Eye" and Pedagogical Practice
©1999 Edward G. Rozycki
There is a long tradition in Western society that equates visibility with truth. The philosopher crawling from Plato's cave leaves behind the shadows of Illusion and turns to face the clear light of Reality. More than a millennium and a half later Descartes assures us that knowledge is built up from "clear and distinct" ideas. Even today education resounds with these ancient doctrines in its search for "clear objectives," or in its attempts at "values clarification."
Not only our philosophical classics, but our everyday idiom assures us that our understanding is a matter of what we take in with our "mind's eye." Have we ever smelled something with our "mind's nose," or touched it with our "mind's skin"? Have we heard it in our "mind's ear" or tasted it with our "mind's tongue?" That we find these awkward or ridiculous idioms is another indication of the strength of the tradition of visual metaphor.
When we either perceive or understand something, we say that we "see" it. As teachers we strive to make things "transparent" to our students. We may criticize their writing as "muddled," or "obscure." We rue their being "dim-witted" and take joy in a "bright" student, who is a "clear" thinker. We expect our principals and superintendents to have "foresight", an "eye for the facts" and, hopefully, "vision."
Why then do teachers at all levels talk so much? Isn't a picture "worth a thousand words"? Shouldn't all teachers be taught to incorporate illustration -- cartooning, at least -- into their presentations? Not only do teachers tend to underutilize visuals in their teaching in the middle and high schools, but university faculty (and students, too) tend to react to the use of visual aids with hardly disguised condescension. Rapid-fire garrulity is mistaken for eloquence; loquaciousness, for profundity of thought. Lips move and heads bob and understanding remains a grand presumption. Seminars are the talk-shows of higher education.
In the course of his or her professional preparation, every teacher has had the experience of having to listen to a long lecture on the evils of lecturing. Yet, lecturing is a high status activity: not only do professors do it almost exclusively, but, as Goodlad has shown, generally so do teachers down through middle school.
The visual metaphor has mislead us. It supports a naive model of language that "pictures" words to be like gemstones; sentences; necklaces; texts, tiaras. They are sufficient unto themselves, when properly presented, needing nothing in the way of context or reader interpretation to define or discover their truth. When espied in the mind's eye, truth is communicated; the recipient is an otherwise passive receptacle. The realities of my mind are "encoded", more or less mechanically, into language. This, in turn may be "encoded" into an orthography. You then employ similarly mechanistic, non-interpretational, "decoding" procedures to construct a parallel, -- congruent, even --reality in your own head. This is the model of understanding which has grown out of the visual metaphor. It is the basis for innumerable reading programs. It underlies many, many approaches to remediation in areas across the curriculum. It is profoundly mistaken.
Everything we have learned about the structure and psychology of language in the twentieth century indicates that language is not a passive reaction to clearly defined elements transmitted unproblematically from speaker to speaker or reader to reader. While there are patterns, there are just as well interpretations. A picture is worth a thousand words, but which thousand? Communication is a deep thing. It is not a transfer, but an experiment, a probing, an interaction. Our sentences, our texts are not chainings of discrete gemstones, but bubbles and ripples on the surface of a stream. And from their surface whirls and eddies we look to understand the deep flow of mind beneath them.
This is why learning a language is a lot more than memorizing word lists. Or why dictionaries seldom satisfy the deeply linguistically perplexed. Why then do teachers at all levels talk so much? There are some obvious explanations and they have little to do with promoting understanding.
First of all, lecture is a cheap "delivery method." It is not, however, an effective means of developing knowledge or skills in a great many people. But by their admissions procedures, our most prestigious high schools and universities select those students most likely to succeed in the lecture-pencil-and-paper-testing environment. These are the people celebrated by Arthur Jensen as having a high "g-factor." They are celebrated in our general culture as "the best and the brightest," the "geniuses." And they are celebrated by the financial officers of college and university -- where hundreds in a lecture hall are far from uncommon -- as producing the greatest surplus of tuition over cost.
Second, lecture is the easiest technique for the teacher to develop a modicum of skill at. It requires minimal preparation. A fast talker can "wing it" from time to time apparently undetected by his audience. And it minimizes contact with the audience, thereby reducing the danger of embarrassment by an overly prepared wise-guy trying to trap the professor with a clever question. By "painting pictures with words" to large groups one avoids having to plumb the depths of individual psyches to determine if understanding has occurred. It is no accident that multiple choice testing has been developed to support the lecture. Their "objectivity," we are told, assures transfer of hard gems of knowledge. And, again, they are cheap to administer and grade.
Third, and not the least important, the emphasis on lecture obscures the common perception that pedagogical skill is inversely related to level taught. You are far more likely to see good teaching at the primary level, than at the university. For all the talk to the contrary, teaching still ranks far behind research as the basis for status for university faculty. The enlightener of multitudes takes second place to the idiot savant. So it is that the emphasis on lecture sustains the status within the teaching profession of those least adept at teaching.
See sections on "authorship" and "understanding"
within the related article:
The Fractalization of Social Enterprise