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The Skill of Sight

Have you ever played “I Spy”? It’s a game where one person sees something that no one else sees. Through a series of cues given by the “seer,” the others learn to see the item that the first person found.

Real teaching is a lot like this game. The teacher sees something that he wants the students to see. Now, conventional teaching sometimes has as its goal the prospect of “catching them out,” of finding students who don’t see and yelling, “Ah ha! I caught you in a mistake.”

Classical teaching is the opposite of that. The goal of classical teachers is to coach the student so that he sees the same thing the teacher sees, so that he sees for himself. The goal is for these two to work together as partners in this quest. Both win when the student says “OH! I see it!”

How many of us would take a child on a nature walk, tell him “I see a bat! I see a robin’s nest! I see a hawk chasing a mouse!” and then go home? But isn’t that how we often teach? We see how to work a long division problem. We see the effects of Ferdinand’s and Isabella’s actions. We see virtue in a literary character.

We see. But they don’t.

So the teacher’s job is not just to know things or see things or understand things, but to guide his students into seeing the same things, to guide them into perceiving the Truth.

That’s a tall order. How can a teacher lead his students into seeing, or perceiving, the things he sees? How can he teach them how to see for themselves?

There is one way, by nature, that we learn to see.

First, we are prepared with prerequisite knowledge—we know a little about what we’re looking for: something analogous to some previous knowledge we can build on. Second, we see lots of “types” of the thing we’re learning about. Third, we compare these types to each other, and maybe this is when we all really start to observe. Fourth, we say “OH! I get it!” Then we are able to apply that insight to other areas.

Some people say that teaching is a gift, and that people are born either able to teach or not able to teach. But teaching is a skill that can be learned and practiced. Some people may be more inclined to it than others, or more gifted. But everyone can learn how to do it. Everyone can learn how to show students how to see, and the stages listed above are the ones we need to master in order to communicate with others to help them to perceive Truth.

This kind of learning, to perceive Truth, is equally applicable when we teach writing, math, another language, finding a bird’s nest, and everything else. We learn when we’re ready to see, when we see types, and when we compare the types to each other.

When students come to understand ideas in writing, math, a second language, history, or anything else, and express what they see, then they can apply those ideas.

For example, when students understand what a simile is, they apply that idea by noticing similes while they’re reading literature. Then they can learn how to create a simile. They apply the idea of creating their own similes when they make them for their own essays. They apply the idea of adding two-digit numbers with carrying when they complete their arithmetic homework, practicing that skill. We apply the idea of what a flying bat looks like when we find even more bats, when we draw a bat in flight, or when we show someone else how to see a bat flying past us.

When we learn to write, we first imitate spelling, sentence structure, punctuation, and word use. Later, we learn to imitate the thought process of a writer. All those skills can be taught. Some people will imitate them in a more limited way (everyone will at first), and some will imitate them more deeply later.

All of our learning is achieved by seeing and imitating. If we want to teach our students to see and imitate the truths in this world, we must teach this way—we must teach them to see.

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