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Monthly Archives: June 2010

The hill, raising its stones from the harbour, is left to nature, to the scrambling cedars and to the little northern scrub plants, dogwood and sumac and creeping juniper, finding purchase here or there, but the heights have all been claimed by cottages, claimed long enough ago that their lawns now imitate their more southern and more suburban counterparts, so the trees are much fewer, if mostly cedar still, and the brush has vanished altogether, and the trees that do remain stand with their lower trunks bare, so that they seem to wade with their skirts up, long-legged in the waves of unruly foliage below them.

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As a parent who is trying to support his children’s learning, I am always looking for places where they can see their interests in action and actively participate in them.  Why stop at reading about beetles in books when you can catch your own beetles and see them for yourselves? Why be satisfied with watching an internet clip about bats when you can make a bat house and attract them to your own house?  This kind of learning, learning that engages people with their world in active and tactile ways, is essential to everyone, in my opinion, but it is especially important for young children.  In fact, the difficulties involved in incorporating this kind of learning into the classroom is one of the major reasons why I am avoiding the traditional school system altogether.

Unfortunately, it is not always easy to get access to the places we would like to see.  While there have been some people, like Piccioni Brothers Mushroom Farm, who have been very cooperative, most places are closed to the idea of having anyone, especially small children, come and see what they do, and even if they are willing to have us through, like Speed River Bicycle, insurance restrictions and labour laws often prevent them.  The clear message is that having learners in the workplace is a hindrance, a distraction, an annoyance, and a legal liability.  It would be easier for everyone concerned if they would just go back to their classrooms and leave well enough alone.  The shops are closed.

Now, I do actually agree with this assessment.  Having learners, especially young learners, under your feet while you are trying to accomplish something  is very certainly a hindrance and a distraction and an annoyance and a legal liability.  I  agree that it would be easier, far easier, to send learners back to a classroom and let them learn what they can from their teachers.  I even agree that there is almost nothing to be gained and very much to be lost by most workplaces in letting learners through their shops.  I understand all this.

Even so, it always disappoints me when yet another workplace or university department or public works or volunteer organization tells me that its shop is closed to visitors in general and to children in particular.  The benefits of an open shop seem to me so obvious, to the children certainly, but also to our society more broadly, that I can hardly believe one more person is giving up the opportunity to share a passion, a craft, a skill, or a knowledge with a young learner.  It saddens me that we are a society more interested in efficiency and liability than in conviviality, that we are unable to recognize what we are modeling to our children when we shut them away in schools and daycares and after school programs and deny them access to the things going on in their world, that we fail to see how this only produces adults who are still children, unable to think and act for themselves, unable to do anything but follow their bosses and their politicians and their advertisers blindly.

I understand.  It is much easier to keep a closed shop.   But it comes at a cost.

As I return once more to Martin Heidegger’s What Is Called Thinking?, I am stepping away from the thread of his argument for a moment to take up some comments that he makes on the the nature of teaching.  “Teaching is more difficult than learning,” he says, “because what teaching calls for is this: to let learn.  The real teacher, in fact, lets nothing else be learned than – learning.  His conduct, therefore, often produces the impression that we properly learn nothing from him, if by ‘learning’ we now suddenly understand merely the procurement of useful information.  The teacher is ahead of his apprentices in this alone, that he has still far more to learn than they – he has to learn to let them learn.  The teacher must be capable of being more teachable than the apprentices.”  Then, a few pages further on, he returns to the subject, saying, “Learning, then, cannot be brought about by scolding.  Even so, a man who teaches must at times grow noisy.  In fact, he may have to scream and scream, although the aim is to make his students learn so quiet a thing as thinking.”

The question of teaching and learning is one that continually preoccupies me, as my longtime readers will know, and I am particularly concerned with how to teach, not literature as such, but learning through literature.  I am interested, to use Heidegger’s language, in how to teach students to learn, in how to provoke them to learning, in how to draw them into learning.  The difficulty is that I must accomplish this within the constraints of institutional education, according to the demands of grades and credits and degrees, demands which remain operative on students generally even if they are alleviated, at least to some extent, in my own class?

In response to these questions, I am toying with several ideas for my fall class, and I am interested in Heidegger’s claim that to teach is to let learn, but that this letting learn is not necessarily a quiet or a passive thing, that it sometimes involve a good deal of noise, a good deal of screaming.  In other words, if Heidegger is interested in what provokes us to thinking, I wonder whether we might take another form of this word and suggest that he is interested also, at least to some degree, in the provocative, insofar as it relates to thinking, and the question for my own teaching becomes about how to provoke learning, how to provoke reading, how to provoke reflection, how to provoke conversation, how to provoke writing, and to do so entirely apart from the entirely artificial and deformative stimuli of grades and credits.  How would a teacher be provocative in this way?  Would it require a certain noisiness at times, as Heidegger suggests?  What would be required for a teacher to provoke in our school stoday?