Anyone who wants to be a good teacher–or train teachers to become excellent–should study great teachers and great teaching. Most of us can recall an influential, great teacher who stands out as a model of what a good teacher should be. Are great teachers born or made?
I think great teachers are both born and made. A great teacher almost always has been born with a constitution, a proclivity, a gift that grants him or her the potential to become a great teacher. But such a person won’t become a great teacher automatically. The gift requires training, experience, models and work. Great teachers are naturally students of teaching, they pay attention to the craft of teaching, and they enjoy studying and learning from other skilled teachers.
To acquire teaching ability, there is nothing quite so effective as seeing a great teacher teach, except to have that same great teacher coach, critique and mentor the teacher-in-training. If you are a teacher, find and emulate the great teachers around you. Seek out training, feedback and mentoring.
Apart from a dynamic mentorship, there are still some other valuable teachers available, just not in the flesh. These teachers exist in books. Some of them are old teachers in old books. Often these are the best–or we would not still find them living in printed books. Two such book-teachers are Gilbert Highet and Jacques Barzun. Both of these men taught at Columbia University in New York City. Highet was a teacher of classics and Barzun a historian. Barzun is still living at over 100 years of age. Barzun’s most recent book (written in his 90s) is the acclaimed Dawn to Decadence, a brilliant history of the last 500 years. Highet is well known for his book, The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature, originally published in 1949. Both of these men were prominent scholars and writers in their respective fields. Both of these men were also gifted teachers and students of the teaching craft. In fact, each of them wrote a superb book on education: Highet wrote The Art of Teaching (1950) and Barzun wrote Teacher in America (1944). A collection of Barzun’s essays on education was also published in a book entitled Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning (1991). All three of these books are profoundly insightful as they represent the thinking of two educators steeped in the classical tradition but seeking to renew it and adapt it for their own (and to a large degree our) time. In my next posts, I will review these books and share some of the important insights I think they contain. In the meantime, if you are a teacher seeking excellence find a way to get these books.
I would like to get your take on John Dewey and his philosophy of experience in learning vs what we have in schools today vs the classical tradition. Where is the happy median or is there one to be found especially for Christian teachers?
Great question. I think Dewey is often too quickly maligned by classical educators–his name is often brought up quickly as a bad guy to knock down. But too few have read Dewey to have an informed opinion about him, or even read significant analysis of this thought.
Your question raises the larger issue of whether the classical tradition in education can be adaptive and innovative, whether it can benefit from “modern” thought and research or whether it must remain fairly static, over against modern/contemporary thinking. I have argued that the classical tradition in education has in fact been quite innovative, flexible and adaptable. That may seem at first counter-intuitive, but anyone who has studied the history of education will find that the classical tradition has been a series of variations on a few important themes. For example, the central role of the liberal arts, particularly the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) have been “themes” that have remained constant through the history of classical education, but there has been a great deal of variety regarding such important considerations as sequence, emphasis, instructional language, textbooks, instructional methods (e.g., classrooms via tutorials), settings, etc. Yes, there were periods or relative stasis, but looking over the centuries (say from 300 AD to 1900 AD!) there is an immense amount of interesting and often appropriate variety.
So back to Dewey: He was wide-ranging thinker and prolific writer. It is likely that anyone studying or reading him will find several things to agree with and to disagree with! He is the founder of project-based education, which he pioneered in his laboratory school in Chicago. I don’t think I have met a single classical educator (or home-schooling educator) who doesn’t make use of projects as way of unifying learning and showing some real-life application to learning. Obviously projects can be taken to extremes of emphasis to the detriment of truly learning a discipline, subject or skill. But projects and collaboration among students are widely recognized by educators in and out of the classical tradition as valuable pedagogies. In many classical schools, junior high and high school students studying logic and debate will be put on teams to investigate and then argue for or against a particular issue, and then debate opposing teams. One school I know brought in an atheist philosopher (a former Episcopal priest) for a day who made presentations and politely debated with the high school students (and he loved the experience). That was bringing the “real world” to these students. Field trips, study groups, debating teams, mock trial teams, science labs, are all forms of experiential and project-based learning. They are widely employed in classical schools.
Is Dewey solely responsible for the popularity of experiential learning? No, good teachers have always made use of various kinds of experiential learning. But he did lift up this pedagogy and employ in more dedicated, sustained ways–and of course he was reacting against a good bit of staid, rote instruction he found in all too many schools. I would say that he over-emphasized the role of projects, and that in the hands of less talented and passionate teachers (he had the best in his laboratory school) a project-dominant approach is ultimately harmful to learning. Used in balance with the direct teaching of the liberal arts, projects are invaluable and to indeed help students to help connect there learning to real life.
This brief essay, only scratches the surface of a number of important and contested issues. I encourage you to pick up a copy of Diane Ravitch’s Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform, for an excellent treatment of progressive education in general and which also contains an excellent treatment of Dewey along the way. Best, CP
In a talk at Columbia four decades ago, Highet ranked American ( Western?) ciivilization (culture?) lower than that of Rome. I’m sorry that I don’t recall which of the alternatives he meant, but perhaps he wrote about it somewhere.
Highet was a lover of classical civilization…but I did not know he loved Rome that much! I wonder what period of the Roman Republic or Empire he would mark at its high point. In particular, I wonder what he thinks of Rome before and after Constantine and the toleration of Christianity. How did you come across this talk by Highet? Were you there? CP
I was a student in the College. Don’t recall if he was speaking in response to the events of ’68, but ordinarily I would not have occasion to hear him.
I believe that on the Web there’s an anecdote in which Highet responds to an attempt to “liberate” his classroom during one of the student invasions.
(Not a political comment – I just thought “student invasions” would be a humorous phrase to a classicist like you.)
Thanks, Chris. Those two of my favorite books on teaching.