To explain my thoughts on teaching I thought I might trace an experience I had just this past week. My colleague and I set out to design a class session around two Confucian philosophers, Mengzi and Xunzi. The texts we examined with students were distant in time (25 centuries ago) and place (China) from Hotchkiss, yet it seemed to genuinely capture their attention and nudge them toward thinking that felt fresh and helped me reflect on my educational philosophy.
First, this experience for our students was drawn from our own modeling of lifelong learning as teachers. My colleague and I piloted the material to coincide with a visit from a scholar of Chinese philosophy. In the days preceding his visit we engaged in a process of reading, thinking, discussing, and creating (in this case a lesson plan rather than an essay) that very much paralleled what we hope our students might practice. It was an earnest and challenging process, one that another colleague described as having “gone back to grad school.”
Second, we worked collaboratively toward concrete curricular goals. Rather than organize a one-off experience for our students, we selected themes, texts, and questions to fit within a specific unit in the second-year Humanities curriculum, “New Conceptions of Humankind’s Place in the Natural World.” It was my colleague that mastermined these connections, bringing Mengzi’s optimism about human nature along with Xunzi’s pessimism into dialogue with Charles Darwin’s evolutionary and Karl Marx’s materialist approaches. He recognized that each of these arguments were dynamic and dependent on the interplay of particular relations between humans and their environments. Just as important, he had an essay prompt in mind that would ultimately ask the students to tie all of this together analytically.
Third, students around the table cared to know because they knew we cared. This adage is hardly original, though it certainly rings true for me. I had worked with this section from the beginning of the year to foster an open and empathetic learning environment by a mix of efforts like jointly setting conversation norms and collecting and responding to regular feedback. Our residential school setting also aided significantly in this process by linking me to students in delightfully unexpected ways. With this particular section of nine students, I was sitting around the table with one of my advisees, a fellow volunteer at an animal shelter, and a former dormitory neighbor. This particular group of students has had a mostly smooth experience in Humanities, but these connections can be especially valuable for students who are struggling. At one point last semester, a senior student in an elective course had sent me a late-night email saying he would be skipping out on our assessment the next morning. He was going through an emotionally intense time at home and was struggling with the college application process, and having traveled with him to China the summer before, I felt far better equipped to work with him, his advisor, and our department head the next day to find a fair solution to the situation that was understanding to him and fair to his classmates. He was able to pick himself back up and feel successful in the course. Connections like these forge trust that serve as the foundation of the learning process.
Fourth, the experience felt intrinsically meaningful to several Chinese students for whom this experience may have been the first culturally-resonant “mirror” they had experienced in two years of “windows” in the Humanities program. When the reading was passed out a few days in advance, one student lit up with the biggest smile I have seen from him all year and another popped open her computer so she could do a text-to-text comparison between our translation and the original Classical Chinese. Their enthusiasm quickly infected the class, including those who might not have been immediately drawn to the texts. On the day we tackled the reading, it was not long into the session that we had collectively identified the essential points of both philosophers. Mengzi contended that all people possess the “sprouts of humanity” in them at birth: regardless of our background or upbringing, if one was to hear a small child about to plunge into a well, one would feel a “sudden sense of fright and dismay” (Mengzi 2A.6). Xunzi, we discovered, had challenged Mengzi by contending that “human nature is evil; its good derives from conscious activity” much like “warped wood must be laid against a straightening board, steamed, and bent into shape before it can become straight” (Xunzi 23).
Fifth, my colleague and I were able to use the foundation of knowledge to nudge the students to think independently. One of my favorite lines of inquiry during the discussion centered on how Mengzi and Xunzi might see learners and educators. Our students observed that Mengzi had seen young learners as introspective, compassionate, and curious. By contrast, they pointed out Xunzi’s more skeptical take on students as indulgent, selfish, and complacent. Based on these conceptions of the student, we asked them how teaching styles modeled on each philosopher might differ? Which they might prefer as a student? And, which best represented their own approach as older siblings or babysitters? By this point the conversation took on a life of its own, and was vivid enough to bring me new insight on my own approach.
I’m a Mengzian. I believe it is the purpose of learning to cultivate the core good in our students, guide them to deepen their understanding of the world around them to find an outlet for that good, and to ensure that they learn how to act in a way that corresponds with that instinct. This realization came to me by I modeling with my colleagues the same learning we hope to instill in our own students, by cultivating a welcoming environment for discussion, identifying specific learning outcomes, engaging in learning that felt relevant to both me and my students, and then nudging them toward critical, independent expression. Listening to my students’ arguments clarified my own thinking, one standard I use to distinguish between a competently executed lesson and one that is genuinely transformative. Chances are, if it is illuminating for my students, I am learning something in the process as well.