Philosophy of Teaching and Learning

Rhetoric is the counterpart of dialectic.

Education is dialectic. It’s a conversation between people that furthers learning. And learning is the key to improving the world and society in which we live. Done well, education has the power to uplift, to expand, to improve people’s lives. Done well, education can improve our communities, improve the human lot, improve our prospect. The trick, of course, is doing it well.

Education is not easily done well. The temptation is great to believe that whatever Teacher says is education, but it isn’t. What matters is what students learn. But learning cannot be engineered. It cannot be manufactured and tightly controlled. Learning is organic and each student is different. Teaching is more like gardening than manufacturing. Learning must be nurtured. Teacher can provide the right conditions, materials, and seeds. But in the end, the student learns on her own.

I believe the emergence in the last century-and-a-half of mass education, particularly publicly-supported education, has been a tremendously positive development. It is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition if we are to achieve peace, eliminate poverty, and get along with the planet. No doubt the growth of industry, mass production, media, and technology have facilitated the expansion of education (as well as demanded it!). But, a tremendous temptation or conceit has come with these phenomena. The conceit is the idea that we can engineer or design effective education using mass production techniques. This has led to the idea that there’s a “best way” to teach any particular course. Publishers, administrators, and leaders search for the “best” or “most effective” materials, media, or learning activities. They hope, for example, that once we get the “best professor” on video, or load the “most effective” problem sets into a computer, or find the “best textbook”, or assign the “best discussion questions” that we can then easily and cheaply mass produce effective education. I don’t think so.

Technology can help. I’m a tremendous advocate of technology. But technology, whether it’s chalk boards, computers, printed books, videos, or virtual reality simulators, only provides tools to the teacher. To be effective, the teacher must engage the student in a conversation. Eventually, if fruitful, the student’s imagination takes over and the student carries on the conversation within himself. They ask themselves questions and seek their own answers. Learning results from dialectic.

Like gardening or farming, the product of education is worthy and noble, but the work involved is tedious and repetitive, involving a myriad of details. Conversations are made from a myriad of statements. And,having what appears to be (but actually isn’t) the same conversation with hundreds and thousands of students is certainly repetitive. Also, just as farmers and gardeners can improve their techniques, teachers can improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the dialectic, the conversations with students.

I find there are five essential ingredients to developing an effective conversation or dialectic with students. First, is the obvious. I must know and stay current on the knowledge and subject I’m trying to teach. Second, is to maintain honesty. Often this means admitting when I don’t know the answer to a question. At other times it requires admitting mistakes in grading and rectifying them properly. Third is to respect all students. Fourth is to speak with an authentic voice. Achieving an authentic voice is easier in face-to-face lectures, though even there it is not a given. It requires me to “be me” and not try to project some persona of a “professor”. Finally, for the conversation to accomplish the learning objectives I want, it must be planned and approached as a piece of persuasion. I have to apply my rhetorical skills.

Rhetoric and Economics

Following Aristotle’s guidance, I find rhetorical skills to be the most useful in improving the effectiveness and efficiency of the dialectic I maintain with students. I teach primarily economics, though I have taught a wide variety of business courses in the past. Different subjects make different demands on teaching. Economics is a very cerebral subject: it’s mostly ideas. It’s a way of thinking and observing. There’s relatively little in the way of techniques to master, or activities to repeat, or facts to memorize. I credit the economist Deirdre McCloskey for my inspiration and insight into the role of rhetoric in economics. Given this cerebral and rhetorical nature of economics, I’ve found that story and metaphor to be the most useful tools for teaching economics.

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