All The More Reason

Discouraging Inquiry
May 28, 2007, 9:34 pm
Filed under: Education

While supply teaching 10 year–olds today another teacher came into my classroom to conduct the French class. I took the opportunity to get back into my novel I was reading when my ears pricked up upon hearing her say “O.K. I’m now going to talk in English for 2 minutes to explain to you how to use a dictionary.” I thought to myself that anyone that was willing to explain how to use a dictionary couldn’t be all that bad. Here was her explanation, plus ou moins.

“Look up the word headache. Look it up in the english section of your dictionary [they were using english–french dictionaries]. You will see next to the word some symbols in brackets that nobody bothers reading or understanding. Then you will see prep or adj which means preposition or adjective etc. Finally you have ‘mal de tête’. Which do you think is the word in French? The symbols that nobody uses, prep, or mal de tête?”

As it happens, I once thought that those symbols in between the brackets were impossible to decipher, and I didn’t use them largely because I didn’t know how to. They were intimidating because they were different. However, over time I came to understand their utility and also a little bit about how interesting an idea it was to come up with them in the first place.

As the teacher finished her class I realised that I had a bit of a choice in front of me. The easy one would be to keep my mouth shut and to say nothing. This is easier because discussing the phonetic alphabet with the kids would only get back to her next time she taught the class. The first thing that they would say is that they knew what the symbols meant. This would mean that the next time I supply teach at this school, if even asked back, I will face another teacher who will feel that I have made her look a little silly in front of the students. At the very least, she might feel that her credibility has been undermined. However, my hesitation to say something was precisely related to the fact that she had said that “nobody uses them”. If she had said that she didn’t know what they meant, or that someone in the class could find out what they meant, I wouldn’t have had any hesitation to explain the phonetic alphabet at all. It was only because she had set up the scenario as such that she would lose face if I, or anyone else, said anything that I was hesitating at all. I wondered if this was in part a way that she presented things so as not to have to answer these questions.

I understand that there is a peer pressure in teaching to toe the line as a unit. If students feel that teachers are fallible then maybe it’ll be harder to maintain discipline in the classroom. However, I don’t feel that this should weigh more heavily than the pressure to teach and to encourage inquiry. After she left I closed the door and told the students to reopen their dictionaries. I took about five minutes to explain the basic principle of the phonetic alphabet. Some of them were bored, but I’m not sure all of them were.

I think that in politics people are encouraged to toe the line even if someone within their party says something ridiculous. Every once in a while if someone says something completely bonkers then the whole party might turn on them and demand that they excuse or explain themselves. I feel that this is a similar type of situation. If people in these situations felt more at ease to encourage ever so gently another perspective then it would not be such a precedent each time that someone disagreed.

Jonathan Smith


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