Quick update: I know I promised Banksy, and that is still coming. I am, however, busily sorting out what order to present it all in so I don’t overwhelm you with my love for him all at once, so let’s talk learning instead. School may be out, but the rants about education will never cease. (Probably.) (I’m a very ranty person that way.) This time, we’re going to talk about one of my favorite educational approaches. Something that I get incredibly, geekily excited about, and something I think you should get excited about, too.
I’m referring, of course, to teaching.
“Duh,” you’re thinking, “how else does one educate?” But it’s a bit more complex than that. The most successful and enjoyable learning experiences I’ve had have been so because I was studying under exceptional teachers. The ideal teacher–and I’ve had several who fit this definition–knows, above all, how to maintain balance. She’s disciplined but humble, unwavering but willing to admit when she’s wrong or uncertain and to see that as a greater learning opportunity. She cultivates a relationship with each of her students, noting their individual talents and interests and responding to that genuinely. She has high expectations and knows that most students will benefit from rising to that challenge. Best of all, she knows how to make students want to learn the material.
To me, igniting a desire to learn has to do with an approach that a spectacular friend of mine calls “looking at things sideways.” Broadly, that involves presenting material in such a way that students understand that it’s felicitous, and are thus some combination of more inspired to understand it and more capable of sympathizing with it. I know that sounds a bit weird, but I’ve found that facts and concepts stick with me if I can understand why they’re pertinent, and this usually involves figuring out a way of personally relating to them.
A luminous example of this approach–which utilizes humor, one of the finest tools with which one can look at things sideways–is John Green’s series of videos on the French Revolution:
(His brother, Hank, did a similar video on the subject of probability [Probability 101], which is equally effective; the principle of sidewaysness is illustrated more clearly to me in John’s because of the subject area.) In these, he compares France’s economic status circa 1789 to America’s economy in 2009. You (assuming you’re American, or at least have access to information about America’s economic situation) now have a scale for the information you’re getting about 18th-century France as well as a tangible point of connection. As you progress, you’re taught that French peasants (who made up a painfully large percentage of the nation’s population at that time) were suffering the consequences of France’s debt while the monarchy and nobility were luxuriating in the opulence of Versailles. You’re now able to relate to the peasants and understand precisely why they were pissed off enough to behead their king, and you also have a more solid comprehension of the factors involved in creating such an unstable state.
Mr. Green (I bet he loves playing Clue…) has provided you with all of the major facts and events (and even some information that conventional classes don’t cover, like the initial ideas behind the Revolutionary calendar) of the French Revolution in around fifteen minutes; brevity is fantastic here, since it makes the learning process less intimidating. He’s drawn the lines between you and the things you need to know. He’s made you laugh, which in itself has a mnemonic effect.
That, good readers, is the holy trinity of accessible and engaging teaching. You haven’t lost anything (it seems simplified, and there’s no jargon, but it’s actually much more logically and completely laid out than the French Revolution section in some AP Euro review books), and I’m willing to bet that you enjoyed that more and will retain more from it than if you’d received the same information in a standard lecture form (which just goes to show that ‘scholarly’ and ‘humorous’ are not mutually exclusive terms). There are more thoughts coming on the way we teach and the way I think we should teach (and we all know how objective and reliable I am on that subject), most heavily pertaining to history. But for now, know that if you’re struggling with a new concept, it might help to tilt your head just a bit.