June 6, 2006
Teaching a Fish to Swim
In a recent post on High-Tech "Cheaters", I argued that the essential problem with cheating, high-tech or otherwise, is a problem that faces all educators, namely, how to reach students' needs effectively and then evaluate their response to our efforts. In the May 2006 issue of the Proceedings and Addresses of the APA, I ran accross John M. Dolan's "Statement for the Academy of Distinguished Teachers" appended to his obituary. John Dolan was a Professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota, and passed away on 15 September 2005. He says:
"My philosophy of education can be expressed in a single sentence: 'You are teaching a fish how to swim.' I am suspicious of instructors who, thinking they understand what is going on when real intellectual growth takes place, wax eloquent about their pedagogical 'methodologies.' Examined closely, episodes described as 'inspired teaching' are occasions in which abilities and powers already present in the 'student' are somehow stimulated and stirred into more vivid realization and growth. Neither the 'teacher' nor the 'student' is wholly in charge of the direction or character of that new life and growth."
He goes on to compare a student to a plant, which develops out of its own inner force, and he warns teachers to take heed of the old doctor's credo: "Primum non nocere" (first of all, do no harm). How much does a teacher's effort to control the dynamic of the classroom, to resist the intrusion of new technologies, to submit students to artificial and narrow methods of evaluation constrict the growth of students?
In a real sense, what we do as teachers is not much: we simply try to let our students be what they already are. Yet there is also no doubt that letting things be what they are requires a determined will and a sharp mind.