Book Notes for My Future Selves: Paideia Proposal by Mortimer Adler

For background, on the series read this.  All posts in the series can be found here.

In my teaching training, one of the main methods we used was the Socratic Seminar, whose roots go back to Mortimer Adler’s Paideia work in the early 1980s.  In re-reading Horace’s Compromise and School, I realized Adler’s work was widely carried great weight in their pages, so decided it was time to go to the original source.  There, I found great clarity on many of the things I’ve been trying to do for years.

For me the “Teacher”

  • Adler divides schooling into three types of learning, each associated with a certain kind of instruction: Acquisition of Organized Knowledge by means of didactic teaching (lecture, video, textbook, etc); Development of Intellectual Skills by means of coaching and supervised practice; and Enlarged Understanding of Ideas and Values by means of Socratic Questioning and Active Participation.  The clarity provided by these three divisions really allows me to see through the murkiness of most of my thinking (and I imagine this would do the same for others).  For example, I realized that I’ve done discussion wrong. Discussion is how you teach understanding. I’ve used Socratic Seminars to teach close reading and whatever content we read. These are better taught by coaching and telling.  I also realized I, somewhat accidentally, got the teaching of reading right in how I approached it in the Philosophy course I taught last year: I observed students reading and working on various strategies in pairs and small groups, and was able to coach them through hard parts.  Looking ahead, I need to make sure that my course make room for all three types of learning, using the proper methods for different goals.
  • Two great quotes that serves as a good reminder for the big responsibilities all teachers have: “Schooling should open the doors to the world of learning and provide the guidelines for exploring it” (11) and “Schooling is the preparatory stage; it forms the habit of learning and provides the means for continuing to learn after all schooling is completed” (10).
  • On teaching skills: “what is learned here is skill in performance, not knowledge of facts and formulas, the mode of teaching cannot be didactic. It cannot consist in the teacher telling, demonstrating, or lecturing. Instead, it must be akin to the coaching that is done to impart athletic skills. A coach does not teach simply by telling or giving the learner a rule book to follow. A coach trains by helping the learner to do, to go through the right motions, and to organize a sequence of acts in a correct fashion. He corrects faulty performance again and again and insists on repetition of the performance until it achieves a measure of perfection” (27).
  • On teaching for understanding: The mode of learning in Column Three engages the mind in the study of individual works of merit, whether literary or otherwise, accompanied by a discussion of the ideas, the values, and the forms embodied in such products of human art. The appropriate mode of instruction in Column Three is neither didactic nor coaching. It cannot be teaching by telling and by using textbooks. It cannot consist in supervising the activities involved in acquiring skills. It must be the Socratic mode of teaching, a mode of teaching called “maieutic” because it helps the student bring ideas to birth. It is teaching by asking questions, by leading discussions, by helping students to raise their minds up from a state of understanding or appreciating less to a state of understanding or appreciating more” (29).

For me the “Advisor”

  • Another great line: “Youth itself is the most serious impediment— in fact, youth is an insuperable obstacle to being an educated person” (9).

For me the “School Designer”

  • I think that in our unit plans and curriculum maps, we will need to modify the Understanding by Design framework to put different areas for different learning goals AND their associated pedagogical methods.  I also think we need to be explicit with teachers which area, or areas, they are primarily working on in each class.

For me the “Professional Developer”

  • A good paragraph to share with teachers who spend too much time on didactic teaching: “Teachers may think they are stuffing minds, but all they are ever affecting is the memory. Nothing can ever be forced into anyone’s mind except by brainwashing, which is the very opposite of genuine teaching. Teachers who do not understand these truths misunderstand the true character of learning. Worse, they do violence to the minds in their care. By assuming that they are the primary cause of learning on the part of their pupils, by filling passive receptacles, they act merely as indoctrinators— overseers of memorization— but they are not teachers” (50-51).

Adler, Mortimer. Paideia Proposal. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982. Kindle Edition.

Responses or questions to any of the notes/quotes are very welcome and appreciated.  

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