Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--Instruction

“I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go.” Psalm 32

Not long ago I talked to a friend who has been a middle-school math teacher for far longer than most people could maintain sanity in such a situation.  I asked him how he did it, and he told me that things had changed so much in education in the last several years that today holding forth in the classroom is almost an entirely new experience.

Come to think of it, holding forth isn’t the right language at all.  What he doesn’t do at all anymore is hold forth because education has become far, far less teacher-centered.  Lecture is a word long gone. Students don’t so much learn from teachers anymore as learn with them. 

Detect some cynicism?  Maybe so.  Pardon me for the unfounded generalization, but professional educators are as fad-driven as middle-schoolers, or so it seems to me.  Old birds like me can’t help but sound curmudgeonly.

Today, learning should be experiential, experts say.  Math, my friend told me, is being taught in conjunction with other disciplines, very practical things that students “do” in class.  Along with a science teacher, he might create a project, for instance, in which students calculate the amount of water that falls into a nearby pond as a result of a two-inch rainfall.  The math required for that project would be taught in connection with the project itself, not as a set of abstract principles.

The truth is, I had to adjust my early American literature syllabus some time ago already for several reasons, but one of them, surely, is that my friend’s ex-students have been coming to college for a few years now, and they’re uncomfortable—and not particularly good at—learning in the old way.  When I start lecturing what I see is boredom.  They crave experience.  They want me to shuttup.  As my granddaughter used to say, they want to do it “all by self.”  (I know I’m not being fair—forgive me.)

So the role of teacher has morphed from font of wisdom and learning (many of us liked being head honchos) to crafts coordinator (overlook the overstatement).  Education has become more communal, more democratic.  That’s not all bad, of course, but old birds like me don’t like our favorite trees felled.

What’s unmistakable, however, is the looks on their faces.  Lecture, and they fall asleep; give them a project and they come alive.  You can tell it.  Their enthusiasm—or lack thereof—is itself an experience in learning for someone like me.

We’ve entered a whole new rhetorical pattern in verse 8 of Psalm 32.  David is quiet, and it’s quite impossible not to note who is speaking—it’s the Lord.  Things have changed.  After David’s testimony, it’s God almighty promising leadership, promising to be the teacher, the instructor—and he’s doing it—mark this, please!!!—by lecturing.

But even an old bird like me can’t help but note what’s gone on this psalm so far because everything we’ve heard from the first few words has been (it hurts to say it) experiential, David’s testimony of how God retooled his psyche, freed him—body and soul—from sin’s bone-creaking bondage.

Maybe there’s a lesson there for old teachers.  God himself instructs by his Word and by his—and our own—deeds. 

Even old birds can learn new tricks, I guess.    

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