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Aug 31, 2007

Teachers and Theories, Thinking and Trust

I think that the way it should work is that we spend our time among teachers who give us tools for thinking on our own.

I fear that the way it does work -- too often if not always -- is that we spend our time among talkers, from whom we select a few whose words we'll take as gospel truth.  In this case we are not students, but lemmings with large vocabularies.

12:57 AM in Misc.Blog 2007 | Permalink


Word. If you ask me, the distinction Archer makes here is analogous to the distinction between religious practices that open the mind, and those that close it. Or, put another way, what's important is not whether one is religious, but what one does with it. Why am I so serious suddenly?

Posted by: Elrond Hubbard | Aug 31, 2007 9:10:57 PM

Ah, but, the words are the tools.

Posted by: Doc | Sep 1, 2007 12:46:28 AM


You just summarized an issue I am constantly battling with and made it very clear to me. I am constantly battling with my actual intelligence and my perceived intelligence.

My vocabulary is not extensive, nor is my ability to quote from authors or remember references with any level of accuracy. Those are all things that tend to be associated with intelligent people yet I still consider myself very intelligent.

The reason, which you have nailed, is my ability to think, understand and react. Even if I have those other skills, which can be learned to a degree and would help me to have the perception of intelligence, they wouldn't actually make me any better at identifying problems and designing solutions.

In a nutshell, that's why I was able to immediately recognize how true your statement was yet it still took me 3x as many characters to explain why.

Posted by: adam schultz | Sep 2, 2007 11:21:50 AM

Maybe the "gospel" reference triggered the topic of religion? Ironic that I'd want to quote someone to support your point, Archer. Am reading a book by Sharon Begley on neuroscience and Buddhism. She notes that 2,500 years ago the Buddha told his followers not to merely accept the authority of his own words or the rightness of his teachings, but rather to test the truth of what he says. We shouldn't apologize when we challenge what we're taught! --Lisa

Posted by: | Sep 2, 2007 12:32:00 PM

And given that we live with other lemmings, we collude to have the same definition of intelligence - which is something like 'thoughts articulately presented even if those thoughts are not that earth-shattering'. Even though true intelligence is somewhat different than that. I think I just demonstrated my first point.

Posted by: Marianne | Sep 6, 2007 9:36:13 AM

I like that first sentence a lot, but I don't think it is a complete characterization. I have been in situations where I had to learn a "what", and the teaching for that focused to the "what" instead of the "how to approach the what". Most of the time the best teaching I've experienced has been how to think, but there have been times where the what is an essential prerequsite to getting to the point where I'm able to start thinking.

One example I can think of at the moment is the Navy's nuclear power school and prototype. Nuke school was lockstep and focused on facts and why those facts, while prototype--a separate school at a different location started only when the other school was complete--took those facts and developed a mindset and organizational culture to safely and effectively operate the teakettles in an approach that required the student to choose the next concept on the list to check out with a qualified operator. Both were essential to function; each had a different focus.

When I teach, or mentor, I sometimes have to take that two-step approach by ensuring some basic knowledge is in the head of the victim before I bash it around some by showing them the path I'm taking to arrive at a conclusion, using their own path to check if they've got it...and if I'm wrong today. No sense trying to get someone to arrive at a conclusion who has to invent knowledge whole cloth to do it. Of course, I've been in situations where I find out later the guy is trying to get me to re-derive information it took a much smarter person years to think through the first time!

And it's not just words. I've not read a word Norman Borlaug wrote, but he's taught me something. My kids are learning sometimes when I'm not saying a word.

Finally, an observation. My feeling is that the teachers of the "what" can do their job well, and are essential to some enlightenment...but the teachers of the "how to approach the what" get remembered better and can be life-changing.

Posted by: Chap | Sep 7, 2007 6:43:52 PM

Hmmm, interesting. I'm not sure I buy the premise completely.

I think teaching must in the end accomplish a large number of pedagogical objectives, of which a key one is the provision of problem solving and/or analytical tools. On the other hand, exactly how you go about providing those tools is a big problem. At some level, you also have to convey enough facts to provide the basis for coherent thought.

But I think more importantly, education is often about stimulating certain responses in the student, either by making them solve problems and practice techniques on their own, or by simply stimulating various sorts of curiosities so that they go forward and try to think and learn on their own.

When I was a TA in grad school, at one point I assigned all my students to write a couple of paragraphs telling me what they had done in lab and why. In doing so, I apologized, but also told them that the sad truth was that practicing the simple act of brief, mindless writing was one of the most relevant job skills I could probably teach them. While in theory, I think it would be great if all students could simply be taught how to write to the maximum potential of their creativity, the exercises from high school that become most relevant to me in my everyday life aren't the poetry writing sections -- it's the damned five paragraph essays. And at some level, there's no substitute for practice.

Posted by: Michael | Sep 12, 2007 4:37:13 PM