The teacher as translator

In a recent blog, Larry Cuban writes that when it comes to education, we are guided by both reason and emotion (or conviction):

We prize new knowledge derived from hard and soft sciences and their applications to life insofar as what they can do for us individually and collectively. We listen to experts. Yet every day in so many ways we pursue our beliefs, apply our values, and follow our emotions. Nothing new here except on those occasions when rationality, science, and emotions light up policy issues that touch our daily work and life.

I agree; our reasoning and our convictions keep each other in check. Too much on the reasoning end, and we forget what we’re doing this for and why it matters. We hear about “results” but not about what the results actually mean. Too much on the side of convictions, and we become isolated in our beliefs and passions, unable to convince anyone else because, after all, “everyone is entitled to his or her own beliefs.”

I suspect that many if not most teachers are fired up by experiences they had in the past–good schools, bad schools, or learning they pursued on their own or with a mentor. It takes some time to sort out those experiences and understand what they mean and how they translate into one’s own practice.

One of my favorite professors made many a class session a voyage and a romp. Once he began to speak, you weren’t sure where he would take you. Somehow the forays through architecture, music, history, and words would come back to the poem that was the starting point–and there was a point to it all. Every seeming digression had its place. He did most of the talking (as I remember), and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I still remember how he would seize on certain words or lines in a poem–how he could bring out the thunder and undercolors in them.

I couldn’t teach exactly like that; I don’t think many could. It requires a particular kind of storytelling gift–a way of keeping the listeners convinced that what’s coming is important, even if they don’t know where it’s heading. It also requires an ability to bring together many subjects, convincingly, not superficially, in a short time. The “connections” were sometimes whimsical but never cavalier.

But while I could not replicate this professor’s teaching, I have taken many a hint from it. I know (this is where convictions come in) that too much sticking to the point can miss the point, and that a digression can take us closer to the truth, in many cases, than can a linear truthward march. So I have taken his lessons, but taken them slant.

The same can be said for research and what we learn from it. Rarely do we “implement” the findings without any translation whatsoever. If research suggested, for instance, that memorization of poetry was correlated with greater comprehension of it, and if one found the research sound, one would still have to decide which poetry to teach, how to require or encourage memorization, and what to do with the memorization.

So, whether it is research we are listening to, or our own experiences and beliefs, or both, we still have to do the translation work, which is the trickiest (and often the most interesting) work of all. It is closer to poetry translation than to literal and direct translation, as one has to consider form, substance, and the demands of the particular classroom.