Friday, May 14, 2010

Learning and Teaching, chapter XIII, continued

In the section, 'Interest in the Lesson', the authors briefly quote John Dewey. While Dewey may be, at least partially, responsible for many of the ills of American education today, not everything he wrote on the subject of education was equally false. Although certainly no friend of classical education, he, perhaps inadvertently, got at least one thing right.

Dewey wrote that, "I know of no more demoralizing doctrine, when take literally, than the assertion...that after subject matter has been selected then the teacher should make it interesting." And: "When things have to be made interesting, it is because interest itself is wanting." The authors quote him to support their argument that "external" and "superficial" means of exciting interest should not be overly depended upon, that these appeal to the child's "love of pleasure" rather than developing genuine interest.

Sheridan and White write "These methods have their place, but their place is not that of making the lesson interesting and holding attention. There are many and various methods that may be used to make the lesson more real, to illustrate, to help fix the lesson in definite form. But these methods should involve the use of nothing that does not bear directly and vitally on the lesson. They should direct attention to the lesson rather than to the device used."

Much of what is said about the use of technology in education certainly has the feel of what they call "artificial devices". Technology is often defended or even insisted upon because it is needed to get the attention of 21st-century students. If we don't use computers, or cell phones, or the latest software we will lose students, we are warned. This replaces an idea or a subject with a method or a mere tool, which in turn sets the parameters of what is to learned and how all future learning is viewed. The medium is the message, after all.

While Dewey may have meant that we should only choose subject matter that already interests children--an assertion that classical education utterly rejects--the point that is made in this section is a good one. Attention is best gained and held when the subject itself is interesting, and is presented in an interesting manner. "Attention follows interest" says Gregory, and "it is folly to attempt to gain attention without first stimulating interest." What teachers need to give thought to is not what things students are interested in learning today, but how the enduring truths or concepts that they need to learn can be presented in such a way that they can see the connection to them, can become interested in them.

Classical education seeks to teach that which is true, good, beautiful and of lasting value. These things are naturally and inherently interesting to human beings, whatever their age, and so creating interest in them should not be such a difficult task as it seems to be. Unfortunately, there are many more temporarily enticing distractions clamouring for the attention of our students. We do need to give careful and diligent thought as to what is taught and how it is taught, so that we present the excellent things we have to teach in an excellent way. The result will be that we will capture the on-going and fruitful attention and the interest of our students.

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