for my advisor,
The Wizard of Numbers
the spell is provocation
that lights the mind ablaze,
curiosity takes expression
and clears that foggy haze.
there is no greater motivation
than your internal need,
to find yourself the answer;
to want is to succeed.
the magic revelation
is what you learn is real
and all those sterile concepts
might have their own appeal.
so cast the spell of provocation;
evoke and you might find
one of those precious moments
where mind and soul align.
I dedicate this to my advisor, who turned one of those unpleasant subjects into something I pursue with great interest. Merely with unspoken faith in my abilities and supporting the opportunity to see something for myself, a difficult and painful activity was transformed into a surmountable, and dare I say enjoyable, challenge.
With this reminder of how interpretation impacts my life, I would like to present the principles of interpretation.
In the book Interpreting Our Heritage, Freeman Tilden laid out the original principles of interpretation; the art of presentation. His intent was to write a guide for the park service to improve how they portray natural and historic resources to visitors both in displays and in presentations. His principles have long been the building blocks from which the park service designs visitor centers, interpretive talks, displays, and various other forms of communication.
I consider these principles in many contexts; books, presentations, poetry–just about any situation where I am attempting to present something or it is being presented to me. It hadn’t occurred to me to view teaching in the interpretive framework until just recently despite the fact that I learned of this in an environmental education class. So here they are, the groundbreaking framework for understanding how we convey what we know to an audience.
I Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.
If the material does not have relevance to the student, it will be difficult to explain. How do you convey something if you do not appeal to common ground between the teacher and the student? An extreme case of this is when you’re trying to teach material and the students don’t have the math prerequisites. Once in undergrad, I was using a book with differential equations and I thought they were doing some sort of derivatives… not very useful.
A less extreme example would be working in econometrics without examples to give solid meaning to the motions being made. The stronger the connection to the material being used, the less sterile the experience will be.
II Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based on information. But they are entirely different things. However, all interpretation includes information.
A list of facts has little value on their own. Anyone can memorize numbers, quotes, equations, and get nothing out of it. A list of facts may test your memorization skills, but is not conducive to learning and developing new understandings. Interpretation gives these items context and meaning.
III Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical, or architectural. Any art is in some degree teachable.
Teaching skills are teachable to an extent, and each teacher has a unique style. I’m sure that most people are not naturally good teachers from day one, nor does your first day destine the rest of your teaching career. It is, however, not a clear-cut skill where precise execution is possible.
IV The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.
This is the magic: you may be able to teach a student a subject they have no interest in, but they can go much further if by provocation, they do so of their own. I cannot stress the difference it makes between trying to learn something and wanting to know something.
V Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole man rather than any phase.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A given piece has little relevance on its own without a role in a greater whole. Even if a focus is a small piece, context should be provided to give it relevance.
People are also not so divisible and learning does not happen in a vacuum.
VI Interpretation addressed to children (say, up to the age of twelve) should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults, but should follow a fundamentally different approach. To be at its best it will require a separate program.
You can teach kids about economics so long as you understand what experiences they do and do not have.
These principles may seem simple and straightforward, but it is that same simplicity that makes the Art of War profound. There is far more to art than a few guidelines. This is just the first, the original framework from which more complex understandings can be built.
Consider the power of these thoughts though. Teaching is an art form where you take knowledge and show what it means. The material has to be made accessible by connecting to what the student already knows. Getting your students excited about a topic can do so much more than a technically excellent presentation.
This is perhaps a different wording from the evaluations filled out at the end of every class, and the way we describe ‘good’ or ‘bad’ teachers, but does it not convey why a teacher is successful or not? The ability to interpret is what it comes down to. This describes the general strengths and weaknesses of a teacher and suggests that there is always a way to improve one’s teaching ability.