Form, Substance and Thought

December 4, 2005

Teaching today seems to be emphasizing form over substance. What else explains the incessant need to use multimedia, presentation slides and computer-driven aids, as opposed to traditional blackboard teaching?

What happened to reading before class, and discussion in class? It does not exist. Now we have class, and then slides are the take-away. Summarized chunks of buzzwords, thats it.

Form serves some important functions though. Using multimedia for example, can elicit that first spark of interest, and focuses attention. So its not altogether bad. But then, if teaching is good anyway, I can hardly imagine that shock and awe from media-driven attention keeping will add much value, if any.

Form sometimes becomes part of the substance, in which case it is useful. Seeing a 3D image of a physical object, watching its dynamic manipulation, sometimes brings a depth of understanding that would not otherwise be reachable.

Overall though, there is little doubt that form is being substituted for substance, especially in business schools. We even have workshops on teaching which are primarily geared towards making faculty more adept at growing form at the expense of substance. There are seminars on using graphs, workshops on using the web for teaching, talks on the impactful teaching presentation, discussion groups on board technique, software for recording lectures with sound, video, etc. Nothing but props, foliage hiding the vacuous state of the classroom intellectual process.

What is substance? I see it as content, the core material of the courses we teach. Concepts, tools and vocabulary of the subject matter. However, even a lot of substance, while good is not enough. We need to spend time in class thinking, deeply. Therefore, I believe we need to substitute away from both form and substance, with more thought. Getting students to think in class, with or without props, multimedia, whatever, is supremely important.

I have found it very useful in my class preparation to ask not what will I teach today, but instead, what should we think through. Shoveling information is hardly the goal, putting the brain through a logical process is more worthwhile.