Around 400 A.D., a deacon from Carthage named Deogratias asked St. Augustine, then Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, for his advice on how to teach the faith to those who came seeking to become Christians. Other Christians often sent catechumens (new Christians learning about the faith) to this particular deacon because he was known to be well-versed in the faith and had the gift of eloquence. However, deacon Deogratias had doubts as to his own knowledge and manner of teaching.
As was typical for those who wrote Augustine for advice, Deogratias received an entire book in response to his questions. It is not a long book, but it is a discerning one. It is called De Catechizandis Rudibus (Concerning the Instruction of the Unlearned). It remains to this day a classic text on the subject of teaching.
All the advice Augustine gives on teaching rests on one bedrock precept: There must be a relationship between the student and the teacher. He says, “The soul which before was torpid is excited so soon as it feels itself to be loved… With what might of love the inferior kindles so soon as he learns he is beloved by his superior.”
The application of this advice in a homeschool setting might seem obvious—of course you love your child! But the key for both the homeschooler and the classroom teacher is that the soul is “excited so soon as it feels itself to be loved.” Does the student know that his parent or teacher wants what is best for him? Is that expressed? Is it lived out?
Love is more than a feeling; it is also an act. Students are highly motivated by knowing that their teacher is seeking to truly prepare them for the real world even though they are being asked to do some very difficult things.
This foundational idea supports all Augustine’s principles. If we do not truly care about our students, the rest of his ideas are nothing more than rhetorical tricks.
1. Augustine first discusses a problem that can cause weariness in the student: Teachers sometimes experience disappointment or frustration in having to stoop to the student’s level. This attitude can easily seep into the teacher’s tone when speaking to a class, revealing to the students an irritation that they are having trouble mastering the basics. This will not go unnoticed by students.
To treat this problem, Augustine implores Deogratias (and us) to remember the vision of the mother of a young child who feeds her child small morsels in place of larger adult-sized portions, or the father who babbles with his child in “shortened and broken words.” It is love that motivates them, and it should be love that motivates us to meet the child where he is. A teacher must know his students and adapt his teaching to their level of learning and maturity.
From a practical perspective, we can apply this encouragement by fully embracing the level of our students’ abilities, and by doing small acts such as taking the time to know about their lives, giving graded or ungraded assessments to make sure our teaching is clear and thoroughly understood, and gearing our teaching toward different ways of learning (auditory, visual, tactile, etc.). We can also make sure we are giving them age-appropriate texts, and not pushing them to the heights of learning before they are ready.
2. A second problem Augustine addresses is the boredom that can come upon the teacher from constantly teaching the same things over and over again. The first few years of teaching a new subject or level are intriguing and challenging. But by year four, seven, or fifteen, a natural apathy starts to occur. In his eloquent style, Augustine says, “We often feel it very wearisome to go over repeatedly matters which are thoroughly familiar, and adapted to children.”
But Augustine offers this solution: Find joy in making the old things new again. He says,
Is it not a common occurrence with us, that when we show to persons, who have never seen them, certain spacious and beautiful tracts, either in cities or in fields, which we have been in the habit of passing by without any sense of pleasure, simply because we have become so accustomed to the sight of them, we find our own enjoyment renewed in their enjoyment of the novelty of the scene?
By contemplating the response of our students to learning new things we can be renewed. When a student’s eyes grow large and he exclaims with wonder at finally understanding a challenging concept, we should ourselves be moved by his wondrous joy.
3. While we might lament the number of students with attention difficulties today, it is clear from reading Augustine that this was a problem in his day as well. He speaks of the listener who initially is excited to learn and then “gapes and yawns, and even unwillingly exhibits a disposition to depart.”
Augustine’s answer is this: The teacher must refocus the attention of the distracted student. He gives two ways this might be done. First, he exhorts the teacher to use the listener’s emotions to make him attentive once again. Explicitly he instructs the teacher to stay on topic, but to use “an honest cheerfulness” or an explanation or illustration that is awe-inspiring or even sad. By evoking those emotions, the student will be distracted from his tiredness and directed to listen once again to the lesson. In upper level classrooms, I like to also play the devil’s advocate and take a position that is shocking to the students in order to force them to defend their position—it always gets their attention.
Second, Augustine amusingly says students should be offered a seat! (In his day, many lectures were listened to while standing.) But in that same vein, we should not hesitate to ask our students to stand up and stretch to help reinvigorate them.
St. Augustine has many more ideas for teaching in De Catechizandis Rudibus that ought to be examined, since students have not really changed throughout the centuries. The struggles Deogratias and Augustine both shared we share too. Rather than attempt to come up with new ideas, let’s drink at the well of the old.