Tuesday, October 04, 2011

I like to think this is how I give shiur (and how shiur should be given)









Consider this excerpt from the second chapter:

Educational discourse, 
especially among the educated, is a laden with preconceptions that it is 
practically impossible b introduce an idea that does not fit into traditional 

Consider as a primary case in point the notion that a classroom lesson is 
largely made up of two components: content and method. The content may 
be trivial or important, but if is always thought to be the 'substance' of the 
lesson; it is what the student are there to 'get'; it is what they are supposed to 
learn; it is what is 'covered'. Content, as any syllabus proves, exists 
independent of and prior to the student, and is indifferent to the media by 
which it is 'transmitted'. Method, on the other hand, is merely the manner in 
which the content is presented. The method may be imaginative or dull, but 
it is never more than a means of conveying the content. It has no content of 
its own. While it may induce excitement or boredom, it carries no message - 
at least none that would be asked about on the College Boards, which is to 
say, worthy of comment.    

To our knowledge, all schools of education and teacher training 
institutions in the United States are organized around the idea that content 
and method are separate in the manner we have described. Perhaps the most 
important message thus communicated to teachers in training is that this 
separation is real useful and urgent, and that it ought to be maintained in the 
schools. A secondary message is that, while the 'content' and 'method' are 
separate, they are not equal. Everyone knows that the 'real' courses are the 
content courses, the kind of which James Bryant Conant is so fond: The 
Heritage of Greece and Rome, Calculus, Elizabethan Drama, The Civil War. 
The 'fake' courses are the methods courses, those conspiracies of emptiness 
which are universally ridiculed because their finest ambition is to instruct in 
how to write lesson plans, when to use an overhead projector, and why it is 
desirable to keep the room at a comfortable temperature (The educationists 
have got what they deserve on this one Since they have saddled themselves 
with a trivial definition of 'method', what they have been able to do in their 
courses has wavered from embarrassing to shocking. The professors of the 
liberal arts have, so far, escaped the censure and ridicule they deserve for not 
having noticed that a 'discipline' or a 'subject' is a way of knowing something 
- in other words a method - and that, therefore, their courses are methods 

'The medium is the message' implies that the invention of a dichotomy 
between content and method is both naive and dangerous. It implies that the 
critical content of any learning experience is the method or process through 
which the learning occurs. Almost any sensible parent knows this, as does 
any effective top sergeant. It is not what you say to people that counts; it is 
what you have them do. If most teachers have not yet grasped this idea, it is 
not for lack of evidence. It may, however, be due to their failure to look in 
the direction where the evidence can be seen. In order to understand what 
kinds of behaviors classrooms promote, one must become accustomed to 
observing what, in fact, students actually do in them. What students do in the 
classroom is what they learn (as Dewey would say), and what they learn to 
do is the classroom's message (as McLuhan would say). Now, what is it that 
students do in the classroom? Well, mostly, they sit and listen to the teacher. 
Mostly, they are required to believe in authorities, or at last pretend to such 
belief when they take tests. Mostly, they are required to remember. They are 
almost never required to make observations, formulate definitions, or 
perform any intellectual operations that go beyond repeating what someone 
else says is true. They are rarely encouraged to ask substantive questions, 
although they are permitted to ask about administrative and technical details 
(How long should the paper be? Does spelling count? When is the 
assignment due?) It is practically unheard of for students to play any role in 
determining what problems are worth studying or what procedures of 
inquiry ought to be used. Examine the types of questions teachers ask in 
classrooms, and you will find that most of than are what might technically 
be called 'convergent questions', but which might more simply be called 
'Guess what I'm thinking' questions Here are a few that will sound familiar:    

What is a noun?    
What were the three causes of the Civil War?    
What is the principal river of Uruguay?    
What is the definition of a nonrestrictive clause?    
What is the real meaning of this poem?    
How many sets of chromosomes do human beings have?    
Why did Brutus betray Caesar?    

   So, what students mostly do in class is guess what the teacher wants them 
to say. Constantly, they must try to supply the Right Answer. It does not 
seem to matter if the subject is English or history or science; mostly, 
students do the same thing. And since it is indisputably (if not publicity) recognized that the ostensible 'content' of such courses is rarely remembered 
beyond the last suit (in which you are required to remember only 65 per cent 
of what you were told), it is safe to say that just about the only learning that 
occurs in classrooms is that which is communicated by the structure of the 
classroom itself. What are these learning’s? What are these messages? Here 
are a few among many, none of which you will ever find officially listed 
among the aims of teachers:    

   Passive acceptance is a more desirable response to ideas than active 

   Discovering knowledge is beyond the power of students and is, in any 
case, none of their business.    

   Recall is the highest form of intellectual achievement, and the collection of 
unrelated 'facts' is the goal of education.
   The voice of authority is to be trusted and valued more than independent 

   One's own ideas and those of one's classmates are inconsequential.   

   Feelings art irrelevant in education.    

   There is always a single, unambiguous Right Answer to a question.    

   English is not history and history is not science and science is not art and 
art is not music, and art and music are minor subjects and English, history 
and science major subjects, and a subject is something you 'take' and, when 
you have taken it, you have 'had' it, and if you have 'had' it, you are immune 
and need not take it again. The Vaccination Theory of education?    


  1. I agree this is a proper approach for aggadita or parshanut or the like -- but not for halakhah.

    I once posited that this is the whole difference between binah and da'as. You want people to deduce more generally, a skill I asserted is more common among women. "Binah yeseirah nitenah lahen." But the flipside is "daatan kalos"... they are less bound to learned ways of thinking. The largest part of pesaq is the gefeel of pasqening. Innovative new chiddushim, yes; new ways of thinking to produce those chiddushim, not so much. At least, not a means of pesaq. And thus semichah goes to men, because it's more about development of da'as than binah.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. The main application is to High School education. At that point, knowledge is still secondary - and da'as is somewhere off in the future.