Taking Care in Teaching

“One [misconception], said Mahzarin R. Banaji, a professor of psychology at Harvard, is what she called a ‘myth’ about different learning styles, in which it is thought that some students learn best visually, others by hearing, and still others kinesthetically.’There’s no evidence, zero, that teaching methods should be matched up with different learning styles,” Ms. Banaji said. “It’s intuitively appealing, but not scientifically supported.’”

I picked out this quote from the Chronicle article, “Harvard Conference Seeks to Jolt University Teaching,” because it’s always bothered me how pervasive this myth is today. We often hear things like, “Oh, I’m a visual learner. I can’t understand lectures on quantum mechanics.” Turns out it’s tough to prove.

And it makes sense too. I mean, as kids, we live or die by our ability to listen to our parents. Mothers don’t typically spend a lot of time trying to teach their kids kinesthetically, or draw a visual diagram when crossing the street. They just say, “Grab my hand!” or “Look both ways!”

Of course this example includes seeing, hearing and doing, and some kids may get more out of each, but we all have the ability to listen when it really matters to us. This is why I think the more they test the connection between teaching to these individual styles and actual learning results, the more they find it doesn’t amount to much.

I’d suggest that a more basic way to consider teaching and learning outcomes is to explore practical ways to promote “care.” The point I take from the example above is that we tend to learn the things that we care about from people who demonstrate that they care about us. A simple pedagogical principle is summed up in polite ways we say good-bye, “take care.”

The philosophical tradition that I tend to spend the most time in finds its roots in the work of Martin Heidegger. Heidegger had a lot to say about what it means to exist, or to be-there [Dasein]. He was particularly interested in how our being is directed towards particular things in the world. How do things matter to us? Not just why things matter, but how do they come to be important for us? Heidegger thought that this was a key question to understanding the world we live in. A key category he developed in this regard was Sorge, the German word for care.  A prominent example Heidegger gives is a carpenter’s hammer. If we want to know what it is, we might think to investigate its material properties, it’s composition as metal or wood. But Heidegger argues that this doesn’t tell us what it is for us. To understand how it matters for us, you need to ask how it fits into the carpenter’s set of concerns, as a device used to build things, as an artistic tool, as a way of bringing order in his or her world. 

Much more could be said here, but the point is that understanding why you care about something is crucial to what you study. Understanding how you end up caring about something is crucial to thinking about good teaching and learning. 

A modest suggestion from my own limited experience about what’s gone wrong with university education follows from this. The problem is not that lectures are not visual or kinesthetic enough. Rather, this is just a symptom of a deeper problem, which is that the basic context which fosters our learning as human beings has been broken. That is:

  1. We’re often lectured about subjects that seem irrelevant to our lives
  2. By lecturers who seem distant and rather disinterested.

Interestingly, these two points relate directly to most people I talk to about their best learning experiences.

Firstly, people often comment that the subject areas that they eventually end up majoring in at university are the things that were either compellingly interesting to them or that they could see were crucial to their future success, i.e. they cared a lot about them. This also explains why some people who were told early in life that they weren’t university material, end up being some of the most knowledgeable experts because they just got to working and learned what they needed to know on the way. They found that they could easily read about what they cared about.  

Secondly, when most people think back on their intellectual development, there are often great teachers that figure highly. With all the talk on improving education these days, the surveys keep showing the same result: teachers matter. This is not to say that there is any one method or magic bullet for good teaching. Rather, there are habits or virtues such as willingness, persistence and believing in students that matter most to learning. People often cite the teacher who took the time to encourage them or just had a way of explaining the subject that most interested them. Sometimes its a teacher early on in middle school or even kindergarten who believed in them when no one else did.

In any case, I have to admit, I do spend time making my lectures as visual and interactive as I can because I still think seeing, hearing and dialoguing on a subject helps embodied human beings with eyes and ears learn. But, more and more, I’m coming to think that my main focus is to keep working to convey in my courses that:

  1. What students are being asked to learn is relevant and very important to their future success (yes, the study of philosophy is still really important in the world today); and,  
  2. As their lecturer, I do actually care about their learning and future, and will keep trying week after week to help them learn (even though I, like them, have my own research deadlines to meet).