“Tell me why I am the greatest teacher that has ever lived.”
We laughed when Andrew Kern stood before us asking something so ridiculous. He is a deeply modest man, and we knew it. He knew we knew it. We knew he knew we knew it. He gave us an opening to do with as we pleased and let us know from his first move that we were all invited to play.
As he took an hour to go through the room and hear our responses, he drew out of us what we all knew: that we are repenting of the way of teaching we inherited and are pressing on to know how to teach classically. We know enough about Andrew Kern and The Lost Tools of Writing to understand he advocates a fresh new old way. There in that seminar he demonstrated mimetic teaching. Mimetic teaching engages the learner and guides him to learn from types (paradigms or models) until he can express and apply the new idea.
Let me paint a picture to show the difference between mimetic and didactic teaching. Let’s say a mother gives her young son a sunflower seed, and together they plant it in the warm soil of a spring day. They water it, and crow over the first sprout. Day by day they marvel over its progress, and when its bright yellow head is framed by the dazzling blue sky in August the boy paints vivid pictures. He names it ‘sky’s-eye-flower.’ Does he know what a sunflower is now? Will he always love sunflowers?
Now let us say instead she begins with a sunflower and carefully cuts it into its parts. She lays it out before her boy and tells him, “This is a sunflower.” She holds up each piece, explaining its function…but he is not listening. For some reason he shows no enthusiasm. What is wrong with this child?
That sketches in coarse lines the difference between mimetic and didactic teaching. Didactic teaching tells. In mimetic teaching, the child’s heart and interest are captivated by the thing he encounters. He encounters it whole. He does not begin with analysis, though his wonder may take him there someday. The teacher does not tell him what a sunflower is; he is guided to learn for himself.
Let us look at another example. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus hardly spoke without illustrations. He pointed to birds which do not farm, yet are fed. And again to flowers which do not weave, yet are clothed. From the pattern of these types we derive the truth that we should not worry about these things, for God cares about and will provide for our physical needs.
What have these two teachers done? They have given ‘types’: illustrations, models from which we derive truth about the world.
The mimetic sequence moves through five steps:
- The teacher prepares the student to receive the concept. Here we start with what the student knows and lead him to a gap he needs to cross.
- The teacher presents types. If it is a math or Latin concept, work through a few similar problems. If writing, practice making metaphors together. Walk through the Scientific Method with a couple of hypothetical situations.
- The tutor leads the student to compare the types until he discovers the pattern of truth. This is important and presents perhaps the biggest challenge to the old way of teaching. We want a light-bulb moment here.
- The student expresses the concept in his own words. This is how we know the lights went on. If he can express it, he owns it. Now give him the new vocabulary.
- The student practices or applies the concept. Give him one to do on his own—a math problem, a Latin translation, an essay.
In Mr. Kern’s classroom, we felt his high regard for us as learners. He did not give us answers, but guided us to learn them for ourselves. The mimetic mode naturally reflects the truth that man is made imago Dei, in the image of God: man can know the truth, know he knows it, and communicate it to others.
Maybe Mr. Kern is not the greatest teacher ever, but his teaching embodies the grace of the One who is.