It's what I did naturally but there was a method to the narcissism. It was a gangbusters approach: if only I'm ardent enough, insistent enough, I'll get this understanding into their heads, their bodies, their lives. There's at once a violence and a generosity implicit in the method just as there is always violence and generosity in any pedagogic situation — the generosity and violence of giving (it's there, more subtly, in gift giving, as well).
My son is at a new school — new for him as well as new in general, its first students started in 2011. It takes a different approach to pedagogy. They call their teachers "collaborators." The space itself is something to behold: 62 kids aged 5-18 broken into "bands" of around eight students, each inhabiting a cubby, a tree house, a loft amidst this warehouse. There are drills and saws and nails available; there's a computer lab; there's a small kitchen; there's a cork(ish) board floor with mats available for tumbling and such.
|This is one angle of my son's incredible school, Brightworks.|
The school and its teachers — its collaborators — create an environment for learning. There is no set curriculum but there are themes (called "arcs"; this year's is Rocks, Seeds, and Humans). They learn how to work together on projects; to plan and distribute responsibilities; they have a lot of work they do alone but for which they usually submit proposals that are then critiqued by peers and collaborators. Which is all to say, the school plays host.
One result, as far as I can tell, is that there are many lives of the party. The school seems filled with characters, students and collaborators alike, each doing their own thing while interacting with everyone else. There is no center, no gatekeeper of knowledge or grades (there are no grades per se, of course).
Two approaches to pedagogy, then: life of the party and host. No doubt, there is a cultural heritage of the former and a cultural bias for the latter. Schools are generally architected to have one teacher in the middle running the show; one problem that arises is that that teacher is bored or insane or vapid or stupid. And then the whole things goes to shit. We've all had those classes; no doubt, I've been that insane, stupid teacher.
Today, we have less tolerance for the one who would hold forth. We live in a culture of "likes" in which very few are willing to take center stage. And those who do are, more often than not, attacked mercilessly. We like to think, not erroneously, that everyone is special, that every person learns differently, that kids should be empowered to learn as they wish and want and are so inclined.
I don't disagree with either position, either model. And at a certain point, these two blur just as all dichotomies blur. I like to imagine that in my narcissistic ramblings, my insistence on my own voice being heard, that I created a certain environment, that I hosted a certain kind of party where learning could (and hopefully did) happen. Yes, it revolved around me. But I wasn't the cool, kick back host who sat in the corner sipping his Rémy with sycophants gathered at his feet. I tried to be the life of the party who touches everyone, influences everyone, gets everyone engaged, laughing, learning. Frankly, it's exhausting.
The host model takes a different approach. It puts in its work behind the scenes, before everyone's arrived, putting everything in its place, making snacks and drinks readily available, putting cocktail tables in just the right place.
Now, were I ever to host a party (which would mean I'd have friends: see earlier post on the inhuman social), I'd buy a bunch of booze, put out cups, and set everyone loose. And then, no doubt, I'd parade about holding forth on this and that.
The host model seems more efficient. Most notably, it's replicable. It doesn't turn on the personality of one person. But it also relies on the motivation and energy of the student which might very well be absent or in short supply. Then again, that's always the case, always a possibility.
When we think about teachers, we imagine lives of the party, even if they're often a tad curmudgeonly. I'm thinking of John Houseman in The Paper Chase and of Socrates, of course. And even Jesus, who could be a bit cranky. Which is to say, we imagine the teacher as a kind of storm, a whirling dervish, a strong personality. Kierkegaard argues that the teacher is everything (for Kierkegaard, that is what makes Christianity Christianity: if Socrates was a mid-wife, bringing about what we already know, Jesus is the essential factor that makes rebirth — repetition — possible. See his Philosophical Fragments).
But Brightworks, my kid's school, enacts a different model all together. They architect then hang back a bit, steering here and there, nudging but not dictating. Which can be hard for me at times. Often, my boy reads me his homework and, well, I take to it with said whirling, hurling questions, giving lectures, offering different models, poking and prodding with a certain vehemence. Which my self deprecation tells me is wrong but all my pedagogic instincts tell me is good and right.
Alas, like most things, I suppose the best pedagogy takes place within a well hosted environment punctuated now and again with a life of the party: a welcoming environment accompanied by a host not unafraid to demand you try his cocktail (to extend the metaphor, however awkwardly).
And yet the two modes involve fundamentally different modes of training with different sets of expectations, different ways of assessing success. But what is success in education, anyway? For me, it was always a mind blown, a new life view inaugurated — which I believed I could bring about through a relentless show. But surely there are other metrics and other ways.