The Student as Teacher

The Student as Teacher

K. Titchenell

(Reprinted with permission)

Faced with unanimity among teachers, together with the unthinking collusion of gullible parents, whatever incipient brilliance there might be in the child has little hope of ever developing once the yoke of canonical tutelage is established.

The parents of a four-year-old girl give her a series of a dozen or so small poetry books only to discover that she has memorized them and can recite non-stop for most of an hour. The parent of a four-year-old clamoring for cello lessons acquires a cello and finally finds a teacher willing to start teaching a child of that age. The week before his first lesson and before the teacher could interfere, this aspiring cellist teaches himself the entire prelude to the first Bach cello suite. Fortunately, these two were homeschooled, both by parents and in a collaborative homeschooling environment where individual and idiosyncratic desires to achieve are appreciated and encouraged in whatever form they may manifest themselves. It was a delight teaching these two homeschoolers, one of whom went straight to college from homeschool and graduated early with a major in English and the other went on to perform around the world, making his Carnegie Hall debut at 10.

Bad habits may not be the worst thing that can happen

So many teachers, in keeping with tradition, would rush in to prevent the student from reading ahead, from learning a new piece, or from attempting an advanced technique on the grounds that doing so may pose a danger, that such unconventional study could result in the acquisition of bad habits – unfortunate hand position, sloppy technique, mispronunciation, improper breathing, etc. – but, though such dangers are often cited in defense of traditional teaching methods, they are a minor risk in comparison to the utter catastrophe of replacing natural exuberance and love of learning with enforced plodding mediocrity.

The expert, teacher, and student roles may be assigned differently

The teacher is expected to be proficient in two ways. (S)he must possess knowledge of the subject and must also know how to teach it, yet expertise in the subject matter and the ability to determine how best to impart that knowledge to a particular student are two entirely different things. It is an unfortunate but undeniable fact that traditions in pedagogy do not exist because they are maximally effective; they exist because they are favored by educators and administrators, often for reasons that have nothing to do with education.

Though the roles of expert and pedagogue have been historically combined together, the roles of expert, student and teacher may well be rearranged in other perfectly workable ways – three people: the expert, the teacher (a parent perhaps), and the student, or two: the expert, and the student, who also serves as his or her own teacher.

Many homeschoolers become self-teachers and quickly discover that they can learn many subjects from a book, video or computer program as easily as from a teacher. Add an accessible expert into the mix for an occasional consult, and the environment is complete.

Traditional methods can stifle learning unconsciously and invisibly

Many fundamental assumptions about how the teaching process should work have originated not from a desire to teach most effectively, but from a need to keep classes in compliance with guidelines and goals, and a desire to make the job of teachers as comfortable and trouble-free as possible, while maintaining their position of dominance and superiority.

An innate art of learning can be powerful and obvious or it may be latent, awakened only by accident or experimentation. However, in either case it can easily be eradicated by a pedant using a “method.” Faced with unanimity among teachers, together with the unthinking collusion of gullible parents, whatever incipient brilliance there might be in the child has little hope of ever developing once the yoke of canonical tutelage is established.

Perhaps the best teacher is one who puts aside the lesson plan (or may not even have one)

Well-meaning, sincere teachers generally come in several flavors, ranging from those who are always well prepared and cover the entire syllabus to those who cover little or nothing — at great length and endlessly repeated to the exclusion of other subject matter. Then there is the teacher who, though generally well prepared, is ready to abandon the lesson plan the instant (s)he recognizes that something pedagogically magical is happening that is far more important than established procedure.

Unlike set, unvarying, though comprehensive lectures, and very unlike repetitious ritual litany, a teacher with a somewhat improvisatory style can, to a large extent, allow students to be their own teachers and can foster rather than dampen their enthusiasm by putting them at the helm of their own education. This approach can prepare the student for further education, career, and a life of autonomous learning but is vehemently disparaged by those teachers to whom sharing the pedagogic mantle with students would be an abhorrent threat to their authority.

Teaching flexibly takes courage

The teacher whose first priority is to impart skill and knowledge as effectively as possible is a rarity and the decision to challenge the age-old teacher/student relationship requires a great deal of courage – courage not just to face the possibly of making mistakes or displaying ignorance before the class, but courage to endure the censure of peers who would never dream of putting themselves in such a vulnerable position and who are quick to condemn anyone who would. Such a heretical approach to pedagogy is the ultimate anathema to those many professors who wield their authority readily and forcefully, frequently in response to a need to conceal their incompetence.

The expert learner can often make the most of any environment

Most teachers rarely see the remarkable skill acquisition of which students are capable. It is far too easily destroyed with admonitions like: “Read only the part of the book that has been assigned.” “You’re not ready to try that yet.” “Who’s the teacher here?” “There is a right way and a wrong way.” and many more. However, whether in the classroom or a self-study environment, the homeschooler can become an expert learner and can often evade the dull, numbing influence of traditional pedagogy; and when such a student finds a teacher who can aid in the process, wonderful things can be accomplished.