Teaching College, Polling Historians

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 2, 2004 | Go to article overview

Teaching College, Polling Historians


Byline: Martin Morse Wooster, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

For nearly three decades, there have been two competing schools of thought about the best way to teach in a college classroom. In the traditional method, the teacher lectures and the students take notes. The more permissive alternative has a teacher trying to be the students' friend, and having lessons that are more like conversations and less like lessons.

Both are flawed approaches which don't ensure that students learn anything. A more traditional professor can certainly compel students to obey, and to regurgitate crammed knowledge on tests. But he can't force students to learn, and crammed knowledge is swiftly forgotten once exams are over. The notion of the professor as a "huggy-bear" sort of friend isn't constructive, either, since students who don't have to work to get a grade won't put in the effort required to learn.

Two new books address the question of how to motivate students to learn. In Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind (Yale University Press, $29.95, 277 pages), Gerald Graff, an English professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, comes up with ways that his fellow English teachers can do a better job in the classroom.

In What the Best College Teachers Do (Harvard University Press, $21.95, 190 pages), Ken Bain, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at New York University, offers a great many interesting suggestions for how teachers can improve their classroom skills.

But Mr. Graff swiftly moves from cultural analysis to practical advice about what college professors should teach. He argues that his fellow English teachers should teach students how to argue, and how to examine different texts using the critical tools that scholars use. Much of this book consists of arguments about why teachers should train students to debate ideas.

But Mr. Graff's analysis is too restrictive. He assumes that the methods of the English teacher are the only ones worth examining. It's possible that a better model for teachers is the historian, who weighs and judges factual evidence. And Mr. Graff has nothing to say about how science teachers ought to do their jobs. Because of this restricted scope, "Clueless in Academe" has very little practical advice.

Ken Bain, in contrast, does a much better job in analyzing successful teaching. He begins with this premise: Most college graduates had one or two great teachers, who successfully persuaded them that Plato or medieval English history was worth close scrutiny.

For instance, generations of students at Baylor University made sure to take courses with historian Ralph Lynn; his classes, said Texas' former Governor Ann Richards decades after she took them, were "magical tours into the great minds and movements of history."

What makes the Ralph Lynns of the academic world so memorable? To find out, Mr. Bain and his colleagues, after many years of research, identified about 100 exceptional teachers. …

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