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Modalities of Teaching and Learning

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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A little reflection, however, shows that the end of learning cannot be restricted to the mastery of facts, however broad, however privileged. For we also expect someone who has finished a course of education to be able to do some things he or she could not do, or do so well, beforehand. A second type of learning addresses this expectation. It involves the acquisition of skills.


The posting below looks at three levels of teaching and learning modalities. It is from Chapter 11, New Ways of Framing Pedagogy, in the book, Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America, by Donald N. Levine. Levine is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago, where he served as dean of the College from 1982 to 1987. He is the author of several books, including Visions of the Sociological Tradition, The Flight from Ambiguity, and Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637. ? 2006 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. Published 2006. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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Modalities of Teaching and Learning


One kind of teaching consists in the transmission of information about the world. The periodic table, the structure of haiku, the sonata form, the parameters of population change, the members of a language faculty-such are among the innumerable kinds of things that teachers impart and students retain. The goal is to give students knowledge so that they will know what to answer when questions of fact and context come up. Good teaching requires that the instructor be knowledgeable and possess effective ways of packaging and delivering the information. Being a good student means being alert so such presentation and to ways of organizing and retaining that information.

This modality encompasses all that is customarily understood when one makes reference to the learning process. The question of the knowledge most worth having becomes rendered as a question of identifying the most valuable kinds of subject matter. Herbert Spencer (1861) answered that question by designating the natural sciences because the understanding of the world they provide leads to improved adaptation. Others point to knowledge of one's culture, or of other cultures, or of existential conditions in the modern world.

A little reflection, however, shows that the end of learning cannot be restricted to the mastery of facts, however broad, however privileged. For we also expect someone who has finished a course of education to be able to do some things he or she could not do, or do so well, beforehand. A second type of learning addresses this expectation. It involves the acquisition of skills.

When students learn how to conduct lab experiments, interpret poems, play music, analyze aggregate data, or compare language families, they develop capacities they can use on their own to utilize facts or create new ones. The goal of such learning is an ability to perform some kind of activity. Good teaching requires that the instructor be competent and experienced enough to demonstrate the skills in question in a robust and nuanced manner. It also requires some organization of the learning process to fit varying levels of development. The student's role involves willingness to train and keep on training, an active process of trying and "failing" and trying again. When successful, this kind of learning results in the attainment of one or more arts.

Once an art is learned, it can be practiced on a number of levels. There are temptations to rush to conclusions at the expense of methodical work, to cut corners, to simulate, to plagiarize, and to settle for a mediocre rather than an excellent outcome. Performing something well then becomes construed as action in accord with certain virtues. In this context, one can learn to be scrupulous in taking measurements in the lab, fair in the interpretation of poems, attentive to the performance of music, fastidious in the representation of data, and sensitive in dealing with language. Then too, respect for the people and objects of one's world embodies virtues that constrain the use of skills for narrow and destructive purposes. For this kind of learning, the teacher stands as a model, and the student's job is to imitate the model, practice the pertinent virtues, and internalize the ideal standards. The outcome will be some forms of virtue, components of what has been called "character."

To this point, the modalities of teaching and learning have been couched in terms of their relevance to engagement with external objects. None of these modalities, however, quite taps the semantic root of "education," which connotes rather a drawing out from and engagement with the self. This mode plays a central role in Rousseau's ?mile and, above all, in the German idea of Bildung (personal cultivation) exemplified by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Johann Gottfried von Herder, Alexander von Humboldt, and, in the United States, Ralph Waldo Emerson. This educational vision was articulated in Georg Simmel's notion of subjective culture and implemented in his proposals for educational reform (Levine 1991c). It directs attention to the developmental needs of a subject who evolves through engagement with and reflection on personal challenges.

In this dimension, one treats engagement with elements, poetry, music, statistics, or language as ingredients that help form a maturing self. The goal is to fortify students' resources for finding distinctive personal paths and expressing themselves authentically. Good teaching requires instructors to be sensitive to the differences among individual students and to possess a repertoire of resources suited to minister to each. The good student here strives to be open, courageous, and reflective, so that the outcome of this type of learning is a well-constituted personality.

There is, finally, a type of teaching and learning associated with persons who have historically been glossed as Teachers, such figures as Moses, Socrates, Confucius, Pantangali, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad. This is the notion celebrated in Kierkegaard's discourses on the Teacher. In our own time, the notion is widely represented by the Sanskrit loanword guru. The founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, became generally known as O Sensei, literally Great Teacher.

Introducing this type into our repertoire of resources for liberal learning does not signify that instructors should strive to reproduce the teachings of these extraordinary teachers. I mean only to use them as exemplars to suggest kinds of teaching and learning that can take place anywhere when the teacher allows or encourages a student to connect some present experience to the broadest cosmos of meanings, which could be described as a moment of epiphanic insight into a Way. It is perhaps the moment Simmel celebrated when noting how one could take any surface detail of experience and use it as a channel for plumbing the ultimate depths of being and meaning (Simmel [1907] 1978, 55).

In this mode, the student's task is one of being open to transcendent understanding, of engaging an episode of powerful and empowering integration. This kind of teaching can follow a number of routes. One occurs when the teacher promulgates visions and mandates in order to connect the individual with the broader universe. In another, teachers simply present themselves as models for general emulation. A third involves a kind of Socratic leading of the student's reflectivity toward including self-concerns in increasingly broad contexts. The outcome of such learning is sometimes though of as wisdom, as an evolving foundation of understanding about the good life.

This distinction follows from Max Weber's typology of prophets as "emissary" and "exemplary" (1978, 447-49).