Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Some questions about teaching

These may sound like naive questions, but they are genuine:
  1. Is it important to teach in such a way that the content of what you teach is internally consistent? In other words, does it matter if one part of what you teach contradicts other parts? For example, does it matter that many English language teachers tell their students that linking verbs are stative verbs?
  2. Is it important to teach in such a way that the content of what you teach is consistent with available evidence?
  3. Is it important to teach in such a way that the content of what you teach is consistent with the truth, irrespective of the available evidence?
  4. Do the answers to these questions depend on what you teach?  In particular, would teaching an exceedingly complex system, such as a natural language, lead to different answers than teaching a less complex system, such as a programming language?
  5. Finally, why did you answer the way you did?


Ran said...

I think internal consistency is important for anything that you expect students to regurgitate, but not necessarily for things that you want them to learn. Anything that is interesting and complicated enough to be worth teaching are simply too complex for any pedagogy to be both internally consistent and correct, or both internally consistent and useful.

I think "available evidence" is a loaded term. Your teaching has to be reasonably consistent with what your students will actually encounter, or else it's useless (at best). But that doesn't necessarily mean that your teaching has to be perfectly consistent with current scientific understanding. (That said, if there's available evidence to suggest that one thing has greater pedagogical value than another, then that should inform your teaching.)

It's important to be honest: not merely to teach things that you believe are true, or that you believe are the best approximation to the truth given your constraints, but also to honestly address the limitations of what you teach. Internal inconsistencies and departures from evidence or from strict accuracy shouldn't be something that your students figure out on your own, but that you cheerfully acknowledge. (Too often, language textbooks pretend to explain the world perfectly. I've seen many lists of, say, criteria for choosing between two things — savoir and connaître, por and para, ser and estar, imparfait and passé composé — when reality is far messier than the lists imply. I'm not sure why textbooks do this. Teachers at least have psychological motivations, which are sometimes unfortunate but nonetheless understandable; but why textbooks?)

The answers to these questions don't depend on what you teach, because everything that is taught is messy and complex. Even the most formal systems cannot be taught as pedagogical atoms; learners have to go through stages of partial understanding, and sometimes (always?) that means teaching things that aren't exactly true. (By the way, don't take this the wrong way, but— do you know any programming languages? Because even, say, Standard ML, which is the only real-world language I know of whose specification lays out its entire semantics in formal mathematical notation, is regularly taught with statements like "everything is recursive" whose presumed pedagogical value far outstrips their accuracy.)

By the way, the phrasing of your questions confuses me a bit, which may mean that I'm missing what you're getting at. Your questions seem like questions about what content should be taught, but they're phrased as questions about how it should be taught. Do you intend your questions that take the form, "Is it important to teach in such a way that the content of what you teach is ___?" to mean something different than, "Is it important to teach content that is ___?"?

Brett said...

Thank you, Ran, for your thoughtful comments. I think your point about honesty is a very important one, and I agree that rules of thumb are too often presented as facts. But I also worry that many students hear "X is usually Y" but remember "X is Y".

To answer your questions, I used to do a lot of hobby programming when I was much younger, but I've never taken any formal training in any programming language and I haven't written code for years. My example, might be poorly chosen. And, I was curious about the content. I apologize if that wasn't clear.

Ben Hemmens said...

1. Yes.
2. Yes.
3. Huh?
4. Yes.
5. Long story.
Yes, it's all important to me, but this has led to me not teaching! (or not very much) Most teachers of English don't worry about (and are blithely unaware that) many of their rules of thumb are just wrong.
My wife, who has spent a lot of time studying language teaching methods, sums it all up by saying »you can't prevent language acquisition« and indeed, people learn language even when their teachers are, objectively speaking, incompetent fools.
(I suspect this is much less the case for programming languages - there, if the teacher doesn't make sense, you're lost)
The uncomfortable truth may be that people do actually improve their writing by acquiring books like Strunk and White, thought this book is probably every bit as bad as Geoffrey Pullum has demonstrated it to be. Probably their own self-teaching efforts, which are associated with buying a book, often outweigh the bad advice it gives.
There's much more to say about this and I think I'll have to make a post on my own blog out of it ...

Ben Hemmens said...

Here's my answer to question 5.

Sorry, could have waited and added it to my 1st post.