One of the joys of teaching is having brilliant students grow up and return to help you teach. Each summer I employ an assistant–a recent graduate of impeccable academic credentials from the Abbey School–for our summer classes in Latin, Algebra, etc.
Sometimes I make them office assistants, tasking them with “building me a better mousetrap”–i.e., finding new and better ways to run reports, organize my paperwork, use the new software, etc. They excel at this task, which is really just a nerdy version of giving them a video game to play. Watching Ivy League overachievers knock themselves out creating a finely-polished report, investing far more time and energy into the task than I would, is a treasure.
But there’s something much better: seeing them in the classroom helping students remediate a subject. Rubber, meet road. Irresistible force, meet immovable object. One of the most instructive of all teaching errors, in perhaps its purest form, is on display here.
My gifted young men, when we told you something you almost always remembered it. When you practiced something once or twice you got it. When that didn’t happen, you had enormous latitude and aptitude to catch up before the other students caught on and the the teacher moved on.
That’s why you never had to go to summer school.
The young people remediating math or Latin or whatever aren’t like that (usually). They don’t retain information effortlessly. They don’t catch up on their own. They get flickers of understanding and then the candle goes out. They aren’t in summer school because of moral perversity (usually).
There’s nothing quite like seeing the naive, satisfied confidence of a gifted student-turned-teacher after he has explained something perfectly. “OK, so now you all get it, so it’s time to move on!” Or after correcting a student’s mistake on the board on their first practice exercise. “Do you see? Now you get it, it’s time to move on.”
Behold, that most deadly of teaching errors. “I have explained it perfectly, so now you all understand and we can do something else.”
The sheer perplexity when the poor student cannot replicate his success the next, nay even later that same, day! The confusion! What did I do wrong? Which of my words was mischosen? How can this poor soul have vanquished me in the list?
And so stands over the gifted, fallen assistant an experienced teacher who looks down and smirks, and says as Morpheus, “You think that’s air your breathing?”
Theoria, behold thy master: Praxis.