I went to a lockdown garHaHaHaden party on Saturday arvo. It was pretty weird, of course, trying to maintain a semblance of physical distancing while catching up with the crew I worked with during the 00s. Everyone really needed a hug but nobody was getting one. The ostensible reason for the knees-up was that we were all moving on. One couple was off the Middle East; someone else was going back to Cambridge MA [code for Harvard]; another was coming out of maternity leave; and another was returning to UCD as a Professor and Senior Fellow; . . . and me of course: I R retire!
Without a great deal of evidence, two of the no-longer-quite-youngsters were saying that I was a great teacher and asking what was the key to that success. I was caught a bit wrong-footed by this tribute, but I fluffed something about supervising several dozen final year research projects over the last seven year. The students involved had a very wide range of abilities from our very best to the walking wounded. But I'd like to think that everybody involved, including notably myself, got something out the process. As the project is allocated a nominal 180 contact hours over the 30 week teaching year, you'd better hope that it wasn't a total busted flush! The self-starting highly motivated kids didn't need any help: just an occasional nudge to get them back on track. And everyone has an existential crisis at some stage in the developing project: so there will be a bit of judicious buttering and sometimes a metaphorical knee firmly in the base of the spine to get them to stand a bit prouder of what they'd achieved. And the weaker students, some of them quite damaged, some of them bone idle and none of them knowing much? Well they were swept forward with the same philosophy I applied to Dau.I and Dau.II when they were educating themselves at home. And one thing that works is to listen to what the kids have to say; rather than steaming through with my own narrative. It takes dollop of humility to acknowledge that teacher don't know everything and that everyone knows something that you don't and you can always learn. What you learn might be nothing to do with science but might be about courage, resilience and compassion. It was only by giving space on the floor that I encountered someone who had milked a camel.
That talk about getting people to fulfill their potential . . . and a little bit more, led inevitably to our boss by whom we'd all been mentored and for whom we engineered a national prize for getting the best out of her human resources.
But with l'esprit d'escalier driving home that evening, I expanded on the idea that teacher not knowing everything is a really important part of allowing students to have agency it their own learning. IF you can't be told what the answer is, or you can't work it out from teachers unconscious clues, THEN you have to find out for yourself. It was definitely like this when they asked me to teach second year physics: I knew far less than the students - who had the benefit of passing 1st year physics which I had conspicuously failed to do in high school. But it was the most tremendous fun finding out what the answers were.
As I prepare to leave the stage, I'm convinced that the content of most lectures is the least important part of the process. If think about it, what is the point of telling anyone something that can be found out in 3 minutes on Wikipedia? Coronarama will be an opportunity for many of us to stop lecturing like we're the Oracle and the other people in the room are tasked to take notes. It will be much more rewarding to make everyone in the room think about what the key issues are and use those deliberations to reflect on what we collectively need to discover to address those key issues. What the teacher knows might be part of that; but it's not the whole answer and it's going to be goddamn boring if the teacher is merely chanelling the certainties of their own teachers . . . and so recursively back to . , , Aristotle, Boyle, Charles, Dalton or one of the boys (it was mostly boys) who actually found out what the answer was.