New business cards are on their way

I will be introducing brand new business cards later this week which will feature the slogan:

DEMOI Independent Learning: Let’s begin the discussion.

I have given this slogan a lot of thought because I want to draw attention to the Socratic, collaborative and discussion-driven approach which is at the heart of my teaching. I enjoyed the challenge of distilling my philosophy into a simple and hopefully memorable phrase.

I do believe that what distinguishes my teaching and my business is the fact that discussion is at the very heart of my pedagogy. This is something of which I am proud.


What is merit?

What is merit?

One of the topics which interests me pedagogically (and politically) is the question of merit. What is merit? And how do we know if an idea has any?
Since I do not assign grades I am always thinking about how to convey the notion of merit to my students. I know of one way from my experience in higher education: if a paper is cogently argued then it merits at least a passing mark. If a paper is well argued and has a command of source materials then chances are it is worth a higher mark. In other words, I can show students how to write a cogent essay and then instruct them on how I would evaluate that essay on its structural merits if we were working together in a formal institutional setting.

By now I probably don’t have to tell you that I do not feel that this approach on its own is very satisfactory.

In humanities and social science programs in universities it is commonplace for students at the undergraduate level to research and then write on a chosen or assigned topic. The turn around time for essays is usually brief and the expectation is that the student will demonstrate the ability to read, summarize and perhaps even synthesize the material assigned. From a practical point of view, the challenge of learning something quickly and then churning out a paper is a valuable exercise. I think that it is probably a truism to say that being able to write clearly and deliver a formal presentation is a valuable skill that can be applied in most venues including at a job interview, when making a sales pitch or even when volunteering, campaigning or fundraising. I think it is also true to say that if you learn how to do this quickly then you have gained a form of professional advantage. But what I think that this exercise does not do is teach someone how to test the merits of an idea.

If a student chooses to study within the field of the humanities and social sciences it is unlikely that she will be required to do any original research during the course of her undergraduate career unless she opts for an honour’s degree or elects to attend graduate school. Otherwise, the bulk of the work she will do is likely to be confined to secondary research and summarization. The sciences are different, though I admit I am not qualified to speak about what a scientific education looks like.

One of the advantages that independent study offers students is the ability to do original research, an exercise which may come in a variety of forms. Literacy or wide reading is one example of original research. For example, if you decide that you would like to familiarize yourself with the works of William Shakespeare and undertake the task of reading all of his poetry and plays, then you are positioning yourself to be able to speak as a critic and an informed reader of his work. Once you have attained the enviable level of literacy that comes with completing the Shakespearean canon you are also in the advantageous position of being able to think about the Bard’s work from a synoptic point of view. While I think that it is certainly useful to read the criticism of great literary critics, like Harold Bloom, who possess a widely regarded command of the Shakespearean oeuvre, you are now in a position to assess the merit of Bloom’s ideas.

I think that merit, in one sense, is something whose meaning we can begin to grasp when we allow ourselves the opportunity to test our understanding. While I endorse a systematic approach to reading and study, I do think that the best forms of independent inquiry are imaginative, creative and even whimsical. Often the most interesting ideas are the result of insight and accident on top of rigorous study. I also think that insofar as a teacher/student relationship is concerned, the best of all possible situations is when a Socratic dialogue is taking place while the research is being conducted. If there is a certain romanticism in our culture about the lonely scholar at work pursuing truth in some sequestered tower, the reality is that the most dynamic learning happens in communities and in conversation.

What I value most about the work that I do is that it affords me the opportunity to work with students to construct lines of independent inquiry which inspire them. This form of learning is something which many teachers and scholars (Henry Giroux of McMaster University, for one) have said is diminishing in our public schools and in higher education. I do not think that it is an exaggeration to say that the opportunity to focus on an idea and to explore that idea for as long and as far as you would like, is an increasingly rare privilege. I hope to discuss in a subsequent essay what I feel the benefits of focused study can offer students in their quest to attain a wider, cross disciplinary literacy.

Jeremy Nathan Marks

What kind of teacher am I?

What kind of teacher am I?

I have been thinking for a long time about what it is that I do as a teacher. Since I have taken what might be called a “non-traditional” route within the pedagogical world, I find myself thinking about how to explain to the people I meet the nature of my vocation.

How do I see myself? And what does it mean to be a teacher whose classroom is an office space in his house, the living room of a student’s home or even sits within a clutch of books carried around in his satchel? It certainly does not resemble the traditional institutional world I come out of: a world of hi-tech classrooms, large modern campuses and highly formalized curricular models. I have elected not to pursue that familiar pathway because I feel that my ideas and instincts, my pedagogical methods and my views on hierarchy and educational democracy do not quite fit within that institutional context. Instead, I see myself as part of a line of educators which includes reformers like John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, Jonathan Kozol and Paul Goodman. I offer this admission not as an implied condemnation of traditional schooling but to help sketch out just how I am looking for a different forum in which to teach and to be taught.

I would like to begin by clarifying something: I am not, strictly speaking, a tutor in the familiar sense of the word. I advertise and offer tutoring services and enjoy helping students improve upon their critical thinking and formal writing skills but I do not think of myself as being primarily a “supplemental” educator, a term implied by the word “tutor,” at least in our North American context.

When I founded DEMOI Independent Learning in April 2013 I originally advertised myself as a tutor in the Oxford University sense: I am someone who works with students to design a rigorous course of independent study and then meets weekly (or multiple times per week) with each student to discuss their reading, writing and what they are thinking about in response to the work. I think the Oxford Tutor model is an excellent one because it affords the teacher and the student the opportunity of designing a course and then assigns both the responsibility of steering that course. I like to think that what I have done is taken this model and adapted it to the home schooling/un-schooling model of pedagogy by making it primarily a project of informal independent study. I have found this to be a tremendously stimulating experience because neither my students nor I can ever predict precisely where our work together will go. There is a spirit of adventure to our endeavours and I believe that the educational experience we share is truly a mutual one.

I will explore this concept of mutuality in a subsequent essay but for the moment I would like to pause over what precisely it is that students and I do together in our one-on-one “Oxford-style” sessions.

I think that the greatest gift independent study has to offer people of all ages is the ability to concentrate on a chosen field of interest. Too often we are told that we cannot just jump into a new field of study because we lack the requisite training or have not taken the proper “prerequisites.” I have encountered this mindset in graduate school and it succeeded in denying me the opportunity to study advanced topics that truly inspired me. In order to avoid this mistake with my students I encourage them to challenge themselves and tackle material that might seem, at first, to be a little “too advanced” to some. The material that we select is based upon their chosen topic. For example, this past summer I read The Iliad with an eleven year old student because it interested her and she wanted the challenge. It was a great experience. I also have taught a European history class to a group of 12 and 13 year olds using a university-level textbook. The reason I think this can be done is twofold: if someone shows an interest in a subject then I think this is an indicator that they are actually prepared to undertake it. Also, because I do not believe in grades or tests I am not worried about having my students pass rigorous examinations designed to determine whether they have truly “mastered” the material. (Mastery is another subject worthy of a future essay.) I do not think that “mastery” is necessary unless a student decides to pursue a professional career where specific forms of credentialing and testing require that they demonstrate quite specific skills in order to receive certification. And even there, we could have a fun debate about where and when credentialing is appropriate and why.

I will be exploring many of the ideas mentioned above in subsequent essays. My website is now in its final stages of development and when it appears it will contain a blog in which I regularly discuss the work that I am doing in the pedagogical field and what my students and I are currently up to.

Thank you for reading.

Jeremy Nathan Marks