Learning from Literature

I have learned about teaching from some non-traditional sources. I’d like to share a few of them.

Warning: This blog involves spoilers for Ender’s Game, Harry Potter books 1–3, and Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller books. 

Ender’s Game

Ender is a child general in training. He is instructed through a series of games against other children in a zero-gravity arena (this is itself a pedagogy worth chewing over). The kriegspiel has certain rules, such as the operation of freeze-guns and the formal victory condition: getting four helmets to a certain region of the battleground.

Ender is pitted against increasingly unfair odds. Using ingenious approaches and relying upon others, he finds ways to win.

The last battle in the school is impossible. Ender wins by winnowing his entire strategy into its most brutal economy: perform only the victory condition. Getting four helmets to the end zone is implicitly viewed as impossible to accomplish without neutralising the other team (using those freeze rays). Ender’s final ruse essentially launches four helmets at the goal with a protective layer of other teammates to take the freeze-ray fire.

I have come to see Ender’s ingenuity as representing students’ creativity in addressing assessment tasks. There is a ruthless elegance to the very best answers/projects I mark; I often wonder how best to encourage this sort of stripped-back thinking. My conclusion is that Ender’s success really depended upon a crystal-clear conception of the assessment criteria. That’s something I can try to teach.

Remus Lupin

There is a podcast called Witch, Please. It’s by some literature professors in North America, who use their advanced skills (and also some wine) to develop critical readings of all the Harry Potter things. Being teachers, they devote a little bit of time in each episode to analysing the teachers’ pedagogies.

They drew my attention to Lupin, the Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher in Harry Potter 3. In his first lesson, he instructs the students to put their books away and get their wands out; they all hex a boggart. He finds disciplinary ways to treat his students a individuals (the fantastical device of the boggart is a really tidy piece of world-building to support this), getting them to creatively develop Defence Against The Dark Arts skills while forcing them to face and overcome their fears.

His last piece of education is the exam. This is a practical: students are tested through an assault course littered with some of the creatures they learned to deal with during their year.

The personal instruction of Harry muddies the pedagogy a little bit; the focus on the Patronus is an important plot point and weaving this into the character development of a link to Harry’s dad (legitimately) steals the dramatic focus from the thrilling Constructive Alignment. While we’re talking about overlooked things,  I note in passing that – once again – Hermione is the real hero of this book.

Lupin’s teaching is structured to enthuse (with homework as a post-class consolidation tool), the learning outcomes are carefully articulated as pieces of useful knowledge (hex a boggart, survive a kappa). A small thing which stayed with me was the way that Fred and George talk positively about Lupin before Harry gets taught by him. I suspect this sort of informal student-student review plays a huge part in the way that people approach any teacher.

I think what I take from Lupin is that teaching which looks like it’s driven by personal charisma or personal brilliance (Michael’s reading at ?14?) is normally a deliberately constructed (Michael’s reading at 30).

Elodin

Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller books are really good. I am calling in sick if he releases the third one mid-week (only joking, treasured employer: I am actually extremely vomitty on whenever that day is!). He has a few teachers – the whole narrative is a sort of fool’s journey where he synthesises patches of learning into his own mostly-coherent worldview. The teacher I want to focus on is Elodin, who knows Names (capital-N Names). In the Name Magic of this world, knowing the name of something grants you power over it (see also: Genesis, Earthsea, Eragon).

The thing is, names can’t really be taught. They can be learned, but not taught. I’ve been thinking about Elodin a lot as I engage more deeply with the PGR supervision scholarship; an important part of the student development through (say) a PhD involves knowledge which is ‘caught not taught’. Magical Names seem to be a fairly good match with Research training in this respect.

So, what does Elodin do? How does he help his students learn Names?

He presents a syllabus which is broad but not really deep. It might be that this allows students to find ways into their own understandings of Names. The activities do not make sense to Kvothe; they actively damage his motivation.

Eventually, though this only seems to happen once Kvothe accidentally discovers the Name of the Wind, Elodin sets curious activities loosely to do with the Wind. Watching dry leaves swirl in the breeze, that kind of thing. This seems to derive from an idea that deep knowledge of a thing grants you mastery of it.

Elodin’s personal behaviour is quite interesting when matched alongside these things. He’s got quite a lot of time for his students, but even in these conversations he lopes through the offbeats of other peoples’ patterns of thought. There is a deliberateness to his actions, but also a sort of chaos to it. It’s hard to disentangle whether this is a systematic feature of the writing, where a persistent motif is this dance – the Wind itself, Daena’s travels, the game of Tak, fingers whirling on frets, the leaves of the Sword Tree, the motions of the Ketan, and even the counterweight to Kvothe’s crossbow-defence mechanism.

Elodin has a respect for his students’ autonomy, as well as being – though he isn’t flashy about it – an Authority about Names. He understands that other people may not come to learn Names as he did (good), but doesn’t commit to even the vaguest pieces of direction about the broad features of learning Names (probably bad). He’s not really making learning happen, but he’s definitely letting learning happen.

The contrast between this magic and Kvothe’s other studies (which he mostly excels at) is quite dramatic. The poor structure in Names is sincerely disorienting to a superb student. This seems bang on the money for the transition into PGR. The poor definition of education-by-apprenticeship is painted with a useful emotional immediacy. Yet when Kvothe ‘gets it’, he starts to frame Elodin’s teaching within his own experience more productively. Kvothe wouldn’t have learned Names without Elodin, but he didn’t learn them because of Elodin either.

I can’t commit to a deep conclusion about teaching from Elodin, but I feel that I have learned a lot about teaching from Kvothe’s reaction to Elodin. Articulating knowledge in a transmission model is impossible with Names, and Elodin is arguably forced to model a weird kind of professionalism.

Conclusion

Broadly, I have found fiction to be a good teacher about Teaching. I think there are things in books like Harry Potter which are completely missing from the How To Teach literature and (more surprisingly?) the Student Experience literature.

There have to be systematic approaches to inspiring students, but the peer-reviewed literature doesn’t chart this course (I’ve looked). I guess inspiration sits somewhere between the student and the teacher; this specific relational space attracts a peculiar amount of attention in fiction. The start of an answer must be in there somewhere.