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The Art of Teaching: Part 5

By Mr. Ben Walter
 
Part 5 - Abilities of A Good Teacher - Memory & Will Power
 
So far we have considered how a good teacher knows and likes students, knows and likes her subject, and can employ humor. These deal more or less with a teacher's attitude or disposition towards her work. But what are the necessary abilities of a teacher? Highet mentions three: memory, will power, and kindness. We'll discuss the first two here.
Memory and will power are two qualities necessary for success in any occupation. If a surgeon is at one end of the spectrum ("I forget where the heart is") and a grocer is at the other ("Let me check the code for that fruit"), a teacher falls somewhere in the middle. Nobody's life is lost if a history teacher forgets when the Magna Carta was signed, or forgets what the most compelling anti-federalist arguments were. But he will look ridiculous and might be ineffective. 
 
Memory is important not only because a teacher should at least know what she is requiring her students to learn, but also because a teacher's superior memory should allow her to make connections between subjects. Highet calls this a creative memory. For example, a science teacher might ask a class, "Did you know that the scientific theory of the electromagnetic spectrum is related to the impressionist movement in art?" and then proceed to illustrate the spectrum of visible light using the paintings of Monet.
 
A teacher with a creative memory can also reach back to address questions that remained unsatisfactorily answered weeks before. "A month ago Johnny asked whether there was a way to express hypothetical statements in Latin. Now that we have learned the subjunctive, let's revisit the question." The dynamic and connection-driven memory of the teacher can show students that all knowledge is connected. Making connections between bits of information, between subjects, and between academics and life experience is thinking--and a good teacher teaches how to think.
 
Highet has a useful metaphor for this: "The business of the teacher is to pass currents of interest and energy through the facts , while they are being learnt and afterwards, so that they melt, fuse, become interconnected, acquire life, and grow into vital parts of the minds which hold them" (p. 59).
 
Classical education is particularly geared towards training the memory. Students memorize poetry at a young age and then progress to learn logical argumentation and higher reasoning in the upper school. At every point, students are encouraged to see that a common Truth binds together the different subjects.
 
The next essential quality of a teacher is will power. It is not fashionable to think of teachers as imposing their will on students (or parents on children). Now of course, Highet is not advocating some kind of tyrannical oppression, nor a prescription of what to think. But the point remains that learning is hard work--and to be effective, a teacher must override a student's natural disinclination to work. The stakes are high. To hold an occupation, to provide for a family, to help friends, and to participate productively in society takes concentration and effort. It is the strong willed, energetic teacher who will train strong willed and hardworking students. 
 
Now "making" students learn does not mean literally (as in Dickens' day) or metaphorically using the ruler. In fact, good teachers have never used these kinds of methods. Encouragement, healthy competition, and goal-setting are more effective. Two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Horace alluded to teachers cajoling their students to learn with cookies. And Erasmus, the premier scholar of the renaissance, recommended against intimidation as a means of getting students to acquire knowledge. There are many more congenial "tricks" a teacher can use, provided he has this quality of will.
 
One of them, especially productive for middle school and beyond, is employing a student's natural love of argument by provoking discussion. A teacher can present some controversial point of view and defend it from all the arguments the students throw at it. Or conversely, a teacher can take a student's position and pose arguments against it. This method allows both the teacher and student to exercise their wills, and it leaves both strengthened and sharpened. Most importantly, the goal of learning is achieved. If this sounds familiar, it is the Socratic method.
 
Brilliant examples of this kind of learning take place in Chaim Potok's book The Chosen. In this novel the Orthodox Jewish protagonist and his Hasidic friend learn Talmud (and learn to navigate friendship) through constant, frank, and heated argument. The underlying philosophy is that if Truth is important and transcendent, it can only be found through intense searching, questioning, and debate.
 
Classical education argues that the will should not be left to its own devices. It may wither or may grow unreasonable and wayward. Instead, the will should be strengthened and encouraged to choose good things. This is why moral education is inseparable from academic education. 
 
“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” —Aristotle
 
Stay tuned for Part 6: "Abilities of A Good Teacher - Kindness"
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