Here’s one for the “learn something new every day” box. Last week Middle Seaman, via More or Less Bunk, alerted me to the idea that “the shy cannot learn.”

It’s an intriguing diagnosis, not to mention very bad news for shy people everywhere, and I went off in search of its origins. Like any aphorism in translation, the exact deficit represented by shyness is really a matter of the intent of the original, and I’m not here to argue about that—I really have no idea.

But here’s the thing. Although it’s often quoted by itself (especially by teachers—go figure) it’s actually part of a bundle. One translation of the full version (Pirkei Avot 2:6) is this:

A brutish man cannot fear sin; an ignorant man cannot be pious, nor can the shy man learn, or the impatient man teach. He who engages excessively in business cannot become wise.* In a place where there are no men strive to be a man.

These sensible thoughts come from Hillel, and while the translation to “shy” is pretty consistent, “impatient” appears in different versions as “strict”, “irate” and “arrogant”.

I’m clearly not a scholar in the Jewish tradition, but it seems to me that the latter two parts of the sentence belong together. So before we dismiss too quickly the possibility that students who seem shy to us are simply unsuited to the increasingly overcrowded classrooms that underpin our do-more-with-less budget strategy, perhaps we could also think about what kinds of impatience we exhibit when we brush off their experience.

All this came about because I’ve been defending online learning on the basis that it suits some students, without really thinking about why I’ve shorthanded these students as “shy”.  I certainly don’t mean “unable to learn”, or “reluctant to question”, but perhaps I do mean “at a social or linguistic or cultural disadvantage in the often awkward environment of a large class”, or “less confident with the material under discussion and reluctant to jump in without checking facts several times”.  “Shy” is a whole lot quicker, but also lazy, and it’s earned the rebuke.

Still, I can’t overlook the fact that some students do better online than in the classroom for a whole range of reasons, just as some students have a worse time.  I base this on what I observe, and on what students themselves say about the difference in the experience.  There isn’t a win-win solution here: different individuals enjoy different opportunities to lead or to fall behind as the conditions change.

So it’s just like my favourite metaphor for everything, the Tour de France.  There are sprinters and climbers and local favourites who can’t win and attacking riders who crash and riders who need looking after but come good in the end and riders who can get back on their bike after being upended through barbed wire by erratically driven media cars, and steering the whole thrilling, crazy enterprise of the peloton through this madness are the mighty domestiques. It’s as good a metaphor for diversity in learning as I’ve seen, because it makes so clear that changes in terrain don’t hit everyone in the same way.  Even the best sprinter in the world needs help from others to haul himself over the mountains.

The whole thing is really a titanic caution against hubris: one day you’re the windshield, and next day, frankly, you’re the bug.

So every time I think I’m going to quit teaching online and join More or Less Bunk and Margaret Soltan at the barricades because the 178th use of “going forward” by someone spruiking an enterprise level content driven learning solution was just one teeny wafer thin after dinner mention too many, I’m going to remember this counsel against getting irate. We’re not trying to find the golden mean, the perfect balance: whatever we do, there are gains and losses. But for the sake of all our students, not just the ones who are confident in class, it’s worth holding out for a diversity of approaches, so long as all are driven by the qualities we know are important to good learning, whether online, or conducted under a tree in a courtyard.

* (Polite memo to vendors, investors and prospectors eyeing up the higher ed. market everywhere: it’s not that we can’t do business with you, but we can’t do it excessively, or there will be an opportunity cost in the very thing we’re trying to protect. Hope this helps.)

One Responses

  • There’s a very interesting topic here. Learning (and indeed teaching) is about communication, and this is more than just directing or exchanging words or sentences. What we say, what we hear, how we hear, what we retain, what we process – all this is determined by who we are and how we navigate through life. There isn’t a single model.

    Anyway, this made me think, and I’ll consider all this some more going forward 🙂


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