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How to Teach an Idea

Ideas are hard to teach. For one thing, you can’t memorize an idea, you have to undertand it. For another, the understanding might be formed in the mind long before it can be expressed by the mouth. For yet another thing, you can’t measure whether or not a student understands an idea or how well she understands it or how accurately she understands it.

Ideas are hard to teach.

But they are the point of education. We educate people so that they can be fed by ideas and so that they can embody them in actions, works of art, and thoughts.

But they are hard to teach.

Here is a clue to help teach them and to understand why they are so hard to teach. Students come to understand ideas in the gaps and creases of what they are being taught.

The human mind was created for harmony. It takes pleasure in things fitting together, so much so that when things don’t fit together it tries to make them fit together. If I say, six times seven equals forty-three, that bothers you not only because you have been told otherwise but because there is a disconnect between the two sides of the sentence. Forty-three cannot rightly be predicated of six times seven.

Minds that are able successfully to reassemble fragments when they are young develop habits and confidence as they grow. Minds that endlessly watch television might enjoy themselves, but they never discover themselves. They never find out that they are capable of solving problems, so they are intimidated by them when they come.

The trick for the teacher is to find that dangerous space between easy resolutions and excessively challenging problems in which the student can exercise his thinking capacities and develop them to excellence.

What does this mean practically? First, it means that you should always orient your teaching, in one way or another, to leading your student to understand ideas. Second, it means don’t fear the gaps. If you want them to learn math, give them problems that they have to think about, not just processes to imitate.

If you want them to engage in history or literature, find the tensions and contradictions in the text. For example, ask whether Brutus’ behavior is consistent with his speech, whether Antony’s speech is consistent with his agreement with Brutus, and so on.

You can’t tell them ideas and expect them to perceive them. But you can create a need to perceive them by creating contradictions or tensions in their minds. This is exactly how our Lord taught us in the parables, some of which shocked his listeners. That is why Plato famously said in his Republic, “Great is the power of contradiction.”

I disagree.

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