Alister McGrath comments on C.S. Lewis’s teaching style:
Lewis did not see it as his responsibility to impart information to his students. He resented and resisted what some then called the ‘gramophone’ model of tuition, in which the tutor simply imparted the knowledge that the student had so signally failed to discover for himself.
Lewis saw himself as enabling the student to develop the skills necessary to uncover and evaluate such knowledge for himself.
–C.S. Lewis – A Life, p. 164
This type of teaching philosophy is something I contend for, and something I’ve had to debate and defend for the past couple of years in my studies in Instructional Technology. I always go back to a Wendell Berry quote I came across a while back:
‘Information,’ which once meant that which forms or fashions from within, now means merely ‘data.’ However organized this data may be, it is not shapely or formal or in the true sense in-forming. It is not present where it is needed; if you have to ‘access’ it, you don’t have it. Whereas knowledge moves and forms acts, information is inert. You cannot imagine a debater or a quarterback or a musician performing by ‘accessing information.’ A computer chock full of such information is no more admirable than a head or a book chock full of it (Another Turn of the Crank, p. 96).
My contention is that the true teacher, that is the good teacher, is not someone who sees his or her task as merely imparting information; rather, he or she is the one who sees his or her task as the work of in-forming – that is, actually working to inwardly form the student. Another way of saying that is this: the teacher’s job is not simply to teach the students what to think, but to teach them how to think. In practice, this takes a thousand different forms. For the Literature professor, for example, it means that you don’t simply make your students learn facts about Shakespeare and his plays and sonnets; rather, you teach them to read Shakespeare profitably for themselves. You want them to be able to pick up Hamlet for themselves, even if it’s a year from now, and actually be able to read it and enjoy it. I am having almost daily discussions with a young friend of mine who is taking a summer Lit course at the moment. His daily quizzes involve the remembering of names and places primarily. This is precisely what McGrath says Lewis was against. Teach them to engage the story, not to remember facts about the work. Stop niggling over the data and teach them to engage the actual narrative.
Another example: For the Bible teacher, this means that you aren’t content to teach content; instead you want to impart your students with tools that will enable them to engage the Bible when you are not around. I teach a Sunday School class on a semi-regular basis. I am not the least concerned whether my students can recite all 66 books of the Bible. If they can, that’s great. I’ve never asked them to. I’m more worried about their grasp of the narrative of the Scriptures and their engagement with the Law and the Gospel. If they get those points down, they will essentially be able to engage any passage they come across in their own reading.
I’m tempted to give more examples of how this can play out, but Literature and Bible are my own areas of interest. I’ll leave it to others to make applications in those areas for the time being.
The world around us is in-forming us. Movies are catechisms for our imaginations and impulses. Technology is shaping the way we learn and look at the world. If teachers, especially Christian teachers (and preachers), are content to see themselves as so many shovelers of data, then we are really only digging a hole. If we actually are shoveling something, it probably doesn’t smell too good in terms of pedagogical aroma. Don’t be content to inform. in-FORM.