Messy teaching

An interesting relationship has been investigated here: Messy Learning vs. Messy Training.

This reminds me of my own years of study where most of the teaching was done not by passionate, adept, or skilled teachers but by researchers who often did the introductory courses as an onerous rotational duty. In such cases we learned solely from the textbooks, and the only benefit of attending the class was pacing (which subject matter to learn in which week), and emphasis (which matter seemed to be most relevant).

And still I have some fondness for the “oneness of teaching and research” that is so famous in the Humboldtian university – why is that?

Let’s look at both extremes of the teaching spectrum:

  • introductory courses, with lots of stuff in the curriculum that needs to be memorized because it is the basis for so much subsequent learning that it must be known by heart (for orientation, like north and south), and cannot quickly enough be looked up in a reference book or on the web;
  • and the last semesters, when subject matter is very specialized, and can be taught only by few experts, no matter how poor their pedagocical skills may be.

During this latter phase, two kinds of informal learning happen:

  • to cope with the messy teaching and the lacking scaffold and structure, the students have to become very autonomous, and they learn how to learn in a very self-directed way;
  • with a researcher career in mind, scientific apprenticeship may happen, by watching the senior master and “journeymen” researchers.

I believe that the former of these experiences has been the major competitive advantage for higher education alumni to be hired for many generations, at least in my country. It is not the subject matter knowledge, despite the perpetual affirmations that the importance of factual knowledge were the reason for the perpetual increase of content of the curriculum.

Over here, there has always been a certain reservation against too much concrete, pragmatic, ready-for-use knowledge in the curriculum (in German, “Ausbildung” ~ training, as opposed to “Bildung” ~ education), probably because this concrete knowledge wears out within a few years, while the above-mentioned autonomous “learning how to learn” is more sustainable.

But ironically, the more of specialized knowledge will be required, the more probably it will be taught by the messy-teacher (researcher) variant, and the more of autonomous learning skills need to be developped by the students. So it looks as if it were a good idea to stuff more and more factual knowledge into the heads of the older students. At the same time, the confusion grows about how much rote learning is then useful in which stage of the studies, how much research-orientation is justifiable, and how much adaptation to practice is necessary.

(For good measure, the Bologna process commands that the sequence of scientific fundaments and practical orientation has to be reversed. So the prerequisite knowledge transfer of the first years is heavily condensed, especially in the subsidiary subjects to get them soon out of the way. And the demands in the later years are increased, as well, to keep the ambitious theoretical standards set by the above habits, while adding practical emphasis. Only the salaries are, of course, much lower for a BA than for a former Diplom holder. )

So, I think the temporal and quantitative mix of neat and messy teaching is currently a bit too disarranged (messy) over here. But in principal, both have their place at the respective ends of the studies period: In the beginning, it is, IMO, not optimal to require too much independent “foraging” for the knowledge “food” (after all, there is an evolutional advantage for mammals to be fed in the beginning). And at the end of the study (albeit much later than presently usual), there is some use for messy teaching, and for teaching done by researchers.

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