Teaching isn’t brain surgery

I love the provocative title of this talk by philosopher Harry Brighouse: “Teaching’s not exactly brain surgery, is it?” Brighouse is trying to provoke us into thinking that his talk is going to be a teacher-hating rant by some Tea Partier. Admit it: that’s what you thought at first, and you figured that I was going to shoot down his points.

But no…in this talk to graduate students Brighouse goes on to say the following:

The good news is that teaching is more important than brain surgery.

Now for the bad news. Teaching is harder than brain surgery.

First look at the surgeon. He has numerous highly skilled people —who have had years of training and experience— helping him. The patient knows what it would be like to get better, and wants to get better – completely compliant. No distractions – nobody is on their cellphones, or messing around with facebook, and I would bet that there are no workman drilling in the next room. The patient didn’t get stoned before class, and even if she did, it doesn’t matter because she is anesthetized! She just lies there, and lets him cut her open and fiddle around. He has lights on the parts which he is fiddling with. Oh, and, by the way, he has been trained, intensely, for this, for years. He practiced on dead brains and got good at it before he was allowed anywhere near a living brain.

Now look at the teacher. He has, let’s say, 150 students, and no help at all, skilled or otherwise (he probably had to figure out the AV himself, unless he had the sense to ask a student to help). However eager they are in principle, many of the students have very little interest in learning at that moment. Some are distracted, by cellphones, Facebook, twitter, some of them are stoned, several hungover, many of them sleep-deprived, the athletes are tired from their 2 hour workout earlier in the day, some are fantasizing about sex, some are thinking about a job interview coming up, one is still drunk from the night before, and another is drinking a screwdriver from her flask (yep, you know who you are, reader!); and then there are the things over which they have no control – someone is anxious because their parents just separated, or a parent is guilt tripping them about visiting the other parent, or not having called enough, or they have mental illness and forgot to take their medication this morning, or have recently had a bad break-up, or fallen in love, or have been sexually assaulted, or have been up all night with a friend who has a mental illness, or recently had a bad break-up or was assaulted or…. Many of them are taking the class to fulfil a requirement the point of which has never been explained to them and to which the content is not especially well calibrated anyway. And, with all these distractions, the professor has to make them learn. He or she can’t even resort to anaesthetizing the students, because then they won’t learn anything at all (quite apart from it being illegal)! Whereas the surgeon just opens up one head and one brain, and looks inside, the teacher has to read 150 minds without opening any of them up, figuring out what misapprehensions the students have, and what mistakes they have made doing the reading, those of them that actually have done the reading. And whereas the surgeon has been trained for years, and practice on dead brains with an expert watching over him, and has several highly skilled people assisting him, the professor has had minimal training, and has nobody even watching to tell him what mistakes he made after the fact.

OK, a little exaggerated? Perhaps. And he’s talking about college students, so the same points couldn’t possibly apply to high-school students, could they? We don’t teach 150 students at a time; our students don’t have all those issues!

Well, yes, they do. Aside from the class size and perhaps the drinking from the flask, everything else is relevant.

I’m not going to summarize the rest of the talk; it’s important for you to read it yourself if you’re interested in teaching and learning. Here’s how it ends:

So. The good news is teaching is more important than brain surgery, the bad news is that its more difficult, and the not so bad news is that we can learn how to do it and improve at it, at least to some extent, anyway.

Good news? Bad news? You be the judge.

Categories: Teaching & Learning