In On the Teacher, St. Augustine of Hippo poses the following rhetorical question: “Who was ever so foolish as to send his child to school to learn what the teacher thinks?” The essential point I take from Augustine’s enduring philosophical statement on the proper role of the educator is that a good teacher fosters an environment in which students learn to think for themselves. While I freely acknowledge the intellectual debts I owe to all of the teachers who have taken the time to impart their knowledge and understanding of the world to me, now that I have some experience as a teacher in my own right, I find I must agree with St. Augustine that learning is not handed down from instructor to pupil, but is instead what we in this post-modern, post-digital age might call an emergent characteristic of the classroom.
As a specialized term applied in the science of complex systems, “emergence” refers to the manner in which remarkably complex systems and behaviors can arise out of relatively simple interactions governed by a relatively stable set of principles or rules. In a broader cultural context, critics and scholars have used the idea of emergence to explain everything from the way in which cities seem to have evolved and organized themselves in predictable ways across geographies and time periods, to the phenomenon of the World Wide Web. I use the word “emergent” here to describe how, in Augustine’s description of the dialogue between magister and discipulus, understanding arises when students learn what they themselves know, not when information passes from instructor to pupil. Knowledge, for Augustine, was the dawning of the light of understanding within the soul, the emergence of something new into a system that previously did not contain it. Although I do not subscribe to the Augustinian ideal of a divine “Truth” that can be revealed through careful contemplation, I think he was definitely on to something when he suggested that teaching could and should take the form of structured ludic activity, and that teachers should beware of thinking that a student has “learned” something simply because an exchange of information has taken place. As a teacher, I expect and hope that, when all has been said and done, my students will be able to do more than mimic the behaviors I have modeled or parrot back the kernels of wisdom I have imparted. I want my students to leave my classroom with a changed understanding of what knowledge is and what it means to know something, even if their understanding of those things may differ from my own.
I spend a great deal of time designing and structuring my classes, setting goals for myself and for my students. I try, however, to accept the fact that I cannot necessarily plan or control what happens once we get into the classroom. I remain open to the possibility that even the most carefully constructed syllabus may have to adapt and evolve to fit the needs of a particular class. I also think my students should bear some of the responsibility for their learning experience. In one instance, my students seemed somewhat less than enthusiastic about the assigned selections from the standard English 1101 text. Discussion was lackluster, and by the third week of class an impromptu survey revealed only one student had done the reading for that day. Rather than taking it entirely upon myself to revise the syllabus and recapture their interest, I invited them all to be king for a day, putting them into small groups and giving each group the opportunity to run one day of class using the material already assigned or new material they chose in consultation with me. To my surprise and delight, a number of them chose alternative readings related to subjects that I had avoided as “too political,” things like same-sex marriage, the flat tax, the war in Iraq. Further, seeing their peers in the hot seat and knowing they would be in the same situation sooner or later seemed to provide extra incentive to my students to prepare for and participate in class, and I found myself facilitating rather than leading the discussion. By relinquishing a degree of control, I created a space for their interest and engagement to emerge in a way that it had not before when I was setting every item on the agenda.
As a result of that experience, I now try to incorporate at least some element of choice into every lesson plan. I am also much more open to tackling difficult or controversial texts and subjects. On occasion, I deliberately transgress disciplinary and historical boundaries when deciding which texts to study together. New insights can emerge when one brings the very old together with the very new, maybe even when St. Augustine of Hippo meets the theory of complex systems.
Image credit: “substrate” used courtesy of a CC license by Jonathan Lidbeck on Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/jondissed/2278335691/).