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What is Mimetic Teaching?: A Lost Tools of Writing Excerpt

The following is an edited excerpted from the fifth edition of The Lost Tools of Writing.

MIMETIC INSTRUCTION applies the Christian classical idea that humans learn and become virtuous by imitation. However, in classical theory imitation is a far cry from mere aping. Mimesis is an imitation, not of the outward form, but of the inner idea — not ultimately of an action, but of the idea expressed in that action. Every art and skill is mastered through these stages, whether in school or out. It is a modified inductive form of instruction in which students are led to understand ideas by contemplating models or types of them. These models can be found in literature, history, mathematics, the fine arts, music, other human arts and activities, and nature.

Mimetic teaching is a mode of teaching that embraces the idea that human beings have a soul, which is their organ of truth perception, and that education does the work of turning that soul toward that which is worthy of being perceived and the work of strengthening the organ so that it can perceive the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Thus, education cultivates wisdom and virtue.

Mimetic teaching is not a “method” by which we can impose our opinions or ideologies on the student as if we were pouring water into a bucket. While there may have been educators in recent history who sought to do this, the mimetic mode of instruction neither necessitates this purpose for the activity of teaching, nor is it dependent on it. Mimetic teaching is means of truth perception more than it has ever been a means of imposing an ideology.

The Seven Stages of Mimetic Teaching

We recommend that you teach The Lost Tools of Writing following the mimetic mode of teaching, a seven-stage sequence that corresponds to the way children naturally learn. Mimetic teaching is neither a series of immovable steps nor a collection of laws; instead it follows the very flexible and adaptable natural stages students move through when they come to understand and master ideas and skills.

To teach mimetically, the teacher must first embrace the goal of the lesson: that the student will be able to apply the idea (the logos of the lesson) being taught. Therefore, each Lesson Guide clearly expresses to the teacher the ideas and skills contained in the lesson and equips you to teach them effectively.

As these Lesson Guides deepen your understanding, you will find yourself able to generate additional ideas of your own as examples, questions, practice, and so on.  The Lesson Guides are not your master; they are your tool.

The Lesson Guides in The Lost Tools of Writing present each lesson in the following sequence (The Stages of the Lesson):

  • Preparation
  • Presentation of types (examples or illustrations)
  • Comparison of types
  • Expression of the idea by the students
  • Application of the idea by the students

You may notice, though, that the Lesson Guide presents the lesson in five stages whereas here we have been referring to the seven stages. Here are the seven stages presented from the student’s perspective, linked to their five-stage counterparts:

  • Gathering (the student reviews the knowledge that is prerequisite to learning the new lesson) – This stage corresponds to the teacher’s “preparation” stage.
  • Wondering (the student asks the question, often only in his mind, that the lesson will answer) – This stage has no counterpart above, but has often been a transitional statement or question offered by the teacher as she moves from preparation to presentation.
  • Attending (the student pays attention to the types the teacher presents) – This stage corresponds to the teacher’s “presentation” stage.
  • Contemplating (the student looks for similarities and differences among the types that will determine what is essential to the lesson and what is not) – This stage corresponds to the teacher’s “comparison” stage.
  • Defining (the student either describes the idea or describes the steps that make up the skill taught in the lesson) – This stage corresponds to the teacher’s “expression” stage.
  • Mastering (the student practices by applying the idea) – This stage corresponds to the teacher’s “application” stage.
  • Resting (the student receives confirmation from the teacher that he comprehended the lesson) – This stage has no counterpart above, but has often been the closing comment made by the teacher anyway. Adding this stage simply formalizes what the teacher ought to be doing, giving the student confirmation of his readiness to complete the lesson or use the skill on his own.

Remember, you will be able to teach the lessons effectively if you understand each lesson’s core idea or logos. You will find that in the Lesson Guides. Let it guide your class instruction and your students’ practice.

Preparation ­­­(Gathering): Preparing the Students For the New Idea

Can you think of a time when you wanted to teach a lesson, but you weren’t sure your students were ready for it? What did you do? If it worked, you intuitively led them through the preparation stage.

Your goal in the preparation stage is to prepare your students to receive the new idea by making them aware of what they already know about the lesson and by generating a need within them for the idea it contains. For example, when teaching metaphors, you might review the lesson on how to generate similes since, if they can generate similes, they are ready to learn how to generate metaphors.

Or when you teach them how to generate parallel phrases, you might ask them to identify the parts of speech, to generate a series of parallel words, and to explain what a phrase is.. Now you know that they know almost everything contained in the lesson. At this point, you can create a need within them for parallel phrases by showing them incoherent or awkward phrases, possibly even some they have written. Now they are ready and willing to continue to the next stage

Take your time on this preparation stage. It will seem to slow things down. In fact, the more they know what they already know, and the more you know what they don’t, the better and more permanently you can link the new to old knowledge, and the more quickly you will be able to move through the later stages of Mimetic teaching.

Many benefits arise from this first stage, including more engaged students possessing the confidence that they can learn and apply the new tools (after all, they already know almost everything they need to know!) and, for you the teacher, the opportunity to promptly and informally assess your students’ readiness and to adapt appropriately.

Wondering: Provoking the Question

For students to attend to a lesson, they need to have a question they are trying to answer. In Norms and Nobility, David Hicks reminds us that an ineffective teacher answers questions that have not been asked, but a good teacher provokes the question.

The wondering stage is a transitional stage between gathering and attending (preparing and presenting) that provokes the question for the students. The transitional stage can be as simple as asking the students the question that the lesson will answer; by asking the question, it is provoked in the student. For example, if you are teaching a lesson on how to write a simile (presumably to students who don’t know how), then you can simply ask, “So, how do we create a simile?”

Provoking the question excites the wonder that will help the students to better attend to your lesson.

Presentation (Attending): Presenting the Types

Your highest priority when you prepare this stage is to select or create types (specific examples or illustrations) that embody the idea you are teaching.

The Student Workbook contains many such types. For example, Elocution Worksheet 2, on parallelism, provides specific sentences and clauses written in a parallel structure.

Comparison (Contemplating): Comparing the Types

Once your students have seen several types, they are ready to compare them. In fact, they have already begun to do so, at least unconsciously, so your role is to guide them with questions like, “How is type A similar to type B?” and, “How is type A different from type B?” For example, when you compare examples of parallelism, you might ask “How is the first example similar to the second?” Later, you might ask, “What do all the parallel words, phrases, and clauses have in common?” Then, to sharpen and clarify the idea, you compare examples with counter-examples (i.e. parallel phrases with non-parallel phrase, metaphors with simple comparisons, alliteration with rhymes, etc.). Thus, by comparing types, your students come to see with their own eyes the idea the types embody.

As the teacher, you can use comparison questions to assess whether your students understand the types. If they are unable to compare, back up and re-present the types. Do not hurry!

Expression (Defining): Expression of the Idea by the Student

This stage is very short. You simply ask your students to describe or explain the idea. You might say, “Describe parallelism,” or, “Explain how we define an object” or, “Explain how you will add Antithesis to your essay.” The lesson guides have sample questions.

Ask multiple students to express the idea in their own words to ensure that your whole class has learned it. It often helps to ask students to write the idea so that all of them can express their thoughts without hearing their peers

If your students are unable to explain or describe the idea being taught, revert back to the third stage and compare the types more closely.

Application (Mastering): Students Practice the Idea Learned

During the application stage, your students apply what they have learned by completing a worksheet, template, or exercise, or essay. The Lesson Guides show you what to require of your students. Invention lessons show how to gather information, Arrangement lessons show how to order the information gathered, and Elocution lessons show how to refine their expression when they write the essay.

Resting: Confirming the Student’s Mastery

Just because students have successfully practiced a lesson in class, that does not mean that they have the confidence to do it on their own. Telling the students that they have proved themselves able can often be just enough encouragement to give them the confidence needed to practice the skill or contemplate the idea further at home or on their own. This is an important part of education, as by doing it we imitate our Father in saying, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

Note: Mimetic teaching is neither didactic (lecture-based) nor Socratic (question-based), though it uses both questions and direct instruction. Mimetic instruction guides students through the natural process of imitating an idea (that is, embodying a general concept in a specific instance). Since this summarizes what happens when a person learns something new, mimetic teaching develops habits that students internalize and can apply to every learning experience. Both the content and the form of The Lost Tools of Writing teach students how to think, write, and create. On top of all that, this mode of teaching is surprisingly efficient.