Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Teaching a process versus transmitting knowledge

Ta-Nehisi Coates is forced to state who he's voting for in the next election. He struggles with the act of providing an answer, because
Despite my very obvious political biases, I’ve never felt it was really my job to get people to agree with me. My first duty, as a writer, is to myself. In that sense I simply hope to ask all the questions that keep me up at night. My second duty is to my readers. In that sense, I hope to make readers understand why those questions are critical. I don’t so much hope that any reader “agrees” with me, as I hope to haunt them, to trouble their sense of how things actually are.
In the last few years, I've had to think a lot about what it means to teach a core class (algorithms, computational geometry) for which most material is already out there on the Web. I think of my role more as an explorer's guide through the material. You can always visit the material by yourself, but a good tour guide can tell you what's significant, what's not, how to understand the context, and what is the most suitable path (not too steep, not too shallow) through the topic.

That's all well and good for teaching content. But when it comes to teaching process, for example with my Reading With Purpose seminar, I have to walk a finer line. I've spent a lot of time with my own thoughts trying to deconstruct how I read papers, and what parts of that process are good and useful to convey, and what parts are just random choices.

I want to make sure my students are "haunted and troubled" by the material they read. I want them to learn how to question, be critical, and find their own way to interrogate the papers. I want them to do the same critical deconstruction of their own process as well.

On the other hand, the "stand-back-and-be-socratic" mode is very hard to execute without it seeming like I'm playing an empty game that I have no stakes in, and so I occasionally have to share my "answers". I fear that my answers, coming from a place of authority, will push out their less well-formed but equally valid ways of approaching the material.

I deal with this right now by constantly trying to emphasize why different approaches are ok, and try to foster lots of class discussion, but it's a struggle.

Note: I'm certain that this is a solved problem in the world of education, so if anyone has useful tips I'm eager to get pointers, suggestions, etc. 

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