A Teaching/Learning Lexicon: Introduction

More by whimsy at first, but later by design, a number of years ago I began examining the derivations of words such as “teach”, and “learn”, and followed their origins into associations themselves derived from my experience teaching, and from what I have read and discussed with others.  The result is a modest and idiosyncratic “lexicon”, nonetheless an expression of a long tradition of teaching, and one by which the conduct of teachers and students – the progress of learning and growth – can be measured. No doubt, the lexicon will be incomplete; some of it may seem as fancy. I, at least, find these definitions useful to remember in this current era of skills testing when there is a danger of missing the forest for the trees.

Some readers will note that there is a physical metaphor to the imagining in this lexicon. “Terrain”, “portal”, “boundaries” all have a topographic quality. In my mind’s eye as I write, I see the terrain of the teacher’s experience and the related consciousness of the student as necessarily separate, with a physical boundary between them. Each, nonetheless, has a metaphorical topography.

The transaction that we refer to as teaching and learning involves transfers across this boundary, no doubt both ways. To truly teach is also to learn about one’s students.

Classical themes of metaphysics and epistemology are implied. What in fact goes on in the student’s mind as she learns from a teacher? How does the teacher know that the student has learned as intended? Prosaic answers abound — “By testing, stupid, etc.” Yet is there not still a mystery as to what goes down in another human’s consciousness?

TEACH – from a Middle English word, “techen”, meaning to show, instruct; akin in derivation to an Old English word “tech”, meaning sign, or token; related more obscurely to a Greek word which has overtones of judgment. One who teaches therefore shows the way, is a giver of signs, perhaps one who shows signs.

“Sign” has quasi mystical overtones that suggest the inexpressible, or the vaguely comprehended, or which refer to that which is dimly perceived. Similarly, a “token” represents a small part of, an emblem of, or a key to something larger. One who teaches thereby “shows” by sign or token, a portal of access to that which is to be taught.

But in all token and sign, there is a limit to the teacher’s reach. A teacher does not learn for his or her student; to “show” implies a finite boundary beyond which the learner must do something himself with the “sign” he has been given. Always a teaching must be complemented by a learning, which the teacher may well excite, but which must remain the private domain of the learner to construct as he or she will. The teacher catalyzes a process, but at some point he must stand on the frontier between himself and his student and entrust the journey he incited to the isolated strengths the other can muster.

The judicious teacher will perceive clearly the several lights of his guiding hand. He must locate the terrain in his own life and personality which his students will recognize as similar to their own. Having located an appropriate shared frontier – that is, a point of translation of one person’s experience into another’s — he then provides signposts by which the student may guide his journey into terrain new to him. The teacher will choose his signposts to require the student to explore under his own power, but provide enough support so that the new journey does not collapse in fear. The teacher does not resemble a drill instructor, the inculcator of pattern for masses. Rather his task is art, tuned to the uniqueness of a student, and flexible before the variety of terrain human energy can shape.

EXCITE – from Latin, ex + citare, to put into motion, to rouse – or, from cite, also Latin, to summon, to put into motion. Perhaps to take on a journey, to move out of bounds; to cause to want to go beyond accustomed boundaries. To provide a sign that shakes lethargy and mobilizes energy into newly dynamic forms. To cause energy to be freed and made available for change – that is, for learning.

More to come.

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