Practicality and Prudence

I do a lot of teacher training and one thing I have to do is meet the request by teachers for practical help. People want practical instruction from me.

They tend to show great confidence in me, as though nothing could be easier than giving sound practical counsel. They don’t realize how frightful a thing it is to attempt to give practical advice from a distance.

  • The danger of applying a general principle without regard for circumstances scares me, but that is precisely what curricular programs and formulaic counsel do.
  • The farther removed you are from a specific situation, the more you need to abstract your applications. The teacher might think, “Oh, now I can solve that problem, he has given me a technique.” If you can solve a problem with a technique, it wasn’t a pedagogical problem.
  • By drawing all these abstractions, you have already made a high level of education impossible. For example, if I say, “This is how you use this program,” anything I say will be so abstract and statistical and general that it will undercut the possibility of achieving a truly great education for the students in your class.

Thus, practical instruction is needed, but it is always much less practical than the teacher’s wisdom. We need to know principles and causes, not abstracted techniques.

4 Responses

  1. Just this week I insisted to my dozen literature/writing students that they get their paper drafts to me for evaluation BEFORE tomorrow’s class, so that the things I address in class will actually apply to their papers, to the problems they’re having with them.

    Way back when I was evaluating freshman papers at FSU as a grad student, I realized that lecturing about writing at the board went only so far, that my REAL teaching was in the comments I made on the student papers. That was the seed of Writing Assessment Services. 🙂

    • Cindy,

      good example. Now all you have to do is get them to read it.

      You also provide the essential correlary, though I don’t know if you meant to.

      There are rules and principles of writing that apply to 99.9% of the cases and therefore should be thoroughly learned by students who intend to write.

      Like, for example, that they shouldn’t argue with themselves publicly (their subjects and verbs should agree).

      • Good point, Andrew. I must confess that a good bit of what I’ll cover in class tomorrow has to do with quotation format, sequence of verb tenses (tough to get straight in an analysis of narrative), etc.

        And they have to turn in their evaluated drafts as a “witness against them” if they fail to heed my friendly suggestions. 🙂

  2. The fact that this frightens you, Andrew, is one of the reasons you are so respected! 🙂

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