Good Writer, Good Teacher

Lately I’ve been reading authors that are a tad irritating, but I also realize it’s very tiring to write about things and people I don’t like. I’d much rather write about things that I like, such as all the good teachers I’ve been meeting through books. Out of necessity I’ll mention one poor author/teacher, but only because he’s still taught me something I appreciate.

Richard Feynman. Intrigued by another author’s description of Feynman’s works as teaching physics without the numbers, I started with one collection titled Six Easy Pieces. I’ve never been intimidated by numbers, but somewhere in high school I got the notion into my head that I was terrible at physics. Having re-learned some of it to teach to another student recently has shown me that I’m not as dense as I thought I was. And now, thanks to Feynman, I can begin to appreciate physics as a beautiful thing. From someone who had resigned herself to just perpetually being bad at physics, this is a huge personal development.

Another point I really appreciated about Feynman’s writings was that he was happy to make as clear a connection as possible from the student to the material. This challenged my own thinking in how a subject should be approached. (I used to think that most things required some sort of foundational knowledge, and that there was certainly an optimal way to approach learning. Indeed, I feel I have been rigid before, but am becoming more flexible with age.) Feynman, however, talks about a theory so that the student understands conceptually, before moving (if at all) into the numbers. I suppose he left that portion up to the TAs and physics labs, but five out of the six lectures I read had zero equations. He connects physics to the simplest things, like why we blow on soup to cool it down, for goodness sakes. Genius really is elegant.

Alfie Kohn. Here’s the poor author/teacher that taught me about what I don’t like in an author. I am increasingly wary of sensationalists who dramatize their writings for the sake of being labeled some sort of world-moving thinker. The smug attitude Kohn takes was a sharp contrast to Feynman’s writings, who managed to convey a sense of childlike wonder and excitement about how much we still don’t know. While Kohn’s arguments had me curious and interested, initially, his words lost much of their impact in his hypocrisy. Example? In The Homework Myth, Kohn calls out a number of scholars for gross misreading of evidence and poor scholarship. In Unconditional Parenting he demonstrates a similarly gross misreading of the Bible, assuming that his readers will take his understanding as word over Word. Unconditional Parenting also pokes fun at parenting books who use coincidental anecdotes and manufactured conversation, and yet a few chapters later, Kohn also relays an anecdote that is perfect for his point, and then adds in a whole slew of thoughts that a kid might have, at least, in Kohn’s world. Yikes.

Peter Gray. You’ll notice that I’ve been wading around in educational theory again, especially with Gray’s . I can’t help it. Although Peter Gray and Alfie Kohn are both loud critics of the current American education system (I make a distinction because I don’t recall my own Canadian experience being so terrible as they make America’s out to be), Peter Gray is much more balanced and measured in presentation of his thoughts and process. He also takes the time to examine evidence in detail before making up his own mind, and even then, his writing gives space for the reader to think. He makes a case for trustful parenting and hearkens back to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of old, for example, and I don’t know if I can really agree with all of it and live it out. But he invites the reader to try demonstrating a little more faith in children, step by step, and that in itself is a valuable approach.

So having read these three authors in quick succession, I am struck by the reverb I’m sure they will have on my own teaching practice and parenting (because the two are so closely interlinked). I value wonder over scorn, the ability to teach simply, and a careful, measured approach that gives others space to mull over their thoughts before making up their own minds. I wonder what lessons are to come. What have you been learning from your books lately?

Featured photo by Diego PH on Unsplash


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