Vernacular Pedagogy: Some Hallmarks.

The best way to teach about teaching is likely: by example. There are so many principles and theories that could be "applied." But is that really the best way to approach teaching? Not likely.

Teaching is a practical art. You must do it--not just think about it. And when it comes to practice, a good strong example is often quite effective.

Happily, we do not have to scrounge around to find some obscure example of great teaching. There are terrific examples in plain sight, although most people don't sort them into the category of "teaching."

I am talking about what I will call vernacular pedagogy. This is any presentation in any medium which explains rich and complex material very successfully. Two hallmarks of such success are: many people are drawn to the material, and the teaching has a large impact. Information really is passed on, people really do learn, and so vernacular pedagogy has real impact.

Public television is a treasure trove of vernacular pedagogy: Julia Child, Carl Sagan, and Ken Burns quickly leap to mind. Since two are on-screen performers and the third a documentarian, we can see that the vernacular pedagogue is not the same thing as, say, a writer or a director or a TV personality: it's not a job it's more of an avocation.

Classical music has its own explainer-demonstraters:

But a single example of vernacular pedagogy suffices to present the hidden complexities of the form. I've picked Julia Child, because she's wildly pleasurable to watch and to talk about. Just as you could learn from her all day, you can talk about her all day.

Another hallmark of vernacular pedagogy is the combination of otherwise incompatible features. Think of a Julia Child show. It is:

  • practically purposeful,
  • richly layered,
  • easy to absorb yet
  • repays revisiting, it
  • often leads to a deeper engagement, and it is
  • deeply personal.

Practically purposeful. You feel you can do something afterwards you could not before. You are excited to try. You feel empowered, confident. (In learning theory terms, you feel efficacy--that Can-Do Feeling.)

Richly layered. There are many things going on, many topics, many kinds of information. Each is touched on lightly, deftly. It's not an obscure clue that leaves you lost: it's an essential string of related elements which is woven around another such string, so you're getting many things at once without ever being stumped.

Easy to absorb. You're conscious of learning, conscious of being immersed, conscious of absorbing something new, but you're never lost, puzzled, or frustrated. You know where you are, and you know where you are going.

Repays revisiting. It's not that we need to watch it more than once: it's that we want to. You make take a long break, you may think you know everything, but when you do return, you're surprised just how much is there.

Often leads to a deeper engagement. People often fondly remember Julia Child as their first encounter with more sophisticated cooking techniques. It's that moment when you go beyond throwing a piece of food in boiling water or a hot frying pan, when you go beyond fearing it will be burned or raw. You may go quite far beyond some of the recipes and techniques Julia introduced to you. But Julia will always have been a key turning point, the opening of a door.

Deeply personal. Not all teaching is. But great vernacular pedagogy is. Why should sharing knowledge, even very publicly, be so intimate?

I have noticed something with creative writing. (*Among my sidelines is teaching screenwriting.) If you approach creative writing in a certain way, if you start from the right place and work in the right way, some very personal stuff comes out in even the simplest writing tasks.

  • If you imagine a city, a vast network of places and the experiences you've had there, and you imagine running a simple errand, so much of your past and of the city may be attached to that simple route and task.
  • Knowledge is also a network, like a city and like memory too, and some expert guides know how to traverse their network of knowledge and know-how in such a way that a lot happens beyond the seemingly simple tasks set out.

In this way, a terrific vernacular pedagogue shares something very personal: personal it how it was acquired, personal in how it is organized, personal in how it is shared.

Why does vernacular pedagogy matter?

Today the liberal arts education is under fire. Many call for something that prepares young people for jobs and careers, rather than merely making them "well-rounded individuals" (which itself sounds pretty mechanical).

Reflecting on it in this way, vernacular pedagogy actually seems like a good model for some excellent things you'd expect from a liberal arts education. Vernacular pedagogy offers a stimulus to do something, begins a lifelong journey of revisiting some exciting and important issues, makes learning deeply personal, and begins a long task of becoming the kind of education that never ends.

  --Edward R. O'Neill


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