Tuesday, February 06, 2007

What Makes a Great Teacher?

When I'm on a plane chatting and the person next to me finds out that I teach philosophy, the reaction is either, "I took that in college and hated it" or "I took that in college and had the strangest teacher." When I get the second one, inevitably the rest of the flight is a good conversation. AIt makes you realize how much the instructor has to do with someone's attitude towards their own education. A bad teacher can destroy the love of learning and a good one can change lives.

I came across this passage in Maria Montessori's The Montessori Method which turns 100 this year:

Now one who has learned to spell mechanically all the words in his spelling book would be able to read in the same mechanical way the words in one of Shakespeare's plays, provided the print were sufficiently clear...[but] we must instead make [students] worshippers of nature. They must be like him who, having learned to spell, finds himself, one day, able to read behind the written symbols the thought of Shakespeare, or Goethe, or Dante...
How do we get students to take that additional step from facts to insight?

The quotation reminded me of a dinner I had one evening with James Trefil, a physicist at George Mason, popular science writer, and one of the movers and shakers in the science literacy movement. He was involved with writing the science standards for No Child Left Behind and was an advocate for testing. I had him to a class I was team-teaching with an astronomer to talk about science pedagogy and scientific literacy. On the one hand, I am very sympathetic to the need to do something about science literacy in the country, but on the other, it seems the testing approach is exactly part of the problem. We need to inspire love and wonder. We need, in Montessori's Hegelian terms, to nurture the spirit of the student if we are going to lead them to be the sort of interesting insightful minds she describes.

But how do you do that? We've all had THAT teacher, the one who really reached us, who really inspired us to go from test taker to student in the deeper sense. Whenever I have a freshman in my office express the intention to major in math or a natural science, I always ask who was the high school teacher who sparked it and without fail there is a story about a great teacher who was so different than all the others. What did that teacher do that the rest didn't? What makes a great teacher?