Friday, 2 July 2010

The Hubris of Teachers and the Uncertainty of Learners

"One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision." -Bertrand Russell
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

In that all too familiar book of desert fables known as the Bible, Jesus is claimed to have said "Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed". What a wholly nonsensical statement it is to suggest that belief in anything unfounded by experience is preferable to empirical fact - he could just as well have said “Blessed are the ignorant, the misinformed and the impressionable”… oh, hold on a minute - he did say that. I don't really want to get caught up in a debate about religious scripture here but I do think there's a crucial difference between belief and scepticism which isn't simply a difference of quality or character but rather one with ontological implications: they affect people's being and their ability to both learn and to teach.

To believe something is to have certainty, and that certainty allows us to make further claims about things of which we are unsure. It allows us to establish firm foundations on which to build new knowledge and understanding and it gives us confidence to embark on unfamiliar journeys into more distant territories.

Scepticism leaves us wary, it asks us to be prudent and cautious and to avoid rash assumptions or decisions. It asks us to think carefully and to question and to test our conjectures. Scepticism is an energy intensive process but one from which we have a great deal to gain.

There’s a common perception about the innocence of children which suggests that they’re open to everything. Childrens' openness could equally be seen as an attitude in search of conventions and boundaries. Children constantly push boundaries of all kinds, they experiment, play and question incessantly and these forms of enquiry accumulate understanding based on testing and empirical experience but most particularly repetition and reinforcement. As children grow older they only remain open to everything in the sense that everything has the potential to reconfigure and recalibrate their understanding more accurately, and this is very similar for the rest of us, though, as adults, we tend to be a good deal more resistant to things which question or appear to threaten our hard-earned beliefs. Unlike children our beliefs and opinions are the product of a more extended process and are therefore necessarily things which we have greater difficulty in relinquishing, especially when we have invested time and effort in their establishment.
“The human understanding, when any preposition has been once laid down, (either from general admission and belief, or from the pleasure it affords,) forces every thing else to add fresh support and confirmation; and although more cogent and abundant instances may exist to the contrary, yet either does not observe or despises them, or gets rid of and rejects them by some distinction, with violent and injurious prejudice, rather than sacrifice the authority of its first conclusions.” – Francis Bacon
What is an argument but the contest of two differing opinions? If we have invested a great deal in the opinions which we hold dear then it’s not surprising that we should be unwilling to relinquish them. In an argument, we each seek to convince the other party of the superiority of our own beliefs. In a sense we seek to teach the other party and they us. In such highly charged situations, unless they're simply the product of misunderstanding, there's always either a victor and a vanquished or else two unreconciled positions.

Both children and students rarely argue with their teachers because, for the most part, their beliefs are too uncertain. That children are not good teachers is also due to their uncertainty, but children are undoubtedly the greatest learners because they have an appetite which makes a virtue of uncertainty and the insatiable quest to overcome it by all means at their disposal.

We may gather from this then that certainty makes a confident teacher… but not necessarily a good one. We might say that good teachers are people who are confident of what they know and who employ the most certain methods. But we might also say that the best teachers also know when to acknowledge uncertainty and to offer it up for scrutiny rather than concealing it beneath arrogance or a demand for blind faith.


Anonymous said...

Apart from theology teachers?

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