/ Cory Doctorow / 4 am Tue, Apr 14 2015
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  • How to Teach Adults: Get a Job; Plan Your Class; Teach Your Students; Change the World

    How to Teach Adults: Get a Job; Plan Your Class; Teach Your Students; Change the World

    Dan Spalding's How to Teach Adults (free download) is an extraordinary document that mixes the practical and the philosophical, a book that explains how to be a better teacher, and how better teachers make a better world.

    I first encountered How to Teach Adults as a kickstarter for a free online doc, back in 2012. I remember thinking that it was well-written, cogent and very practical.

    But the revised, expanded edition -- still a free download, and also a printed book -- zooms way out, making the connection between the education of adults and civil disobedience training, education for marginalized and undocumented people, and other controversial subjects, including unionization, education reform, and the hollowing out of public institutions in the name of a market doctrine that pits the production of useful laborers against self-realization and fulfillment.

    I teach adults from time to time, usually at writing workshops like Clarion and Clarion West (I'm teaching Clarion West this summer). Teaching writing has a lot in common with teaching other substantial subjects: student improvement comes mostly from making tons of mistakes, reflecting on them, and trying directed experiments that attempt to overcome those mistakes. So a lot of instruction amounts to giving students the confidence to slog on when they're in the wilderness, and to impart big-picture, overarching wisdom about the subject that they can use as a pole star while they are on their long march.

    But there are also the "stupid writer tricks": clever gimmicks and techniques that work reliably, produce quick dividends, and which can be transmitted quickly and relatively painlessly. These are just as important as the big picture stuff and not just because of how they boost morale. Anyone can learn and apply these techniques and produce readable material, but becoming an expert requires that you transcend them through extended practice, reflection and refinement.

    Spalding teaches in a lot of contexts -- everything from ju-jitsu to ESL to activist training. How to Teach Adults moves easily from the big picture stuff to the tips-and-tricks, often calling out the latter in easy-to-spot sidebars. For example, every teacher has had to contend with an advanced student who appoints themself assistant teacher, and starts to tell other students what they should be doing. Spalding has a great technique for dealing with this: make eye contact, wait until you have the person's complete attention, smile, but not too much and, say, "One teacher," and point at yourself. I'm totally using this someday.

    There's also a different kind of practical material in here: career advice on dealing with good and bad school administrations, collaborating with colleagues and defusing bad workplace situations, joining a union and demanding a good deal for you, your colleagues and your students.

    As good as Spalding's practical material is, the big picture is even better. Education is a radical act, and the education of adults is a doubly radical act. Spalding's book is a call to action for teachers of all description, to recognize that they are helping people change and control their own lives. Particularly good is Spalding's concluding essay on the "education crisis" in America, which is presented as a fight to make American kids as good at math and reading as kids in China, Japan and Finland, but which is really an expression of class war that seeks to replace teachers with disposable automata and corporate "learnware," and to remake our schools as private institutions dedicated to giving corporate America exactly the labor units it demands -- every bit as disposable as their teachers, and docile enough to take what they're given and like it.

    Study any subject deeply enough and you will find profound proofs. Teach any subject long enough and you'll figure out how to communicate them. Spalding has clearly done both with How to Teach Adults.

    How to Teach Adults: Get a Job. Plan Your Class. Teach Your Students. Change the World [Dan Spalding]

    -Cory Doctorow

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