The older I get, the more my life looks like a bank of fog. Distant memories fade. Only the most important moments in my life give off light.
But memories blink out eventually, so in the long run they may not prove the best way to measure our time.
As is the case of school. For good or ill, we spend as much as 20 of our early years in classrooms, and we may find ourselves hard-pressed to remember any of the lessons.
If we remember nothing of the time we spent at our desks, does that mean we wasted our time?
A line that educators often share with students (I heard it from more than one teacher in my school career) attempts to make sense of the problem of memory: “Students, you won’t always remember what you learned in school, but you’ll remember who taught you and how they made you feel.”
Experience has proven this to be true. I’ll go further and say that the concepts I remember best have a teacher’s face.
And students should know this wisdom runs the other way: Teachers don’t remember individual lessons, but they remember individual students and how those students made them feel.
One way to think about schooling is as an encounter – an encounter with truth primarily and with people mostly. We arrive at understanding through and in conversation with other people.
The human encounter is – or should be – central to the college and university experience. But it often isn’t. Students can skate through a degree without sitting face-to-face with their instructors. This is a travesty, for students and teachers.
I once worked on a team of instructors assigned to teach 1,000 first-year students. Nobody could say with a straight face that they preferred this form of teaching. I think anybody in higher education views research into the efficacy of this sort of mass instruction as a hunt for silver linings.
I couldn’t stand the class. I remember nobody from those lectures or the tutorials I managed. That might make me a bad teacher but I have a feeling that most of the students – most of whom were excellent students – don’t remember me either. Like me, they probably have a fuzzy recollection of sitting in a massive lecture hall surrounded by students playing video games on their laptops while a tap-dancing lecturer tried his best to hold their attention.
My experiences as an instructor and as a student have made me suspicious of online instruction and other attempts at broadcast education, like the once-trendy MOOCs (massive online open courses, available free to anybody). Rather than bring people together for face-to-face encounters, these founts of knowledge are more like troughs of information: Students anywhere in the world can line up to ingest as much or as little as they wish of what the instructor pours out to them.
That’s education, of a sort, but it’s not higher education.
Higher education cultivates relationships – the abstract relationship with knowledge and the flesh-and-blood relationships with other people.
Small-size classes are important for this reason. They put people in a dedicated place, at a dedicated time, so they can dedicate themselves to deepening their understanding.
The face-to-face encounter also explains why office hours matter so much to the undergraduate experience. Some professors detest office hours. Apparently, they have better things to do and so they fulfil the minimum requirement.
But they’re missing out. Meeting individual students is one of the sweetest pleasures of teaching. The enthusiasm of engaged students can rejuvenate even the crustiest curmudgeon.
I revel in one-on-one teaching. I can usually do more with a student in 15 minutes in that setting than in a one-hour lecture. I can drive a point home. I can correct a persistent error. And I can get to know the person I’m teaching.
In all my teaching, these face-to-face moments are the most memorable. Without a face, schooling is forgettable.
Troy Media columnist Robert Price is a communications and professional writing instructor at the University of Toronto.
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