Breaking All the Rules

Breaking All the Rules

Richard Butler
2002 3M Teaching Fellow

rom grade school to now, I have been and continue to be unable to learn by reading alone. While not disputing the utility of the written word, I have to think in pictures (Temple Gradin, Thinking in Pictures) if I am to understand anything. I often think that this is the gift that anatomist have. Through graduate school and the early years in my academic career, I assumed that all students needed to think in pictures as well and this is still the approach I take. They build their own images that have meaning for them in their own minds. I am amazed at how well students respond and the level of fundamental understanding they achieve. Who among us has not asked a class “Have you already covered this?” and had the answer, “Yes,” refuted by a fundamental lack of understanding?

After thirty years in the academy, I know what my job is-to get students to look and think. After thirty years of teaching, I am very confident that most undergraduates can do neither. As Richard Feynman observed, ” … I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant” and I think this is universal. So then, what’s the use of subject content if students don’t really understand what it means? The answer, of course, is “no use.” In my classes, the subject matter has now become merely the frame on which the exercises of looking and thinking are stretched. The ability to really look at and think about a subject is much more important than transient attention paid to huge volumes of memorized information. At the university level students finally get involved rather than experiencing grade fifteen. How do students think? The following is from a letter written by Jody Powers, a former student:

Despite having heard raves about Dr. Butler, I really had no idea what I was in store for as I rushed to my first class last semester. I had no idea what he would open my mind to in only four short months. I had no idea such a drastic improvement could be made in the way I process thought.

There was no text assigned to Dr. Butler’s class. This was a little unsettling at first. About eight different texts had been put on reserve in the library, so that we might find the one that presented concepts in a manner that best appealed to our personal style of learning. While it may seem obvious that different styles of writing would appeal to different students, this was the first time I had ever seen a professor make such accommodations.

There was no detailed lecture. While he did have a schedule of how many lectures would be spent on each topic, the direction the discussion took was largely dependent on where our questions and ideas directed it. This was perhaps the most awesome element of Dr. Butler’s teaching style, which even drew other professors to his classes to observe. To approach problems without there necessarily being a right or wrong answer waiting for us, yet to be confident in our answer simply through the logical manner it was arrived at.

Yet another facet of Dr. Butler’s effective approach to teaching arose when we discussed the first test. He explained that his tests did not have an “answer key.” In fact, his questions were not awaiting a specific answer; they were rather inviting us to use our acquired knowledge and to apply it. In essence, to think. There is no way you could predict the questions that would be asked, and furthermore, no expectations as to how you might answer.

No assigned text. No specific lecture outline followed. No marking key for exam or tests. No expectations other than to show original and logical thought. Dr. Butler seemingly broke all the rules followed by most professors and in doing so, we students broke out of our usual approach to education. Instead of gearing my studying and test answers to what I thought my professor was looking for, I found myself simply reading all that I could so that I would be well equipped to seek out my OWN answers.

In this sense, Dr. Butler gave us ownership over our education.