Anti-Teaching

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An excerpt from a contribution to the Savage Mind anthropology blog.

Michael Wesch:

“Teaching is about providing good information. Anti-teaching is about inspiring good questions. Since all good thinking begins with a good question, it struck me that if we are ultimately trying to create “active lifelong learners” with “critical thinking skills” and an ability to “think outside the box” it might be best to start by getting students to ask better questions. Unfortunately, I didn’t know where to start. I have read and heard a great deal of advice on how to ask good questions of students – non-rhetorical, open-ended, etc. – but nobody has ever told me anything about how to get students to ask good questions.

When I talk about “good questions,” I mean the kind of questions that force students to challenge their taken-for-granted assumptions and see their own underlying biases. Oftentimes the answer to a good question is irrelevant – the question is an insight in itself. The only answer to the best questions is another good question. And so the best questions send students on rich and meaningful lifelong quests, question after question after question.

Unfortunately such great questions are rarely asked by students, especially in large mandatory introductory courses. Much more common are administrative questions such as, “What do we need to know for this test?” This may be the worst question of all. It reflects the fact that for many (students and teachers alike), education is a relatively meaningless game of grades rather than an important and meaningful exploration of the world in which we live and co-create. I don’t think it is the student’s fault for asking this question. As teachers we have created and continue to maintain an education system that inevitably produces this question. If we accept Dewey’s notion that people learn what they do, the lecture format which is the mainstay of teaching (especially in large introductory courses) teaches students to sit in neat rows and to respect, believe, and defer to authority (the teacher). Tests often measure little more than how well they can recite what they have been told. Hoping to memorize only just as much as necessary to succeed on the test, they ask that question I never want to hear – the one exception to the rule that “there is no such thing as a bad question.” Frustrated with this question, and hoping to get my students to ask better questions, I decided to get to work creating a learning environment more conducive to producing the types of questions that create lifelong learners rather than savvy test-takers.

Since I dedicated myself to this task, I have found myself slowly transforming from a teacher to an anti-teacher, developing methods that subvert the traditional lecture format and trying to create a learning environment more conducive to asking good questions. I eventually came to the conclusion that “teaching” is a hindrance to learning. The word, “teacher” in itself suggests that learning requires teaching. In fact, the best learning almost always occurs in the absence of a teacher, for it is then that students are free to pursue with great passion the questions that are meaningful and relevant to their own lives. Soon after I set out on this course I found a book that seemed to resonate with my philosophy, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. Borrowing from Marshal McLuhan’s famous aphorism, “the medium is the message,” Postman and Weingartner argue that the environment (or “medium”) of learning is more important than the content (the “message”) and therefor teachers should begin paying more attention to the learning environment they help to create. The emphasis is on “managing” this environment rather than teaching per se.

This is not in any way a cop out of “real” teaching. In fact, approaching a class of 400 as a “manager” is a tremendous task. It would be much easier to simply give in to tradition and deliver a standard lecture. But while the sheer numbers of students are a burden in one sense, there is also tremendous potential. Think of the knowledge and life experience that is in that single room, if only I could find a way to harness it! I wanted the students to be fully engaged, talking to one another, grappling with interesting questions, and exploring any and all resources to find answers (and more questions). I wanted them to really get a strong sense of the importance of what we discuss in cultural anthropology. I wanted them to expand their empathy, to actually try to experience the life-worlds of others. Above all, I wanted them to recognize their own importance in helping to shape an increasingly globally interconnected world society.” (http://savageminds.org/2006/04/02/a-brief-theory-of-anti-teaching/)