^ the teacher overseeing “learning in community”

—- —- —–

In Part I of my look at how Boston should reform its Public Schools mission I focused on curriculum. I asserted that employers and citizenship must be accorded primary status in curriculum, and also must be the decider about competition among teachers and between schools.

Now for Part II, in which I discuss pedagogy — the means and methods by which teaching is done — because pedagogy is the province of teachers and only teachers. It is they who must use them. It is teachers who innovate teaching method. Teachers lead by example. They are the souls in which passion for knowledge lives.


mathematics pedagogy : Building the Habits (Love) of Learning

As in so much of the world of thought and in the practice and theory education, Augustine (354-430 AD) was the first to write comprehensively about pedagogy. I cannot think of any writer then or since who has contributed more — even as much — to our understanding of what a teacher does, how, and why. It is well worth your time to read the following long passage from Wikipedia’s extensive biography of Augustine, who was a teacher all his adult life, a brilliant thinker, and (if anything) an even more brilliant writer :

“Historian Gary N. McCloskey ( says a passage in Augustine’s Wikipedia biography) finds four “encounters of learning” in Augustine’s approach to education:

1.Through Transforming Experiences; a Journey in Search of Understanding/Meaning/Truth;
3.Learning with Others in Community; and
4.Building the Habits (Love) of Learning.

“His emphasis on the importance of community as a means of learning distinguishes his pedagogy from some others. Augustine believed that dialogue/dialectic/discussion is the best means for learning, and this method should serve as a model for learning encounters between teachers and students. Saint Augustine’s dialogue writings model the need for lively interactive dialogue among learners.

“He introduced the theory of three different categories of students, and instructed teachers to adapt their teaching styles to each student’s individual learning style.

“The three different kinds of students are:
1. the student who has been well-educated by knowledgeable teachers
2.the student who has had no education; and
3.the student who has had a poor education, but believes himself to be well-educated.

“If a student has been well educated in a wide variety of subjects, the teacher must be careful not to repeat what they have already learned, but to challenge the student with material which they do not yet know thoroughly. With the student who has had no education, the teacher must be patient, willing to repeat things until the student understands, and sympathetic. Perhaps the most difficult student, however, is the one with an inferior education who believes he understands something when he does not. Augustine stressed the importance of showing this type of student the difference between “having words and having understanding,” and of helping the student to remain humble with his acquisition of knowledge.

“Augustine introduced the idea of teachers responding positively to the questions they may receive from their students, no matter if the student interrupted his teacher.

“Augustine also founded the restrained style of teaching. This teaching style ensures the students’ full understanding of a concept because the teacher does not bombard the student with too much material; focuses on one topic at a time; helps them discover what they don’t understand, rather than moving on too quickly; anticipates questions; and helps them learn to solve difficulties and find solutions to problems.

“Yet another of Augustine’s major contributions to education is his study on the styles of teaching. He claimed there are two basic styles a teacher uses when speaking to the students. The mixed style includes complex and sometimes showy language to help students see the beautiful artistry of the subject they are studying. The grand style is not quite as elegant as the mixed style, but is exciting and heartfelt, with the purpose of igniting the same passion in the students’ hearts.”

Augustine knew well what teachers today know and apply every day in the classroom : that different students require different means and methods. Augustine’s insight can thus be extended to Special Education as well. There are only two ways to apply Augustine’s individualized teaching. either you can separate the three categories of students and teach them apart, or you can bring them into the same classroom and work each group as they are. As Augustine counted highly the community setting, he would seem to favor the integrated classroom.

Can this work ? Augustine was the first education theorist to suggest a variety of teaching styles, each geared to a category of student. It must have been an exciting classroom, with Augustine teaching one way to one group of students and another way to another group, and all the students observing — even participating — in the diverse program. But Augustine did not confine his teaching to classrooms. He loved company at meals, and it is not unlikely that he had many of his students to dinner, thereat to instruct them, probably by improvisation upon the various pedagogic styles he wrote about (and certainly used).

I make the following additional observations to this examination of the greatest educational theorist’s pedagogy ;

1.None but a teacher could have conceived the pedagogic challenge as creatively as Augustine did, or as insightfully
2.certainly the employer of that time, the Roman imperial bureaucracy, could not have done it. Nor did it care to try. That was why it hired teachers. It was the teachers’ job to figure out how to educate students to the needs of Imperial administration.
3.assumed in all of Augustine’s education manual is that all teaching must met a standard of effectiveness. In his time, that was determined by the employer. The ineffective teacher lost Imperial favor, or students, or both. It was a self-evaluating system.

What we teach today has changed — though not as hugely as we sometimes assume — and schools now answer to a million employers, not only one. But Augustine’s pedagogic rule remains : that it is teachers, and only teachers, who must devise the means and methods by which will be taught the curriculum that the society and employers pay to have taught.

Teachers in Augustine’s day had no choice but to excel. They were not paid by the state. Their pay came from students’ fees. If a teacher had imperial favor, the fact was known, and he drew students; and these students paid. If he lost favor, the students’ parents saw that and sent their children elsewhere. Tenure ? There was no such thing. Every day, a teacher risked all. While it worked, it was the finest education system our civilization knew until modern times. Of course I do not suggest that we abolish tenure. far from it. That’s too much to ask of teachers who practice under the current system and have career time invested in it. But I do want to assert that tenure comes at a cost. A non-tenure system such as Roman education is self-evaluating. Evaluations in our tenure system depend upon who is doing the evaluating and answering for them to whom. Most of the evaluators are middlemen, not the society — and not the employers. But I suppose that, as in so much, inefficiency is the precious price that democratic government pays to a complex society of human fallibility.

Today we educate every child, not just the next generation of imperial administrators. We teach for a hundred different careers; we teach dozens of subjects. Scientific method was unknown. All students, of whatever  origin, learned in Latin. A unified administration was the rule then; diversity is ours now. Then, the stylus and tablet ruled; today, the digital device. Yet for all the differences between Augustine’s late imperial state and our always changing polity, teaching remains what Augustine knew it to be : teacher and student, teacher and students, learning for a purpose, a career, a better life and — perhaps — the love of learning for its own sake.

For Augustine, teachers ruled. So too for most of the educational theorists whose impact has been paramount since. Some theorists emphasize the school administrator — the principal. Some, the grading system and promotion from grade to grades. All these Augustine’s school took into account as well. The teacher yet ruled.

If the members of teachers unions could only accept their mission, embrace it as their unique contribution, risk all, and apply it within the larger context of society, competition, and employer curriculum, we would move a long way toward deploying education’s variety of means, methods, subjects, and standards in a context of challenge, innovation, and struggle as opposed to job security, curriculum debates, and one size fits all. It doesn’t. If Augustine knew that, why not us ?

—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere

NOTE : You should read Augustine’s Retractiones as well as Peter Brown’s almost on-the-scene biography of Western Civilization’s most insightful social and psychological thinker — not to mention brilliant punster, superb speaker, and dramatic lecturer.

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