Teachers catch the spirit

Conference attracts multiple perspectives on education

Barbara Black

Every so often, even the most experienced teachers need inspiration, reassurance and new ideas. That’s what 350 university and college teachers got at the Spirit of Inquiry teaching conference last week.

The 80 short presentations ranged from the practical (“Teaching More Effectively and Spending Less Time Doing It”) and the technological (“Clickers 201”) to the conceptual (“The Art of Deception: Lies My Teacher Taught Me”).

While the subtitle of the conference was Developing Critical Thinking, Creativity and Community, Emery Hyslop-Margison, a Canada Research Chair in education, gave a paper that was sharply critical of critical thinking itself.

He said this approach, which is so deeply embedded in current pedagogical practice that it has become a popular catch-phrase, is often misunderstood and misapplied. He favours virtue epistemology, which emphasizes the student’s (and the teacher’s) need for openness to the ideas of others, a lively sense of one’s own fallibility, intellectual sobriety and courage.

One instructor in his audience (not from Concordia, fortunately) expressed her frustration with her university administrators. She asked for a copy of his paper so she could “slap it on a few desks.”

Sociology professor Anthony Synnott spoke for many longtime teachers when he reflected on how his attitudes have changed.

“I began with a Newman-esque view of the university as a beacon of light, and sociology as the way to make the world a better place. As the years passed, we began to see ourselves as markers, graders and rubber stamps. That way lies burn-out and cynicism. Then my sons and their friends arrived in university and I began to see myself more paternally, and other faculty as substitute parents to my sons: a major paradigm shift.”

His serenity about his own role was tempered by concern about the evolution of universities themselves, namely, the commodification of students’ degrees and the evolution of teaching from a calling to a career.

Perhaps the most inspiring talk of the conference was the first keynote address, by renowned psychologist Robert Sternberg. In a speech laced with self-deprecating humour, he criticized conventional teaching for rewarding memory and analytical skills over creativity and practical ability.

Sternberg said the educational system rewards students for the very skills they won’t need in grad school, or, indeed, in life itself. He called on teachers to encourage the development of wisdom, a rare and valuable attribute he defined as concern for the common good.