The Modes of Teaching (Part II)

by Jeffrey Bond

Today we continue our series on the different methods of teaching.  Part I of Jeffrey Bond’s essay was posted yesterday, and Part III will follow tomorrow.
– The Editors


The Primary Mode: Tutorial

From the foregoing we conclude that the tutorial represents a sort of mean. It is a mean between the lecture and the seminar, one employing the strengths while avoiding the weaknesses of each.

Regarding strengths: with the lecture the tutorial shares the sine qua non of teaching, namely, that it is ordered not to opinion but knowledge. At the same time, however, the tutorial shares with the seminar the indirect method of teaching through questions compelling students to think for themselves. Regarding weaknesses: the tutorial avoids the passivity that lectures can engender. Yet it also prevents discussions from degenerating into irrelevance or merely verbal battles, as can easily happen in seminar.

One might object that the tutorial is really possible only when teaching on a one-to-one basis. It is true that in some respects this arrangement might seem ideal, especially for a gifted student who could proceed rapidly with a teacher undistracted by the difficulties of weaker students. Nonetheless, in certain respects a one-to-one relationship of teacher to student is less than ideal. There are genuine benefits to the intellectual life when a small group of minds consider together the same question. Not only do teacher and students experience the quest and acquisition of knowledge as a good that is common to all, but they also discover that the opinions, questions, and objections raised by others, even the less gifted, are instrumental to deepening their own understanding. Indeed in attempting to address positions set forth by classmates, students must articulate and refine the knowledge they have already come to possess in some measure.

Rather than impeding acquisition of knowledge, a small group of students is positively desirable inasmuch as students, guided by the tutor, work together to discover what is true. As students struggle with the tutor’s questions and their own differing views, they participate in their own learning. It is essential for the tutor, then, to encourage students to direct their arguments not just toward himself, but also toward each other. He must not intervene to do their thinking for them. Instead he must assist students to achieve knowledge for themselves. Only thus will students really see at all. From this it follows that, occasionally, the tutor must leave his students perplexed, in a condition Plato describes as the travail of psychic childbirth (Theaetetus 150b-151d).

From the foregoing we conclude that the tutorial mode is, all things considered, the best mode of teaching, and therefore it should be the primary mode of teaching at any liberal arts institution. One could object that the lecturer can be an equally effective teacher. Yet such an objection itself indicates the tutorial is best, and this especially inasmuch as a lecturer excels to the degree that he raises questions anticipatory of students’ objections. Further evidence of the superiority of the tutorial method is that, whenever appropriate, the tutor may employ the mode of either lecture or seminar. The reverse, however, is not true for the lecturer. He cannot equally employ the tutorial mode. As for the seminar, inasmuch as its proximate end is not knowledge but practice in discovering and expressing reasoned opinion, it is a mode of teaching in an analogous sense only.

The Auxiliary Modes: Lecture and Seminar

Despite the inherent weaknesses of lecture and of seminar, both should play a significant role in any liberal arts curriculum. One must often use the lecture method, for example, in the study of history because students generally cannot master all of the facts necessary to participate productively in a history tutorial or seminar. To compensate for the danger of passivity, however, these lectures should be followed by a question and answer period. In addition to formal lectures, an informal lecture mode should be judiciously employed in any tutorial or seminar when the difficulty of the subject matter requires it.

The seminar method should be used primarily in a class by that name. Such would be the sole place in the curriculum where a course is named not by a definite subject matter but by the methodology employed. This indicates, again, how the seminar is not strictly speaking ordered to knowledge. It is instead ordered to developing habits requisite to discovering and expressing reasoned opinion. Although both tutorial and seminar can be said to belong to the genus of teaching, the specific difference between them is the end for which they are employed. This difference in end is reflected in both the choice of texts and the more extended length of the readings for the seminar classes. While the texts of the seminar should normally be Great Books, these are nonetheless books from which a teacher would not intend to harvest a definite body of knowledge. Rather these books would be used both to sow and to fertilize the seeds of knowledge. From this less restricted end it follows that in seminar longer readings would not only be permissible but indeed desirable and normative.

In tutorials, on the other hand, one would generally read shorter selections from which to gather a definite conceptual harvest. Indeed, tutorials require that students not leave the classroom each day with their minds full of mere opinion about the subject matter. Inasmuch as a sure grasp of these arts is essential to progressing intellectually, the teacher must more firmly direct the tutorial than the seminar.

Here we note that the seminar develops skills in reasoning and exposition, and does so in part to improve the quality of student participation in the tutorial. If a student is not given the wider forum of the seminar for developing such skills, we cannot expect him to express himself well in the tutorials. There will therefore be times when, if the material allows it, the tutorial teacher conducts class more in the manner of a seminar. Conversely, there will be times in seminar when the difficulty of the material compels the teacher to adopt a tutorial mode.

Although the tutorial and seminar differ in kind (insofar as the former aims at knowledge and the latter at reasoned opinion), from the perspective of students and observers there may appear to be a difference in degree only. This misperception arises because, while the tutorial and seminar differ formally, they are quite alike materially. Both employ the same elements of Great Books, a teacher posing questions about these books, and students in conversation seeking answers to such questions. And indeed, with regard to these material elements the difference between seminar and tutorial is only one of degree: in seminar the readings are longer and the students give greater direction to the discussion; in tutorial the readings are shorter and the discussion is guided more closely by the questions of the tutor. Nevertheless, with regard to their respective formal ends there is a difference not of degree but of kind. In the tutorial the teacher questions for the sake of helping students see what they must see. In the seminar he questions for the sake of helping students practice what they must practice. In the tutorial the teacher strives for knowledge. In the seminar he strives for rational habits and opinions propaedeutic to such.

Given this difference between tutorial and seminar, it is appropriate whenever possible for a tutorial to conclude with a resume, given by either student or tutor, which draws together the key points of the discussion. If the discussion has not led to definite conclusions, the resume should at least delineate the main problem as it stands and the most reasonable solutions thus far proposed. Either during or after the resume, the tutor will often find it necessary to give a certain polish to the conclusions that are reached so that the students leave the classroom with a clear grasp of what has been achieved as well as what has been left undone.

(To be continued.)