One recent night my teenaged daughter, her friend, and my friend and I attended a talk at our local church by a Professor of Religion from Marlboro College. Our welcoming pastor, my neighbor, was enthusiastic as she introduced him. This young man then spoke for well over an hour about the history of Islam and compared it to other cultural, intellectual, and religious contexts. He also referenced his own Islamic upbringing and beliefs, the pulls between his old home and his new American one, and the current political conflicts that have spilled from Pakistan and Afghanistan into the rest of the world.
The acoustics and lighting, coupled with the time of day, meant that many of us in the audience had moments of sleepiness; I’m not sure I caught every point the speaker tried to make. But I caught most of them, and so, I believe, did the rest of the (rather elderly) audience—and my daughter was rapt. A few of the audience members asked questions and engaged in discussion, and we who remained silent then added to our observations these other listeners’ personal interests as they revealed more behind the speaker’s thoughts. We left thinking, and talking, and wanting to return for another session.
This experience involved no tests, in fact no expectations at all that we do anything other than behave courteously and respectfully while we were there. The “individualization” of the experience depended on our each taking the ideas presented and using them as we saw fit, depending on our own backgrounds, beliefs, and needs. Yes, we came because we enjoy listening and thinking—this method of learning is one of our strengths—but just as teachers work with reluctant readers to give them more reading experiences, it might be important to give reluctant learners opportunities to practice their active listening skills. Few high school students know the joy of listening to a good speaker, and I worry that some will go on to college convinced that doing so is a burden to be endured, just as some of my young non-readers avoid and disdain books. Worse, few high school students feel capable of taking in information themselves, comparing it to their own experiences, and realizing connections or drawing conclusions from their observations and thoughts. Extrinsic motivation to pass a test or please a teacher replaces the natural, intrinsic desire to learn for the internal satisfaction it brings—or the deep satisfaction of engaging in discourse with equally curious and thoughtful community members.
Another night, I watched Werner Herzog’s Explorations at the End of the World, a documentary about current research in Antarctica. Here were the facts of travel and shelter and scientific tools; here were the quirks and blooms of individual human psychology; here was strange and gorgeous footage of worlds within our world I hadn’t even thought to imagine, with Herzog himself modeling every sort of exploration throughout. He wanders, he ponders, he asks questions without supposing answers, makes observations, draws tentative conclusions, and all in a route that resembles more the complex electric currents of neural pathways than a Boy Scout’s well-defined map to a specific destination. I showed parts of the film to my 7th graders, asking only for their attentiveness and thought, and observed in their responses every bit as much fascination as I’d experienced myself: they had discovered and pondered a world of possibilities, to no clear end on grades or state tests or “mastered” skills, but their worlds are, I believe, richer for having done so.
When I was in my early 20′s, I read Neil Postman’s Teaching as a Conserving Activity, and often since I’ve compared what I see and practice with that wise exploration of what we lose when we follow current popular techniques and curricula. Why would I want to give up on the class discussions, the collaborative multimedia projects, the hands-on applications of abstract learning that are driven by personal interests? Well, of course I wouldn’t want to give up on those practices: they have brought many students academic success that translates into notable facility in the world beyond school. But thought and learning are not endlessly directed to measurable success. I have worried that Information gleaned from the internet, disjointed and superficial, replaces the hard work of sustained, developed observation and thought. And so I have two sometimes competing desires: to carry students through the hard work of persevering until they understand the development of a complex idea or improve their practical skills on one hand, and on the other to have them contemplate, all by themselves, whatever random pictures of the world they encounter, beginning to scaffold their lives with the connections they come to recognize therein. Perhaps one reconciliation comes in the model of the lecturer, displaying the musings of an aware and thoughtful person who has organized his or her thoughts so that we see, with increasing agility, how one thing leads to another and another and to a particular, but far from exclusive, conclusion. The lecturer, then, is not accepted as some unquestionable oracle of Truth but as a fellow traveller in search of wisdom, one who has, in his or her willingness to be persistent and rigorous in his joyful wanderings, gone before us to discover a certain understanding of the world. Must we deprive students of this opportunity in order to reductively follow new trends in education? That would be a great loss and a great shame.