Caveat: Advice for Teaching

We recently tackled a topic in my advanced TOEFL writing class that revealed the gap between US and Korean culture, vis-a-vis attitudes toward education and learning. The topic came from the book – I cannot take credit for introducing it, but it has induced me to a great deal of reflection. 

The question in the book was phrased as followed: "It is more important for a teacher to help students gain self-confidence than to teach them specific knowledge." 

The book required them to write in the CON position – i.e. they were required to disagree. I like this structure for writing exercises, as I find that it encourages clearer thinking when students are "forced" to take a position on a debate topic, rather than letting them choose. 

Anyway, they all wrote very convincing arguments against the idea of it being important to have teachers teaching self-confidence. They all seemed to find this the naturally logical "order of things." 

One student, Charles, I will quote at length (as always, this is pre-corrected, all errors retained verbatim):

First, teacher's rule is to give students specific knowledge and make their students clever and smart. Teacher's basic duty is to give students knowledge. Isn't it? If teachers don't think that it is not important to give them knowledge and giving them self-confidence is more important they should be fired. Teachers should try to make their students smart. Making students self-confidence doesn't make students smart, but giving knowledge to students does. Helping students gain self- confidence is a possible thing for parents to do. Techers don't have to focus on that. …

Second, when students get knowledge, they will gain self-confidence. Many students and even adults feel self-confidence when they know something. A lof of people think the same whqy too. The easiest way to make students confidence is to give them knowledge. When students know they are able to answer any quesitons about specific subject, they will feel confidence. To make them able to answer any questions, teachers need to give them specific knowledge. For instance, if a teacher asks a quesiton about math and if students answer it perfectly they will feel confidence.

Another student wrote:

First, study and self-confidence is distinct from each other. Volition and fervor on study is more important than self-confidence. It is no use to have self-confidence but, don't have violition and fervor even though I have a little bit of self-confidence. Also, teachers have to focus on giving knowledge to students. It's right released to their job: teacher.

Contrast that with (what I think is) the standard American view, which seems to be that teachers need to instill confidence before learning can take place. Given the differential in performance of American and Korean students in academics, I have begun to wonder if that's right. 

Unrelatedly (maybe?), I ran across this quote.

"Always assume that there is one silent student in your class who is by far superior to you in head and in heart." – Leo Strauss

I like this advice. It is worth keeping in mind, definitely.

[daily log: walking, 5 km]


  1. The problem with this proposition is that “specific” knowledge has become very, very cheap. We are not in the Middle Ages anymore, when it was rare, hard to obtain, and valuable. Ever since the rise of mass publishing, the value of “directly taught knowledge” has decreased, and it is now at what was just a few decades ago an unimaginable-low with the Internet.
    Say I want to know about the Yazidi (ethnic?-)religious group of the Middle East. In the distant past before Gutenberg, let’s say six hundred years ago (1410s), we might presume that a a handful of Europeans living knew some about that group, say people with extensive travels in the Middle East. There must’ve been a few, even if I could count them on my fingers. So, I, as the prospective desirer of information, would have to find these people and learn from them directly, as pre-Gutenberg they were unlikely to produce any books on the subject, and I was unlikely to have access to it even if such a book were somehow written, and I was unlikely to read the language in which it was written (in fact,I’d have been unlikely to read any language). So if I could track down a Yazidi expert in Europe, I might just find one at a university somewhere. I would have to have the means to attend the university and attend this man’s lectures, and so on. The chance of a 1410s version of you or I ending up with any knowledge of Yazidis would’ve been near zero, and if it came would’ve surely come from information taught by a single expert I was fortunate enough to find.
    Leap ahead three centuries to the 1710s, when printing was more well established. Given good enough access to materials, I could track down a book on the Islamic World or something and find out what I can about Yazidis. In the 1710s, it’s getting a bit easier to learn about them — Still very difficult, but given the will and the way, it’s no longer really “zero” as it was in the 1410s. 1810s: More books available, better chance still. 1910s: Same, and the rise of Encyclopedias has made information easier than ever.
    By the 1960s, the huge rise in libraries has made any (literate) citizen a wealthy Western society have a near 100% by now to learn something about Yazidis, if the want to. The curious need only the ability to get to a library with a decent Encyclopedia set. More in-depth accounts are also readily available (and with Interlibrary loans, perhaps any library will do) in books on the Middle East which discuss its minor religions. Suddenly, the value of “taught knowledge” from a teacher is low. The knowledge from an hour or two in a decent 1960s library will probably be much broader and better than what a professor may or may not know on the subject.
    Now back to the present the 2010s. We hear about Yazidis in the news, and through an Internet-enabled device (not even a desktop computer, anymore, of course) within minutes we can get information that may have been: impossible in a lifetime in the 1410s; taken many years of difficulty until the rise of libraries; still taken a substantial effort and some difficulty with the rise of libraries; but today is free and easy. Now only the effort to overcome laziness and click around a little bit on the Internet is required.
    In light of this, we can say that “teaching information” has a lower value than ever in the 2010s. The educational model that stresses a teacher imparting information (presumably via lecturing) is as highly antiquated as massacres of heretics in the name of the One True Religion. Of course, both systems still exist in spots in today’s world for complicated reasons, perhaps more as proxies for other things (e.g., religious fighting often masks ethnic conflict, as in South Sudan and Sri Lanka and so on).
    But on “direct teaching of knowledge”: If knowledge is cheap, as it clearly is for the rich today, what *is* the value of a teacher? What the Internet and so on cannot “teach” is curiously and analytical thinking; the kind of mind that cares to look up information about the Yazidis (or about any subject). Will Yazidis be on The Test? No. In that case, it’s the deepest kind of foolishness to bother looking up anything about them.
    The general Korean belief in the primacy of “teachers imparting knowledge” probably coincides with the common belief that robots will replace teachers soon (a Korean student once told me what he saw as the two worst careers: “postal worker” and “teacher”. I asked why. He said because both would be replaced totally by robots in coming years). If a teacher is just a knowledge-delivering automaton, why *not* replace it with a steel-framed version that requires no pay and no sleep?

  2. Sylvia B

    I agree with Peter on the availability of knowledge. However to acquire that knowledge requires being able to read, and as he mentioned, being able to discern truth from error.
    So I would say that they teacher’s job is to teach reading and language and analytical thinking… which very few unfortunately know how to do. They also need to teach math, although being able to read well does make even acquiring that discipline decidedly easier!

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