Not needing a teacher

Alas, I was not the only one to like Aaronson’s Teaching Statement. One reader (a “young scholar” in his own words) after reading said Teaching Statement, emailed Aaronson asking him for advice on how to “best remove students’ attention from the mediocrity of grading to the eagerness for knowledge” and “teach them on how to seek knowledge for themselves”. Again, Aaronson replied with a couple of suggestions, and again, I quote the one that most stroke me:

Most importantly, if you don’t want the students to focus only on low-level boring stuff, don’t lecture only about low-level boring stuff! Tell stories about Alan Turing and his codebreaking work. Talk about the philosophy behind the Church-Turing Thesis, or the arguments for and against identifying “feasible” with “polynomial time,” or the implications for AI if it turned out that P=NP. If a student asks a really good question, don’t be afraid to take a 10-minute digression to answer the question. You’ll constantly feel pressure in the opposite direction—there’s so much “real material” that needs to be “covered”! But think about what your students will remember from your course twenty years from now, long after the details of implementing red/black trees have been forgotten, and the right course of action will become clear to you.

As to seeking knowledge for oneself:

In my experience, probably the best (only?) way to teach people how to seek knowledge for themselves is to illustrate by example. Let your students watch you in action doing all of the following:

1. happily admitting when you don’t know something.
2. looking something up and getting back to the asker during the next class meeting, rather than simply letting the matter drop.
3. thinking a difficult/novel question through on your feet.
4. eliciting help from the students in a “Socratic” manner.

It’s frustrating that one can do no more than write about this, but well even that has got to count for something.

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