TRIVIAL PURSUITS, Part 8: Developing Trivium Teachers: Subject Knowledge and Pedagogical Technique

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In the Oundle Trivium, we acknowledge the value of passing things on, including inherent controversies.  Rather than dogma or general knowledge, we are passing on debate: a tense, latent entity rather than a limp, completed object of study.  I have quoted Alasdair MacIntyre elsewhere in this series, and I’m grateful to Michael Fordham for his views here:

“Nor does being a traditionalist imply that I think what ought to be taught is fixed and unchanging. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre is spot on with this in his analysis of tradition in After Virtue: when traditions stop evolving, they become dogma. All living traditions change: they are, in MacIntyre’s words, ‘continuities of conflict’ that incorporate their own fault lines and disagreements. I do not seek to teach a fossilised dogma: I want to teach the living, breathing thing we call history. This means I need to update my knowledge, stay abreast of new ideas in the discipline and be willing to change my teaching as time goes on. I seek to engage with my changing discipline not in spite of my traditionalism, but rather because of it.”[1]

This takes some doing, since as subject experts we have often forgotten how we arrived at our advanced state of knowledge. Subject knowledge can, untrained, interfere with teaching technique, because the scaffolding that built your own mental edifice has been taken down and forgotten, but you need to know how to build it for your pupils alongside all that knowledge.  Deep subject knowledge is essential, but so is the pedagogy of how to teach it. Both are (equally?) important.[2]

This is, in part, simply teaching a man to fish – except the trick here is remembering how to teach the man to fish, when you’ve been an excellent fisherman yourself for years, and you haven’t necessarily been teaching anyone else how to do it.  As usual, there is no guarantee (even if there’s a much, much higher chance) of a subject expert being the ideal teacher:

“…he remembers what he has learnt, but forgets altogether how he learned it.” “It is as though we had taught a child, mechanically and by rule of thumb, to play ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’ upon the piano, but had never taught him the scale or how to read music; so that, having memorized ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith,’ he still had not the faintest notion how to proceed from that to tackle ‘The Last Rose of Summer.’”[3]

Given the breadth of topics taught in Trivium, by staff from all departments, a question is sometimes raised about whether it is a good idea to have a non-subject specialist teach pupils about a particular topic.  Why is my Maths teacher taking this Trivium class about Anglo-Saxon myths?  She doesn’t have an ASNAC degree!   Why is my French master teaching us game theory?  He’s surely no specialist in numerical analysis!  Fair points at first glance.  However, among teachers, only the intellectually arid tend not to have at least one or two interests outside their “core” subject, however minor or fledgling that interest may be. This makes for expert teachers, synthesizers rather than mere specialists.[4]

All that is required to teach the Oundle Trivium is a thirst to find out something more beyond our current capacities: there is no need for a commitment to undertake years of detailed research. Here is why: the following are two sweeping statements, which you may take or leave.  As teachers, I think we often underestimate our pupils’ capabilities, but overestimate their existing knowledge.  We confuse potential for competence.  You don’t need to have degree-level knowledge in a topic to teach it for part of a term in Trivium; neither should you only be on the next chapter, of course.  What you are essentially doing is giving them the central lines of a new and possibly obscure area of interest, from which you throw out tangent hooks – one of which, over the course of the year, should catch the personal interest of each pupil.  You are in this sense a localised maître à penser (though definitely not a maître-penseur), drawing pupils to intriguing ideas and to modes of tackling new topics; more informed than the enthusiast, more pedagogically-directed than gentleman/lady amateur, but less “qualified” than the professor claiming encyclopædic knowledge in the area.

To get to that point, through June, July and August, Trivium and Quadrivium teachers are expected to prepare their courses for at least up to Christmas (a single teacher takes the set for the whole year, allowing progression and a personal relationship to develop).  This does not consume large tracts of holiday time in school-based work.  It is almost more simply a question of what books you choose to read over the holiday, and should in that sense be a matter of personal enjoyment.  Finding out about something in which you are interested, in order to share that with a group of bright children, is already close to the heart of why many of us teach.

In pedagogical and professional terms terms, the freshness of learning or developing a new topic yourself not only gives rhetorical sprezzatura to your teaching of it once prepared to the right level, but allows you to regain some insight into the process of learning about something.  You’ve probably forgotten much about how you learnt your main subject.   By learning a new topic yourself, you find out where the scaffolding needs to go, so you will teach that subject better, sometimes, than parts of your core curricular subject, for which you have long forgotten the tools with which you built your own monolithic knowledge, and for which you may be relying on years-old teaching habits that, however successful could – being privately honest – probably do with sprucing up.  Hence what I’ve quoted above about the need to match deep subject knowledge acquisition with deliberate pedagogical training, to avoid staleness and an assumption of skills and knowledge the pupils don’t yet have.[5]  In this way, Trivium teaching can function not only as a provider of tools to pupils for how to learn any new subject, but also as a catalyst of professional refreshment in the teacher.  This is to the clear benefit of their “core” subject, too, and Heads of Department who realise this tend to be immediately keen for their colleagues to teach Trivium alongside.

As to individual staff, the Oundle assumption is that all staff could teach Trivium – and probably should at some stage, as it provides a useful academic challenge.  If a colleague does not, then it has to be asked: why not?  Preparation workload is the most common reply, and this has some weight.  The question of not wanting, or not feeling able, to undertake the preparation needed to teach Trivium and Quadrivium boils down to either: a) a lack of ambition and curiosity – which is frankly unlikely (or at least extremely rare) in the formidable Oundle Common Room – or; b) for lack of time.  I can sympathise with this second reason, particularly if the teacher in question has children of their own.  That said, this does closely relate to the first point, because it is not a matter of priority against family time, but against other academic time.  Quadrivium is especially preparation-hungry.  Yet the fine colleagues who teach it currently are hardly those with the most free time – they include two housemasters and four heads of department, most of them with at least two children of their own.  Preparation time, then, is unlikely to be a sustainable reason for other staff, except in extreme cases.  Also, once the initial preparation is done, subsequent years – while requiring regular update to avoid the staleness risk – become somewhat easier; the second year is often the most enjoyable.

All things considered, then, what Trivium and Quadrivium teachers have in common is two-fold, and should really be applicable to any good teacher of any subject.  First, a clear cultural (or scientific) hinterland to begin with – again, it is a blessing that there are so many such teachers at Oundle.  Second, an intolerance of complacency in themselves. They have an openness and curiosity to learn more, to venture beyond their core interests and into other ones.  They refuse to rest on the laurels of previously acquired understanding, or believe that their knowledge is “complete” for their task of teaching for all time, preferring to open themselves to new stimulation and engagement.  They are, in short, ideal academic role models for their pupils.  So: could you teach Trivium?  No doubt.  But if not, why not?


Footnotes

[1] Fordham, M., Is traditionalism right-wing?  Posted at https://clioetcetera.com/2017/02/06/is-traditionalism-right-wing/, accessed 11 February, 2017.

[2] See Mazur, E., Confessions of a Converted Lecturer: Eric Mazur, online lecture posted at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwslBPj8GgI, accessed 11 February, 2017.

[3] Sayers, 1947.

[4] See Abbott, p. 208: “Experts [as against specialists] … get outside their own subject … tackle problems that increase their expertise …”

[5] I don’t agree with the idea of entirely professionalising teaching as the Finns do – see Abbott, p. 248 – since you then lose all adults except those who are career teachers. The similar issue arises as with career politicians – that extra-scholastic influence is lost; the experiential pool is narrowed.  Training those new to the profession on the job, on the other hand, is crucial.

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