 03, 2006

Re: Teaching is Dead

One thing, though, about teaching being dead. You will no doubt get a lot of protestation, and while I understand and agree with your point, I think it's not strictly true.

I have become a bit more assertive recently (eg. in my presentation yesterday) about my own theory of 'teaching', which is, 'to model and demonstrate'. In other words, I tell people, 'to teach is to be the sort of thing you want your students to be'.

I don't think that's dead. I don't think that will ever be dead.

Teaching as presenting is dead. Teaching is transferring information from one brain into another is dead. Teaching as exercising authority over a group of students is dead. But teaching, genuine teaching, living what it is you want the next generation to see and emulate, is necessary, and indeed, the only honorable profession.

Leigh writes: But that's why I start with the DuChamp work and the saying "Painting is dead, long live painting". I'm hoping to soften the Teaching is dead by referring to that. Clearly painting is not dead, but with the advent of photography, painting was released from the traditions of representation and more fully thrust into the realm of art!

So while teaching may be dead - the type you describe and agree to as dead - I hope to make the point that a new, more true form of teaching and learning is born... One like what you describe - released from the traditions of the classroom, and more fully thrust into the realm of ~ communication?

I respond: Well more than just communication, not even communication, really.

It takes a conscious effort to be the sort of person you are trying to get your students to be. How often have we heard, 'Do as I say, not as I do.' But of course the lesson is in what we do. Which is why the main lesson from school is obedience and punctuality. It doesn't matter what you say, you are what you want the world to become.

Who among us lives with that as a conscious intent? Who, even among teachers? I have known a few, who by their upright conduct and firm intent have demonstrated to me the sort of person I want to be. But for the most part people rely on position and authority to enforce their words, while they let their own behaviour slip into lackidaisy and convenience.

Think of Gandhi. What he realized was that the success of his resistance was irrelevant; what mattered was the manner in which he conducted his resistance. Because while an armed insurrection could change the government, it could not change the people, and to achieve independence, it was necessary to change the people. But only through being independent could he show the people what it was like to be independent. And even if he had failed, even had he been cut down by the British army, his example would have endured, and people willing to live independently would, eventually, have carried the day.

We are all about quick change these days, the quick fix, the painless study. Learn a language without effort! (And without understanding.) I have said teaching is modelling and demonstration; learning is practice and reflection. Learning is to emulate the master, not merely in the particular application, but in all matters of conduct. Learning is to seek to become the master, not a clone, but a continuation of that being, of that culture.

No person could ever tell what it is like to be, say, a Gandhi, but it is possible to be a Gandhi, and thereby, to continue his teaching, each of us, in our own way.

Leigh writes: BTW Stephen, I have noticed that you are becoming more ... forceful in your presentations... does it come naturally? I've always admired your knack for keeping things happy and care free, and therefore your audiences friendly. Are you concerned that by becoming more direct you may alienate some listeners - never to return? Does that matter? Perhaps its better. I certainly find I alienate many people with my efforts. I can't help it though, I'm just naturally a hip shoot'n loud mouth who never did like teachers much. While it does win me a few nay sayers, detentions and the odd troll, when I do make friends, they are usually good ones who advocate on my behalf and clarify unresolved issues...

That's an interesting commentary. It probably reflects more things that are going on in my own life more than anything else. I feel more of an urgency recently.

When you can keep things light and carefree, you should. That is certainly how I prefer to be, and is in fact my normal state. Not to lose your interest in things, but to lose your attachment.

Robert Nozick wrote a long and dense tome called Philosophical Explanations (I don't recommend it) the gist of which was, essentially, that argumentation is meaningless, that although in philosophy we teach, as the core of reason, how to argue, in fact no argument has ever convinced anyone, and what we are really trying to do is explain why we believe what we believe.

I gave up arguing during my abortive PhD, when I realized that there was no point to argumentation. I have since then tried to live what I believe, and when people would ask, to explain why I believed it. This allowed me a certain detachment, because it didn't matter whether they agreed with me, what mattered is that my explanation was true and honest and forthright.

This turns out to be surprisingly hard - how often we want people to believe us, to be like us, to like us!

More recently, I guess, I have found it surprisingly hard to be honest to myself. The force you see in my words is me struggling with some of these thoughts and ideas. I want - I need - to believe I am living the right life, conducting myself the right way. And I have to present to myself in stark, uncompromising terms, what I believe that way to be.

It's funny about alienating readers. When I publish OLDaily, I publish it all at once, as a single shot. The very first response I receive, every single day, is "Unsubscribe." As it turns out, no matter what I write, this will be the response. I have learned - I have had to learn - a certain detachment about it.

If I am honest with myself and sharing with others, I will have readers, and I will have friends. And so I cultivate my own honesty and my own sharing. It is very hard. But I know some people who are not honest and who do not share, and they wonder why they have few friends, and why I am no longer among them.

When you say things just to please, your words have no value, and your associations will be shallow and meaningless.

This is probably the hardest lesson I have ever learned, and I am learning it still, and if my words are harsh, it is because such lessons are not without pain.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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