On the Modes of Teaching

by Jeffrey Bond

The practice of teaching is without a doubt the guiding compass of human society.  Nothing else so reliably and powerfully governs the trajectory of a community as the formation of its young people and the determination of their habits of thought.  This is why Plato, in Book VIII of his Republic, identifies a failure to educate properly as the root cause of the degradation of the just city.  Today at the Josias, we offer the first in a series of posts on the different methods of teaching.
– The Editors

To educate man is the art of arts,
for he is the most complex and mysterious of all creatures.
–St. Gregory Nazianzen

Concerning teaching, Catholic educators must take their bearings from St. Paul’s exhortation to Timothy:

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths (4:1-4).

With the above in mind, we wish to explain our understanding of teaching and the employment of its different modes. In the first part of this essay we will explain and distinguish the lecture, tutorial, and the seminar modes of teaching. In the second part we will set forth the way in which these different modes should be used according to their relative strengths and weaknesses. In the third and final part we will present guidelines concerning the relationship among teacher, students, text, and truth; and we will do so in light of certain methodological problems characterizing the different modes of teaching.


The Lecture

The word “lecture” comes from the Latin lectus, the perfect passive participle of the Latin verb legere, which means “to pick out” or “to read.” A lecture, then, is literally something “picked out” or “read.” Certainly it is true that lectures are often read rather than delivered from memory or given extemporaneously; but whether or not a lecture is actually read, it always has the quality of something read insofar as the lecturer must “pick out” in advance the material he intends to present in an uninterrupted manner. In fact the lecturer must carefully select beforehand not only what he will say but also the order in which he will say it. If the lecturer desires to have his students come to the knowledge that he himself possesses, he must prepare his material in such a way as to lead his students through the steps that their minds must follow. Hence the lecturer must consider beforehand how to lead his students from what they already know to what they do not yet know. If the lecturer is to teach, that is, if he is to cause knowledge to come to be in the souls of his students, he must reproduce the proper order of learning by which he himself discovered what he previously did not know. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, “one person is said to teach another inasmuch as, by signs, he manifests to another the reasoning process which he himself goes through by his own natural reason” (De Magistro).

The virtue of the lecture mode is that it allows the teacher to lead his students systematically from ignorance to knowledge. Because the lecturer can order his arguments in advance and choose appropriate illustrations, he can demonstrate the clarity and internal beauty of a given subject matter. This in turn can attract and order the minds of listeners who thereby develop the intellectual habit of carefully following the reasoning of another.

The primary weakness of the lecture mode is that the teacher—even if he himself possesses perfect knowledge—cannot anticipate all of the problems and questions his students may have. At best he can set forth the common obstacles that a student may face. This is the manner in which St. Thomas Aquinas proceeds, outlining objections to his own position as prelude to resolving a given question.

This being said, it remains that a student’s difficulties may be quite idiosyncratic. Indeed, a student may not see how his own objection was in fact raised and addressed by the lecturer himself. Difficulties of this sort may thus prevent a student from perfectly following the reasoning of the lecturer. Furthermore, once the chain of reasoning has been broken for a student, he can at best seize upon only the lecturer’s conclusions. He will not have grasped the arguments upon which those conclusions rest. As a result the student may indeed have acquired right opinion, but he will not have achieved genuine knowledge. Moreover, rather than develop proper docility toward the teacher – and especially toward the truth – the student may instead succumb to a certain passivity, one disposing him to shirk an active role in his own learning. This danger is especially evident in our own times when the habit of passivity is daily fostered through television, movies, video games, and spoon-fed “education.”

There is another serious weakness in the lecture mode of teaching. Even if the student has followed the lecturer’s reasoning, the lecture mode itself cannot compel the student to establish the lecturer’s knowledge as his own. True, the best students may rehearse the reasoning process for themselves and for others. Yet it would be naive to expect most students to do likewise. Even should some attempt such, there is no guarantee that someone will be present to correct mistakes or challenge arguments. In sum, insofar as reasoning and exposition belong to practical knowledge, the lecture mode does not guarantee that a student will subsequently reason well by himself, let alone explain his reasoning to others.

The Tutorial

The word “tutorial” comes from the Latin tutor. The latter means “watcher, protector or defender,” and is itself related to the verb tueor, “to see, to look or gaze upon, to behold, to regard, to consider, to examine.” Etymologically speaking, then, it is clear why—as opposed to the lecturer—the tutor has generally been understood to be a teacher working with one or a small number of students. If he is to “watch” or “consider” his students closely, the tutor cannot do so with large numbers. If he is to protect students from error, he must work with them as individuals and not as a crowd. That the tutor addresses fewer students than the lecturer, however, does not in itself distinguish him from the latter. After all, one can as easily lecture to few as to many. Nevertheless, by virtue of the smaller number of students in his charge, the tutor can consider a student’s opinions, questions, and objections as they arise. Hence, whereas the lecturer must “pick out” his material and order it prior to his lecture, the tutor is free from the beginning to question his students. This in turn allows for a more immediate and thorough grasp of what his students already know or do not know.

As previously noted, a lecturer can anticipate the opinions, questions, and objections of his audience. He can skillfully weave these into the fabric of his lecture. Nonetheless, though he may entertain a spontaneous question or two during the body of his address, the lecturer cannot remain in the lecture mode if he is perpetually open to interrupting questions. Indeed to the extent that he is open to interruptions, he is not lecturing. By contrast, from beginning to end the tutor operates according to a more informal give-and-take with his students. It is a give-and-take arising from the particular needs of the students themselves. This is so even when it is the tutor, rather than the students, who himself identifies those needs through astute questioning. Accordingly the tutor may move freely backward or forward on the path to knowledge according to the specific difficulties confronting his students.

In contrast, the lecturer cannot readily evaluate the particular needs of his audience, and this even if he periodically reminds his audience of what he has earlier concluded. At best he can speculate about when to repeat himself or when to clarify. When viewed in this light, the tutorial stands to the lecture as the spoken word to the written word. As Plato demonstrates in the Phaedrus, the spoken word can teach souls more perfectly because it can respond differently to different people, whereas the written word, when questioned, merely repeats itself over and over again (274c-278d).

True to the etymology of the name, then, the tutor is one who “looks at” and “examines” the student with respect to what the student knows and does not know. The tutor, like the lecturer, must know the subject he teaches; but the tutor does not unfold this knowledge in a formal and direct manner. The tutor is therefore free to engage his students at their own level. This is essential: the teacher is no more able to transfer knowledge into the minds of his students than is the physician to transfer health into the bodies of his patients. The physician’s art must imitate and assist nature’s own healing processes. Likewise, because the mind is ordered by nature to truth just as the body is ordered by nature to health, the teacher must imitate and assist the natural processes of reasoning. To quote again St. Thomas Aquinas: “Just as the doctor is said to heal a patient through the activity of nature, so a man is said to cause knowledge in another through the activity of the learner’s own natural reason, and this is teaching” (De Magistro) (emphasis added). This being understood, we see that the tutor can assist nature more effectively than a lecturer. The tutor can examine his “patients” on a case-by-case basis. Hence, he can more easily determine their weaknesses and more easily apply fitting remedies.

Like the physician, the best way for a teacher to examine his students is by asking questions designed to expose common problems. By asking his students questions rather than presenting answers, the tutor’s mode of teaching—as compared to the lecturer’s—is indirect. The tutor’s questions compel students to exercise their own minds and to reason by their own lights. Here it helps to recall the Platonic notion that education does not consist in bestowing intellectual vision so much as in “turning” the mind’s eye, namely, directing the mind’s eye toward reality or truth (Republic 518b-d). In his dialogues Plato also shows that this turning—literally a conversion—is achieved best through conversation. The tutor knows that his students share but do not yet clearly see the common notions about reality that are in all men. With skillful questioning he can help students grasp these fundamental notions, notions that are the starting points of all knowledge. By asking the right questions in the right order, the tutor can lead students to the knowledge of the arts and sciences grounded upon these starting points, or first principles.

Although the tutor proceeds in a less formal and direct manner than the lecturer, the tutor’s questioning-method is anything but random. Indeed his questions arise from knowing both the subject matter and, by means of his questions, his students’ intellectual condition. Stated otherwise, by so-to-speak directing indirectingly, the tutor himself is guided by the intrinsic order of the subject matter. In treating of the various arts and sciences he knows and proceeds according to what is antecedent and what is consequent.

The Seminar

The word “seminar” derives from the Latin seminarium, a seedbed. Hence a seminar is meant to be seminal with respect to learning. It contains and contributes “seeds” for fertilization and growth.

Here we note that, unlike the words “lecturer” and “tutor,” there exists no English word for the teacher who employs the seminar method. Indeed the word “seminarian” denotes not the teacher but the student. This etymological peculiarity indicates that the seminar method focuses upon the students while the teacher seeks not to engender knowledge but to prepare the ground thereof. This preparation in turn entails a more active exchange among the students themselves. It is an exchange wherein students struggle to uncover and express the principles and developments of knowledge.

Unlike the lecturer, the seminar teacher does not guide students by unfolding formally what he himself already knows. Neither does he, as the tutor does, closely question students to correct their thinking so that they may attain certain knowledge. Instead the seminar teacher encourages students to wrestle with fundamental problems, problems with which every student must struggle if he is to make a good beginning in any discipline. The seminar teacher therefore leads more by raising questions than by providing answers.

Again, as opposed to both the lecture and the tutorial, the proximate end of the seminar is not the acquisition of knowledge. Rather it is the development of habits requisite for discovering and expressing reasoned opinion. This is not to say that the seminar teacher and his students can be indifferent to knowledge. After all, one of the fundamental lessons students must learn from seminar is not to confuse verbal victory with knowledge of truth. This being said, it remains that in seminar genuine knowledge is an accidental outcome. The seminar’s essential purpose is to develop skills in reasoning and speaking, skills without which the student normally cannot progress in knowledge, whether this knowledge be of a general or specific kind.

From the perspective of the teacher, then, the seminar is a practical training ground for the three verbal arts which the Medievals called the trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. And yet if the student’s training is to be meaningful, the material upon which he exercises his mind must be of the sort to prepare him eventually to acquire knowledge. The Great Books, about which we will have more to say, serve this purpose well. They serve it well because they effectively raise the questions every mind confronts in its search for wisdom.

If the primary weakness of the lecture is that it can instill passivity, the primary weakness of the seminar is that it can inspire students with a false sense of intelligence and intellectual progress. Moreover, because the seminar can dissolve readily into meaningless chat or merely verbal battle inspired by love of victory, it can lead frustrated students into misology; it can tempt them with hatred of argument or logos itself. This is a danger, grave and always present, about which Plato, in order to forestall the death of logos, has the soon-to-die Socrates warn us in the Phaedo (89d-91c). It is a danger the seminar teacher must always bear in mind.

(To be continued.)