When we think about a teacher and a student, we quite naturally assume that the teacher has more knowledge and the student has less knowledge. The job of the teacher is to adequately transfer his or her knowledge to the student. This sets up a hierarchy: teacher, student. (Show slide here.) The better teachers know how to better transfer this knowledge, and in addition the better teachers are regarded has having brighter minds and being better able to comprehend this knowledge. (Add to the slide: better able to comprehend knowledge.) I think this is a fair description of how we think about a really good teacher.
But this way of thinking about teachers reveals something to us. Rather than there being just one hierarchy – teacher over student – there are actually two hierarchies at play:
Teacher ———— better able to comprehend knowledge = Greater intelligence
Student ———— less able to comprehend knowledge = Weaker intelligence
In Jacques Ranciere’s book The Ignorant Schoolmaster, there is a story about a man named Joseph Jacotot who looked more closely at these two hierarchies. Jacotot was a professor who lived at the time of the French Revolution and the series of overthrows that followed it. By 1818 he had left France and was teaching in the Netherlands. He began to explore these very hierarchies – teacher over student, and greater intelligence over weaker intelligence. He found that uniting these two hierarchies often created a problem:
If a teacher believed he was of greater intelligence, then his focus was on creating better and simpler explanations. If a student believed that he was genuinely of lesser intelligence, then his focus was on waiting until the professor found a better and simpler way of explaining something. 🙂 Ranciere calls this problem “stultification.” I’ll also use the word “stagnation.” (Show slide.) Or we might also call it “learned helplessness.” When a student, over many years, gets used to his or her teachers stepping in between the students and their textbooks or whatever materials the class is using, then it is easier for the student to wait to be explained to. This can be simple laziness, but the concern Ranciere has is that many students come to believe they are actually incapable of really understanding the textbook in the “right” way, and therefore believe they must have inferior intelligence.
Maybe you had this sort of experience when you were in school. I remember being in my high school English class and being told that my interpretation of whatever book from our great world literature list was simply “incorrect.” I was pretty sure I had a good reading, but for the sake of a good grade I accepted my teacher’s reading. Fortunately I got a chance to study Humanities at BYU and had the pleasure of looking at many interpretations of great literature.
But many students aren’t confident, and don’t go on, and simply accept that their teacher is better able to comprehend and that they are less able to comprehend.
And maybe you have had another kind of experience. Maybe you, like me, have had classes where it didn’t really matter if you read the textbook or not, because the teacher spent the entire class period explaining what the book had said. Even though you knew you could understand the book on your own – why bother? The teacher was ready to explain it all to you, and it was easier to be lazy.
I also remember taking a math class at BYU with a professor who was not at all concerned with explaining math in better and better ways and we were often left more confused when we left than when we came in! But we had a great TA who taught once a week who clarified the material for us. As you can imagine, it was much easier for me to barely try to understand my professor and wait for the TA to explain it to me.
These moments, where a teacher or a TA comes in between a student and the material, communicate to a student that either they are incapable of understanding the material on their own, or that there isn’t any reason to bother to understand the material on their own.
And this results in “stultification” or “stagnation.” (Refer to slide.) Dictionaries define stultify as “to cause to appear or be stupid, foolish, or absurdly illogical” and “To cause to lose interest or feel dull and not alert” (add these to slide.)
And Ranciere argues that this is the danger whenever we combine these two hierarchies (show slide again). Of course, this doesn’t always happen, but it is a danger for the student.
There is another danger I want to mention briefly, and that is a danger to the teacher. If a teacher assumes this combined model, then what if they find themselves not actually believing they are smarter or more capable than their students? What if they believe this model, but don’t believe they fit this hierarchy over here (point to right side of slide)? Does that undermine their claim to a superior position in the hierarchy? The result is that many teachers compensate by over-confidence or strictness, hoping to cover over their insecurity. You may have had some of these teachers yourselves. They hope that by looking like they fit their position, they can continue to enjoy their place of power in the hierarchy.
Obviously, there are some problems here. Joseph Jacotot, our professor in the Netherlands, offers us a different model to consider.
(Read the next post to learn about Jacotot’s belief in the equality of intelligence.)