On Helping Others To Learn

The questions that can be answered aren’t worth asking.

– Milton Mayer

As I approached the end of my nearly forty years of law school teaching, friends and colleagues would often ask me when I intended to retire. My answer was always the same: “when it stops being fun to go into the classroom and play with the kids!” I meant that sincerely. To me, learning has long been a game to be played in ways that can tease identifiable patterns and regularities out of the complexities of the universe; so as to provide us with the understanding that allows us to function in and enjoy life.

My all-time favorite professor of anything was Malcolm Sharp, with whom I studied law at the University of Chicago. He helped me learn that the most effective way to understand anything was through constantly improving the depth and quality of the questions we bring to the subject. Unfortunately, the institutionalized school systems – along with the formal institutions that insist upon their structured curricula – emphasize the importance of students learning to confine their inquiries to the search for answers. For our minds and bodies to be useful to the purposes of the established order, we must be in a position to help resolve its questions and problems, not to wander off pursuing curiosities of our own. Matters that concern only us are forms of entropic waste; energy otherwise unavailable for institutional work.

Boundaries of Order: P... Butler Shaffer Best Price: $7.54 Buy New $11.95 (as of 06:30 EST - Details) Most of my students – and far too many of my colleagues – insisted upon the kind of rote, programmed learning that is indistinguishable from training. One sees the same attraction in parents who judge the quality of their children’s education by results received from standardized testing. If Johnny or Sally score in the upper 5% of test takers, their parents believe, their children are on their way to success in academia, or to careers in the professional world. And, of course, the schools that can help them achieve such results are to be valued and rewarded with increased financial support. To such thinking, the purpose of most schools is to turn students into successful test-takers, so that their skills and other learning can be certified to other members of the institutional order. Thus are high school graduates validated to marketplace employers and colleges; college graduates endorsed to advanced levels of academia, etc. The established order is premised on the pyramidal model, and the higher one can ascend into that order, the greater the likelihood for economic and social success. If standardized test scores are the criteria by which students’ work is to be measured; and if teaching students what to think, and thus become successful test-takers, is the most effective strategy for accomplishing such ends; school systems will become dominated by such purposes. Students, parents, teachers, and school administrators share the understanding that the cause uniting them is to help students internalize that body of knowledge that will result in their getting favorable results on tests to which they will be subjected. Students who constantly receive failing grades, will no longer be allowed to remain in the system.

Those corruptions of learning known as “political correctness,” “speech codes,” or other forms of mandated/prohibited expression, are the logical extension of formalized learning premised on students being taught what to think. The failure of a student to use the proper pronoun in addressing a transgender classmate, may be subjected to more severe punishments than from his failure to correctly conjugate the verb “hablar” in a Spanish class.

Some students figure out the nature of the game being played at their expense. Steve Jobs expressed his early awareness of the system: “I encountered authority of a different kind than I had ever encountered before, and I did not like it. And they really almost got me. They came close to really beating any curiosity out of me.” Curiosity is precisely what the institutional order finds dangerous in minds, be they young or old. Curiosity raises questions, and questions are disruptive of the status quo. In the traditional model of school systems, it is the role of the teacher to be the keeper of the questions permitted in the classroom.

An alternative model for schooling is based not on indoctrinating students in a prescribed body of knowledge, ideas, and skills, but in providing an environment in which students learn how to think and analyze. While all significant learning involves the acquiring of substantive knowledge – i.e., what to think [e.g., the multiplication tables, events in history, the “laws” of nature, literary works, etc.] – independent and creative minds and behavior can arise only from students enjoying an existential control over the processes of their own thinking. Being free to ask their own questions, challenge the ideas of others – no matter how revered, to individually reason to their own conclusions, or to create their own hypotheses to be explored, are traits far more beneficial not only to the persons exercising them, but to mankind generally by enlarging the base of knowledge and understanding. As with sound parenting, the best approach to helping children learn must include knowing when to stay out of their way! A Libertarian Critique... Butler Shaffer Best Price: $864.56 Buy New $5.50 (as of 12:15 EST - Details)

The means by which I conducted my classes involved encouraging my students to distinguish between simply accumulating factual answers to questions, and the understanding that arises only from improving the depth and quality of the questions one brings to an inquiry. This is what is known as the “Socratic” process of learning. On any given day, students would have been expected to read anywhere from one to three Supreme Court cases. I would then ask one of them to discuss one of the cases, following which I would begin modifying the facts of that case and ask the student whether such a factual change would likely have changed the court’s decision in any meaningful way.

One morning I asked a student to recite a case – which she did in a competent manner – but, after she finished she asked: “but how could this be squared with [another case] we had discussed before?” I was very pleasantly surprised by her response; here was a “keeper,” I thought to myself, a student who was already thinking steps ahead of where I expected students to be. I spoke with this young woman after class, and she told me, among other things, that she had been “home-schooled” until high-school; that the best teachers she ever had had been her parents. Upon her graduation from law school, she went to work in the same law firm as my daughter, where her knowledge, writing, and analytical skills were highly valued by the other lawyers in the firm who invariably wanted her to work with them on complicated cases.

What this young woman had accumulated in her learning was not a collection of “facts” or “answers” to questions developed, Socratically, from classroom hypotheticals; but from an understanding of legal concepts that arose from treating these classroom exercises as games that produced minds that had learned how to think.

This student was not unique among all my other students. The brighter students I was fortunate to have in my classes shared with her not only the skills to play these learning games, but a love of the challenge of playing them. On any given day, a visit to one of my classrooms would allow the visitor to see the game being played. With, perhaps, two or three court cases providing the starting point, the continuing addition to, subtraction from, or other factual modifications, would produce hypotheticals from which students might develop an understanding of how a bright, creative lawyer might help a court find the boundary lines to identify just how far a legal concept might extend.

At the end of a class session, I would invariably get questions from some of my students who had yet to learn to walk away from the traditional model of learning: “but what’s the answer?,” they would plead, to which I would respond: “What do you think has been the purpose of what we have been doing the past two hours? What’s the question?”