Wednesday, May 01, 2013

indirect learning

I meant to capture the window display, but got the streetview instead.
Hans Urs von Balthasar is "my guy."  And by this I mean that the Swiss theologian is at the core of my doctoral studies.  Frankly, a lot of the time I don't get what he's saying.  His ridiculously broad base of knowledge in pretty much every field of the humanities leaves me in the dust.  Nevertheless, when I am reading one of his more than 60 books, every few pages or so I come across something that strikes at the heart of the matter and I utter a "Yes!" and feel a slight shift in my thinking, like another piece of the puzzle falling into place.  More recently, I have begun to read a series of articles by 15 scholars compiled into a book entitled:  How Balthasar Changed my Mind.  This companion to Balthasar's writing has been delightful because of its easy, accessible style, and its ability to break Balthasar's incredible theological contribution into bite-sized pieces. It is written by scholars who, in essence, invite you to sit with them while they regale you with stories and explain profound and complex concepts in conversational language.  Though I am appreciating and understanding Balthasar more than ever through these writings, I am perhaps equally impressed with the skill of these scholars to transform a difficult subject into a friend.

How do they do it?  I believe some of the most effective teaching methods are the ones which result in indirect or accidental learning.  In other words, something is "caught" or "rubs off on" a student rather than being directly taught.  Here are some of my observations on a few of the effective teaching skills exhibited by these writers.  While there is nothing really new here in regard to educational methodology in general, it is of particular interest to me because these methods are not always evident in a field such as theology.

1.  Modeling ongoing learning.  In the introduction, Larry S. Chapp writes: "I will never make any pretense to truly understanding the full scope of Balthasar's theology or the intellectual currents of thought to which he was responding."  Phew!  Thanks, Larry!  I thought I was the only one who was relatively clueless!  When I read this, I immediately felt less pressure to "get it" and more relaxed about my topic.  A good teacher knows how to lower stress levels, and very often this is done by letting the student see the teacher's own process, incomplete as it may be.  An honest "I don't know" can go a long way when inviting others along on a journey of diligent learning; it can also significantly reduce the immense pressure to understand it all.  As a result, the amount of energy that might have been wasted in stressful worry and coping with feelings of inadequacy can now be harnessed for productive and creative learning.

2.  Incorporating humour.  One of my favourite anecdotes in the book is from Larry S. Chapp's time in minor seminary when he was struggling with the theological understanding of the modern world.  One of his teachers, a "curmudgeonly German and a convert from Judaism," called him into his office and tossed a copy of Balthasar's Love Alone is Credible on the desk.  The young Chapp asked, "Who is this guy?"  The teacher responded:  "Never mind that.  Just read it.  It will make you less stupid."  I laughed out loud when I read this.  There is something to be said for humour in the learning process.  Humour opens a back door, it seems, where truths and insights can slip in almost unnoticed while our mouths are open in laughter and our minds are skipping in delight.  Suddenly, we find ourselves poked in the ribs, and we see or know something that just a laugh ago we didn't. In addition, anything learned through humour is more memorable, and due to the enjoyment factor, provides a pretty powerful incentive to continue learning.  Humour produces openness and openness is the beginning of learning.

3.  Showing instead of just telling.  Much of learning (especially theology and philosophy) can rely heavily on passing on information in a rather straightforward, unadorned manner.  But true teaching, in my opinion, always "puts on skin."  Martin Bieler writes about being a high school student in Basel and buying a few of Balthasar's books from a local bookstore.  The bookseller noticed his interest and told him that the theologian lived not far away.  Bieler bravely wrote to Balthasar and the great scholar immediately responded with an invitation for Bieler to visit him at his home.  At their first meeting, Bieler was struck by Balthasar's friendliness, his childlike ability to be astonished at things, and his willingness to spend time discussing various topics with a young man interested in theology.  Bieler says that he never left Balthasar's house without being given a book, very often from the theologian's own publishing house.  It is apparent that Bieler's generous and meticulous interpretations of Balthasar's work are based on his encounter with a generous and meticulous man.

I want to be a teacher that offers a lot of opportunities for students to learn in these ways.  Most of the time, it just means being myself and being open and unafraid.  May life be filled with many moments of indirect and accidental learning sprinkled liberally throughout the more deliberate exercises which are required of us.

"Balthasar has always acted like an intellectual antihistamine that simply allows me to clear my mind of clutter and to see things more clearly." - Larry S. Chapp

Quotes taken from Rodney A. Howsare and Larry S. Chapp, eds.  How Balthasar Changed My Mind: 15 Scholars Reflect on the Meaning of Balthasar for Their Own Work.  New York:  Crossroad Publishing, 2008.

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