October 13th, 2009

Pronouncements about Teaching


I had breakfast with a good colleague this morning. We were following up on a conversation we’ve been having electronically. It started when I recommended a book that my colleague said he’d read; however he objected to all the “pronouncements” made by the author. He was referring to how this author tried to distill research findings on various topics into simple declarative statements and how those statements denied all the complexity and variability of the research. After reading his email, I looked at the blog entry I was working on … one that summarized key findings from a study. There were pronouncements everywhere. I quickly revised, working to make the statements less definitive and more qualified. When I wrote my colleague and fessed up to what I’d discovered, he responded by saying that he’d just had a conversation with a colleague who asked him for some teaching advice. “All I did was make pronouncements,” he wrote.

Since then I’ve realized that this is not just a problem for the two of us. So much of the pedagogical literature is full of definitive, advice-giving pronouncements. “Give regular quizzes to keep students up to date on their reading and to encourage them to come to class,” I read recently. Yes, that’s one goal that can be accomplished with quizzes. It’s a rather punitive one—not one likely to make students see the value of assigned reading. But it’s not the only (or in my opinion best—could that be a pronouncement?) goal quizzes can accomplish. They can be used to teach reading skills or to develop study strategies or to help students deal with test taking anxiety. They can be used to stimulate interest in material that will be dealt with in class today or to follow up with material discussed last class.

Why are we so prone to pedagogical pontification—to make the advice we offer (and receive) sound so definitive, so singular? Is it that we’re so busy that we don’t have time for anything more than the bottom line? Does it grow out of the tendency to think about teaching and learning only in terms of strategies and techniques? Do we just want the simple answers, the easy solutions, the quick fixes? Do we really believe everything about teaching and learning can be reduced to Twitter-sized messages?

I don’t think so. I wonder if it isn’t related to something else I was reading recently—how we don’t yet have a well-developed language with which to talk about teaching and learning. Language expresses what we know and understand. If our knowledge is limited and our understanding incomplete, that might explain why we don’t notice or object when somebody makes a pronouncement. What they tell us might well be true—it’s just not the whole truth.