teaching techniques

Here's an interesting story from Idries Shah's book Tales of the Dervishes:


One dark night a dervish was passing a dry well when he heard a cry for help from below. 'What is the matter?' he called down.

'I am a grammarian, and I have unfortunately fallen, due to my ignorance of the path, into this deep well, in which I am now all but immobilized.' responded the other.

'Hold, friend, and I'll fetch a ladder and rope,' said the dervish.

'One moment please!' said the grammarian. 'Your grammar and diction are faulty; be good enough to amend them.'

'If that is so much more important than the essentials,' shouted the dervish, 'you had best stay where you are until I have learned to speak properly.'

And he went his way.


This story reminds me of the psychology study, which I mentioned in an earlier posting, "Emotion overrules reason," that found that staunch Democrats and Republications are "both adept at ignoring facts,"

The study points to a total lack of reason in political decision-making.

As someone said thousands of years ago, "There is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9), at least when it comes to understanding human behavior. Our pet theories can "immobilize" us, preventing us from seeing others' perspectives (see again "Everybody's an Expert" by Louis Menand).

So, where does this take us? For me, I return to a paper I wrote on the application of radical constructivism to writing in another language. Radical constructivism is based on Jean Piaget's work and is a perspective on knowing by Ernst von Glasersfeld, who asserted that knowledge is constructed actively by an individual in a way that fits one's experience, that provides a viable explanation of one's experience.

In looking at how students learn, many simply accept that learning is "merely a straightforward process of building upon students’ prior experiences and filling in schemas with new data, or knowledge. Rather, learning to write involves a process of reflecting and acting on contradictions between students’ existing schemas and their present experiences."

In looking at how teachers interact with students, we might believe "that these contradictions should be resolved in favor of the teacher’s “correct” model. The concept of viability reminds us that reality cannot be directly perceived. Teachers, as well as students, construct models representing their experiences rather than an actual reality. Thus, the student’s schema may not only be coherent according to his or her experiences but may also be insightful and effective. ... [Thus], we must listen closely to hear what is productive in the students’ models and build from there (Confrey, 1991, 1998)."

So, although this notion may not be new, still it is worth repeating: Listening may be a instructor's most valuable asset for learning how to teach.

I've always wondered how well most writing instructors would do if we had to write what we have students write,say, for example, a coherent, developed essay in 30 minutes. Well, today, I'm wondering how most of us would do at writing about a presentation we attended, at least writing in such a way as to be interesting and useful.

Another thing I've wondered about is why do presenters at conferences read papers to the audience. I know it's standard practice in many disciplines, but if someone is going to just read, I'd just as soon have the paper and read it in my own time. Having academic papers read to one is simply boring! I'm at the TESOL conference in Tampa right now, and the difference in my interest level is inversely proportional to my being read to.

One interesting presentation was by Jennifer Granger, who is teaching as a Fellow at a university in China. To improve students' vocabulary, listening and research skills, and cultural knowledge, she uses episodes from "The West Wing." Besides TV being more interesting than textbooks, she writes, "This drama series promotes critical thinking, as well as shows different facets of American culture, history, and language usage." It's not just listening. They read about the series from several websites, including one with transcripts of the episodes. They look at current online magazine and newspaper articles related to the episode. And so on. I wish I had had her as a teacher when I studied my foreign languages.

Sometimes, simple methods work well for students. Students often have problems analyzing the information in their readings, especially if the amount of text is large. Gigi Taylor, a doctoral candidate at Purdue University, in her presentation "Teaching Academic Writing" suggests having students construct "Key Point Charts," a grid in which author's names are at the top of columns and "salient points" are on the left side. In this manner, students can visually compare the same point across authors to see the similarities and differences.