Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Who is the biggest enemy of learning?

My daughter just passed her first birthday and so its not surprising that I am very fond of Neil Gaiman's benediction for a Blueberry Girl which he wrote for his God-daughter.

One line in this poem struck me in particular: "Remind her that Fortune is blind." This is a sentiment not often expressed in our "you can do anything if you believe in yourself" culture. To know an alternative to this current notion that modern man has somehow wrest himself from fate is one of the reasons why Professor Donald Kagan of Yale thinks we would do well to study the ancient Greeks.

Last week I listened to Dr. Kagan's lecture to entertain myself as I was doing the dishes. There are no slides to see - just 33 minutes of a man talking from a stage. It reminded me of my own university days when a course meant you were given dry facts from a textbook and fluid thought professed from your professor and somehow you had to weave them together into something you could remember for your midterm.

Now that I work at a university, I know that this "sage on a stage" teaching style is frowned upon as it has been largely discredited for being largely ineffectual for memory retention in most students. Instead, faculty are encouraged to engage their students in the classroom and online using a myriad of techniques and technologies. Anything goes - except for reading a lecture to your students. It is as if the new slogan is "The biggest enemy of learning is a talking teacher."

And yet something doesn't sit right with me about this development.

While I acknowledge that the lecture is not suitable for all ages or contexts, I don't want to see the lecture become completely banished from the university. We still need it. Sometimes, intertwining complex ideas need to be unwound in a slow and deliberate manner. Five lectures over five days can change your worldview forever. A keynote speech is essentially a lecture and if you've heard a good keynote (or my personal example: Rick Salutin's talk at WILU 2007) you know that it sits with you and moves you in a completely different way than a "presentation" does.

There is nothing wrong with a teacher talking as long as that teacher is telling a compelling story.

The stories told by the ancient Greeks are so compelling that we still tell them. When I was in university, one of my favourite indulgences was to go to the local comic book shop and buy Neil Gaiman's The Sandman - a series in where ancient myths take both modern and timeless forms.

And then, I would get back to the lectures.

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