Teaching: In Pursuit of the Human Mind
I perceive the human mind to be one of the most fascinating things in the universe. How does it work? Why do we humans do the things we do and how do we learn them? What is creativity and where does it come from? My abiding interest in our wonderful minds, I suppose, is naturally connected to teaching: If we humans can figure out how we learn, then we should be able to figure out how to teach effectively.
The human mind doesn’t exist in some sort of a cranial vacuum. Our brains are connected to our bodies, our families, our social structures. Each affects the others in complex ways that result in the uniqueness of each individual and each individual’s personal approach to learning. For me, it follows that there can never be a magic formula for teaching or learning. When it comes to learning, we each have to muck our way through with life burdens that can both help and harm. Even though learning is an individual and ultimately private task, we humans are at least beginning to understand how our minds work and how we learn. With the knowledge and experience accumulated across centuries of teaching and the new knowledge from studies of how our human brains work, as teachers we should at least be able to blaze a trail and mark the edge of the precipice for the journeys of learning we undertake with our students.
Since I usually teach a workshop rather than a course, the trails I blaze tend to be more like day hikes than transcontinental treks. Regardless of the length and whether it’s physical or a trip of the mind, the goal is to get from point A to point B. The first thing to do in designing learning expeditions is to determine what, or where, point A (what a particular group of students know about X or are able to do in regard to Y) and point B (what you want this group of students to know about X or are able to do in regard to Y) are. Sometimes the goal is specifically to get from point A to point B (gain a specific body of knowledge or skill); sometimes the goal is to enjoy the ride (learn, analyze, implement a process, change an attitude or perspective, exchange knowledge). When I provide training for teachers, I want them to do both: learn specific skills or knowledge about teaching and learning, and think about how a new skill/knowledge can best be implemented to help their own students learn. My job, then, is to provide an appropriate map to the destination, point out the important landmarks, suggest some relevant stops and focused activities to do along the way, and hope their horizons have expanded in some constructive way.
I can’t do my job if I don’t know something about my students, my fellow travelers. To give them a profitable journey, I must know what they need to reach their destination and whether they can get these requirements themselves or if they may need help to find them. I don’t want to direct every experience of every traveler and deny them the excitement of discovery. Very few travelers would say their journey was profitable or enjoyable if they stayed on the bus while I went sightseeing and reported back what I found. At the same time, I don’t want them to become frustrated to the point that the journey becomes unbearable. I want to find the balancing point of keeping students headed toward the destination and making the trip challenging and interesting enough that they want to get there. I don’t want them to take home my memories (those are mine, and I get new ones on every trip), I want them to take home theirs.
One of the best aspects of intellectual travel is the new people you meet and the new ideas you encounter. So I want to encourage students to get to know one another and interact with one another. Perhaps there’s someone on the trip who’s been there before, perhaps there’s someone who’s an expert on some particular aspect of the trip, perhaps we could visit the local people to find out how they live and work and think. I want my student travelers to find experiences that are outside of their own boundaries. What’s the use of going to Japan to eat hamburgers?
Teaching is a difficult thing and I struggle with it. Have my “students” arrived at the designated destination, veered off course somewhere along the way, refused to take the journey, or found an even better destination? Did they find something of value as they traveled toward a new destination? In the formal courses that I have taught there was physical evidence from projects, presentations, and discussions that let me know when and where a student arrived (or not!) at the destination. In less formal, and much shorter workshops, the evidence seems less clear and sometimes much delayed. In these settings it seems that participants are more like visitors to a travel information center–they pick up information and resources. I’ll rarely know if they actually incorporated their new-found knowledge into their own teaching journeys. Yet, it is extremely gratifying to learn years later than a “student” of a workshop is still using something he or she learned there and is even actively passing that knowledge on.
The reward for someone finding value in what I have tried to give to them makes it worth the eternal pursuit to find my own new teaching horizons. In teaching, I become a perpetual student. Of myself, of the human mind, of the ways people learn, of the best examples of teaching.
• Jean Conway, Teaching Academy