Saturday, 26 January 2008

Teaching and learning styles

I'm reading 'Dombey and Son' by Charles Dickens at the moment and as a big fan of his work I'm enjoying it immensely.
As is often the case, his observations on society then seem strangely relevant still . Paul Dombey (the son of the novel) gets sent to school at the age of six, where he is expected to be force fed the requisite skills and knowledge for a future Captain of Industry. Dickens contrasts the 'teaching style' of his first teacher there, Miss Blimber, with that of Paul's sister Florence. At their first lesson Miss Blimber presents Paul with a pile of books which he is asked to digest while she leaves him alone, asking him when she returns:

`Now, Dombey,' said Miss Blimber. `How have you got on with those books?'

They comprised a little English, and a deal of Latin--names of things, declensions of articles and substantives, exercises thereon, and preliminary rules--a trifle of orthography, a glance at ancient history, a wink or two at modern ditto, a few tables, two or three weights and measures, and a little general information. When poor Paul had spelt out number two, he found he had no idea of number one; fragments whereof afterwards obtruded themselves into number three, which slided into number four, which grafted itself on to number two. So that whether twenty Romuluses made a Remus, or hic haec hoc was troy weight, or a verb always agreed with an ancient Briton, or three times four was Taurus a bull, were open questions with him.

`Oh, Dombey, Dombey!' said Miss Blimber, `this is very shocking.'

Paul's older sister Florence, in contrast, buys copies of his textbooks herself:

With these treasures then, after her own daily lessons were over, Florence sat down at night to track Paul's footsteps through the thorny ways of learning; and being possessed of a naturally quick and sound capacity, and taught by that most wonderful of masters, love, it was not long before she gained upon Paul's heels, and caught and passed him.

Not a word of this was breathed to Mrs. Pipchin: but many a night when they were all in bed, and when Miss Nipper, with her hair in papers and herself asleep in some uncomfortable attitude, reposed unconscious by her side; and when the chinking ashes in the grate were cold and grey; and when the candles were burnt down and guttering out;--Florence tried so hard to be a substitute for one small Dombey, that her fortitude and perseverance might have almost won her a free right to bear the name herself.

And high was her reward, when one Saturday evening, as little Paul was sitting down as usual to `resume his studies,' she sat down by his side, and showed him all that was so rough, made smooth, and all that was so dark, made clear and plain, before him. It was nothing but a startled look in Paul's wan face--a flush--a smile--and then a close embrace--but God knows how her heart leapt up at this rich payment for her trouble.

I quote this as illustration of something I have to remind myself from time to time; that it is not enough to present pupils with information and assume they will understand and appreciate it for themselves because of some inherent value in that information. Our role as teachers is 'to make all that is rough smooth and all that is dark plain', to explain things in terms that children understand so that they can then use that information for themselves.

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