The Art of Teaching — Gilbert Highet

For reasons not clear to me, The Art of Teaching is regularly recommended to teachers or people who want to be teachers. It’s not very good; skip it and read Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom instead, which has advice that’s both more practical and more theoretical than The Art of Teaching.

Highet says that “This book is called The Art of Teaching because I believe that teaching is an art, not a science.” He might be right. But he doesn’t present much evidence as to why it is, or how one can become a better artist in a significant way. A lot of his advice is obvious or vague. Among the obvious parts:

The first essential of good teaching… is that the teacher must know the subject That really means he must continue to learn it.
The second essential is that he must like it.

Among the vague parts:

Learn the peculiar patterns of [your students’] thought and emotions just as you would learn to understand horses or dogs—or other animals (for there are all kinds of different animals implicit in children: the very small ones are often more like birds)—and then you will find that many of the inexplicable things they do are easy to understand, and many of the unpardonable thing easy to forget.

What does it mean to “learn the peculiar patterns” of students’ thought? Highet never says. And I’m leaving aside the double aside he uses, or the fact that he compares students to animals. What’s next—the freshman whisperer?

The Art of Teaching is big on ideas and short on execution. There’s not much to say about it other than a warning to stay away from it.

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