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Mill and Teaching

April 3, 2011

As a student in the Michigan School of Education, I can clearly see the value in the wisdom expressed in J.S. Mill’s work On Liberty. Within this work, Mill offers a valuable thought to all, but one that will be especially useful to remember as a future teacher:

“But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

A lot of training for potential teachers involves framing one’s instruction and connecting it back to one’s central focus and intellectual problem. However, within that instruction, much work is being done towards giving students the opportunity to ‘play’ with the material through using the actual tools and methods a mathematician, a scientist, a historian, etc. would use for their inquiries in a professional setting. Those tools involve group collaboration and discussion both within a small group setting (anywhere from 2-5 students) and in whole class discussions. Involving one’s students with discussion and investigation should play a critical role in any classroom setting (although it may take different forms for different classes). Mill’s quote shows the value in these types of methods about instruction. Everyone can benefit from another’s opinion – whether that opinion is right or wrong does not necessarily matter, but understanding the way one’s students think and how they think and how they connect those ideas to one another does. Hearing everyone’s opinion offers valuable opportunities for teaching moments and points and can help lead to better and more substantial instruction. My hope for educational settings in the future is that all teachers do involve their students in more meaningful and engaging ways – rather than just copying notes from a chalk/white board, doing problems right out of the textbook all the time, being told what is “right” or “wrong”.

  1. Eric Chang permalink
    April 4, 2011 5:10 PM

    While I am not a student at U of M’s School of Education, I’ve certainly thought about what pedagogical methods have been the most effective in my educational career. I wholeheartedly agree that discussion is necessary to maximize the sharing of ideas in certain situations. The primary value is to acquire knowledge via interaction with others. Mill talks about a more subtle benefit, where hearing varying ideas can either reinforce an existing “correct” one, or enlighten one with newer, better ideas.

    However, I think that differentiating between humanities and harder sciences is important. In a mathematics class, for example, discussion regarding a theorem or proof might be counterproductive. Yes, the field of mathematics has advanced due to experiential learning and challenging existing thought. But formulas and equations really aren’t too hotly debated. It would make more sense to do practice problems, rather than talk about them.

    Students in a humanities class such as Philosophy or Religion reap much more benefits from challenging and talking about each others’ ideas, since there is no right or wrong answer. Interaction allows ideas to grow and change. So while the opportunity to exchanging ideas is important, it must be used selectively, depending on the context.

  2. Chris J permalink
    April 4, 2011 10:13 PM

    I agree with you wholeheartedly, both in your application of Mill and your ideals about education. It is great the direction that education is taking toward making critical thinkers, rather than “standardized” students who all think and conclude the same things.

    Just as Rousseau talks about disagreements bringing about the general will (which is most equitable and representative), Mill points out that disagreement creates a more accurate truth. Even those opinions that are wrong should not be silenced because they may still have improvements to offer to the “right” answers.

    What perplexes me most about how people are “normally” taught is there is only one accepted answer, only one solution to each new situation. Is that really the mindset we want our future leaders to run our world with? Collaboration, negotiation, improvement, revision…all of these principles are embraced by group work and endorsed by Mill’s theory. Those are what will make for a better world, a world of open-mindedness and social awareness.

    • Chris J permalink
      April 4, 2011 10:17 PM

      Also, I agree with what Eric has to say above. Sometimes there is only one “correct” answer. But there are aspects I disagree on. Even in math and science there are many correct ways to derive the one correct answer. Students should always be made aware of this ability to vary in approach and still be correct.

  3. Anthony Sinishtaj permalink
    April 4, 2011 10:48 PM

    Math is a hard subject to discuss because it is objective. However, Humanities depend on background and personal morality and such. So, discussion to understand the pros and cons of different arguments is much more important on subjective subjects than objective ones.

  4. Noah Gordon permalink
    April 5, 2011 10:40 AM

    I completely agree with the spirit of this post, but I’m not sure discussion style debates would be practical in high school. First of all, there actually are many “accepted truths” that teenagers should be taught and not debated. Second of all, many high school students simply aren’t interested enough in the material to participate in a lively discussion. However for some subjects, especially at higher levels of education, discussions like the ones Mill proposes are the best way to gain an understanding of the subject.

  5. Kathaleen Kokotilo permalink
    April 5, 2011 3:24 PM

    While I agree that many high school students simply aren’t interested in enough material to participate in discussion, I feel that one of the educator’s goals should be to get their students interested in some of this subject matter. Also, even in a class like math where this is only one answer, some discussion can still be helpful because if students are given the chance to say how they got the answer right or wrong, they (or even the students around this student) will have the opportunity to learn from discussing the processes that they went through. Because there is so much diversity in not only students, but also in the way that they learn, being able to talk and discuss topics/issues significantly helps the students and the educators do their best. I don’t feel that it is necessarily always the topic that is important for students to understand but rather it is important to develop those critical thinking skills that are so essential in today’s world.

  6. Pierre Gerondeau permalink
    April 7, 2011 9:45 PM

    I think this was a very interesting post. I agree that discussion sections are a great way to facilitate learning, as they allow students to hear multiple opinions and viewpoints to help formulate their own views on a subject. Like Mill said, all opinions are valuable, even if they are not the correct opinion, because through time and discussion the right answers will be sorted out. In a discussion, you can talk about and debate the material from the textbook. If you don’t understand something, you can ask the teacher or other students to clarify, and the right answer will eventually come about. However, I do not always think that students have to necessarily talk in discussion sections to learn from them. I agree that students need to talk so that the teacher knows that they have read the material, etc, but sometimes I learn best by just letting everything sink in around me. I may not necessarily voice an opinion in the material, but I have one in my head, and through discussion and paying attention the right answer comes to light. Also, I agree with some of the commenters that discussion sections would not work as well in high school. At least from my experience, students are not as interested in their schoolwork in high school, and without a genuine interest and desire to learn more and do better in a class, it is hard to have a good class talk.

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