“Let me organize your thoughts…”
The preceding statement came to me quite suddenly yesterday as I was reflecting on how much of my time is spent organizing other people’s time. At church I am a clerk, keeping the records in order. In meetings at work I have gravitated toward the meeting organizer, note-taker, and source of reminders. In research I spend far more time putting my intellectual output in a clear order for presentation than I do developing the algorithms and proofs themselves. As I was pondering these ideas, I realized that teaching is organizing too.
There are times, in teaching, that it seems important to introduce a new idea, to provide a thought. But in my experience those times are the exception. Almost all of my successful teaching experiences can be cast as grabbing a few ideas the students already knew and showing how they can be bolted together in an enlightening order. Indeed, there are times when I wonder if any other kind of teaching exists. Perhaps those “new ideas” I introduce are only understood by those who teach themselves, finding their own set of extant ideas they can bolt together into what I’m expounding.
All of which leads me to ask, does “teaching”, meaning here the dissemination of knowledge from the mind of the teacher to the mind of the student, even exist? Is it even possible to teach the organization of existing thoughts without that organization having some prior existence within the students’ minds? Perhaps teachers are not so much craftsmen building thoughts in others minds as they are janitors or secretaries, ordering the knowledge within into some usable organization.
The obvious counter to this is the dissemination of facts. The statement “Smörgåsbord is Swedish for ‘butter (smör) goose (gås) table (bord)’”, for example, seems quite directly to teach something. I had a thought, I gave it to you, now you have it too. Information, it seems, can be taught. But information is cheap, and of little value without knowledge.
How do you teach the structure, the hierarchy, the “expert thinking” that changes knowledge from trivia to intelligence? By placing the information already in the student’s mind into structures already in the student’s mind to create knowledge the student did not before posses.
Teaching is a bit like driving a motor vehicle. The engine, the fuel, the road, the mechanisms—everything, in short, needed for driving was already present and created by the industry of others. My role is simply to direct it, to take that refined store of potential and transform it into a vehicle.
My job is to organize your thoughts. Your job is to think. Together, we can build knowledge beyond your present imagination. Let us think together.