June 18, 2011

When not to teach

Our family recently visited the home of Louisa May Alcott, in Concord, Massachusetts.  Although the story of the writing of "Little Women" is inspirational, the sub-text to the popular female author's home is the story of her father, Bronson Alcott.  He was a member of the group of philosophers who formed the roots of the transcendental movement.  Bronson also encouraged his daughters to become educated, and was ahead of his time with regard to pedagogical methods.  He was criticized and ridiculed for his methods, and his schools failed over and over to make any money.  He was just born 200 years too early.

I think that Bronson would be a problem-based learning teacher, if he were alive today.  The heart of his pedagogy was to have learners actively exploring their subjects.  He definitely was not an advocate of the "sage on the stage"!

I was especially drawn to a list of 58 "maxims" for teaching that was sold at the shop.  Of course, I didn't purchase one because I was certain it would be available on the internet.  I wasn't disappointed.  I've copied and pasted some of my favorites below.  Thanks to the American Transcendentalism Web for posting the entire lot here.

There are a lot of things to consider in the list below.  I've been pushing for the last few years for a new approach to educating our wildlife biologists.  Bronson Alcott would shudder if he were to look at a Wildlife Ecology and Management textbook.  But, that is a story for another day.

I was especially interested in the maxim that states to teach nothing that students can teach themselves.  I just completed a semester in which I employed a Team-Based Learning approach, which forces students to study basic material before I start to lead them (through activities or lectures) the higher-level concepts.  Some students like this.  Others don't.   Sometimes my colleagues (who use the same approach) and I receive comments that students are paying for us to teach them.  Why should they have to read the book?  They are paying us to do the heavy lifting.  Right?!

Well, all I can say is that Bronson Alcott would have a response to those students.  And now, so do I.  "Please see Maxim #34 on the attached list." 

Perhaps I'll add some of these to my syllabus next year...


SELECTED [by LAP] GENERAL MAXIMS: By which to regulate the instructor's practice in instruction

Bronson Alcott
10. To teach, to improve the science of instruction and of mind
16. To teach, regarding the matter as well as the manner of instruction
21. To teach, gradually and understandingly, by the shortest steps, from the more easy and known, to the more difficult and unknown
27. To teach, by short and perfectly obtained lessons
28. To teach, by encouragement
30. To teach, interestingly
31. To teach, principally a knowledge of things, not of words - of ideas, not names
32. To teach, by consulting in the arrangement of lessons, that proportion of variety which is adapted to the genius and habits of the young mind
33. To teach, by keeping curiosity awake
34. To teach, nothing that pupils can teach themselves
35. To teach, as much as possible by analysis
50. To teach, by allusion to familiar objects and occurrences
52. To teach, pupils to teach themselves
53. To teach, by intermingling Questions with instruction
54. To teach, with relation to the practical business of Life
55. To teach, endeavouring to fix things in the understanding rather than words in the memory
56. To teach without bringing pupils in comparison with one another, or touching the spring of personal emulation

----Thanks to the New York Public Library collection for the image above.

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