How (Not) to Teach Greek

***Please Only Read this Post in Conjunction with This One, Published Shortly Afterward.***

That may seem like an audacious title coming from someone only three weeks into Summer Greek in his first year of seminary, so let me preface: I’m not an expert in Biblical Greek. I don’t presume to be. But I have spent most of the past decade as a professional educator, and am well-enough read in educational theory to know that good/bad teaching practices transcend subject matter. So with (at the very least) my graduate level studies in educational method, and my years of experience practicing it in the field, I think I’m qualified to say that my frustrations in Greek class are with the way in which the subject is being taught.

The general format of the course seems to be a daily dose of vocabulary words and grammatical forms to be memorized, followed by a lecture explaining any intricacies, followed by group and individual practice with various sentence translation exercises, and then an assessment in the form of a daily timed quiz lasting 10-15 minutes, or a weekly exam lasting approximately 1 hour.

I don’t have a problem with the sentence translation exercises. That’s a very constructivist sort of activity I enjoy doing with my precept group, and then on my own each night in the calm, untimed environment of our apartment with my flashcards, textbook, and tools readily available. My problem is with the amount of memorization required, and the added pressure of a “timed-quiz” where all work must be done from memory. This approach is the antithesis of centuries of progressive educational theory from Rousseau to Vygotsky to Dewey.

I do feel obliged to give my professor some credit here — as a teacher he seems passionate about his subject, and compassionate toward his students. These are, in my opinion, the two most important qualities a teacher can have. And I also perceive that he’s at least moving in the direction of progressive/constructivist methodology: He has often told us how much *less* vocabulary we’re required to memorize than previous classes, and that our textbook was specifically chosen because of its emphasis on learning the basic forms, rather than learning each instance or exception.

But the course is still far from a model of good educational practice, and I suspect that its longevity as a subject has entrenched/enshrined much of the current methodology in the quagmire of tradition. When I approached my professor about this, he indicated a firm belief that students had to at least commit to memory some basic things in order for education to move forward, and that all students should be able to perform certain functions of translation in a reasonable amount of time, hence the timed quizzes.

Perhaps. But the way we commit things to memory is by frequency of usage, not by what my department chair in my first year of teaching referred to as “drill and kill” style quizzes. When I am translating sentences at home, I use my tools to look things up. It doesn’t take me an unreasonable amount of time, and after I’ve looked up the same word or construction several times, I find I no longer need to use the tools. Forcing me to do it without the tools in a time-constrained format the next morning just causes stress and encourages me to make hasty, sloppy mistakes.

I’m fairly confident that nowhere in my eventual usage of Greek — be it as a pastor preparing a sermon, a scholar translating texts, or even on my Presbyterian Greek Ordination Exam — will I be barred from using tools and resources. So perhaps a better assessment of my abilities would be a quiz that measured how well (and even how quickly) I am able to use the tools at my disposal, even if they consist of crude flashcards or form charts. At the very least, in any other academic environment I would be given ample time in which to proofread or check my work before submitting it. Translation as an academic field ought to reward slow, meticulous work, rather than encourage the bad habit of rushing through work to meet a deadline. And (as my high school band director was fond of saying) we tend to perform what we practice, so we should practice what we want to perform.

Early in my teaching career, I required students to commit large numbers of vocabulary and literary terms to memory. Thankfully, my peers — veteran educators of many advanced degrees and many years in the field — steered me in a different direction. By the time I left my teaching position, I invariably allowed students to use all of their notes, term cards, and even texts on assessments. This was deep assessment, and it forced me to write my tests and quizzes in a way that ensured they really understood the material, rather than just regurgitating it.

One final critique. We know pretty decisively that different students learn in different ways, at different paces, and best demonstrate their knowledge through a variety of media. Yet all the assessments in our course (quizzes, exams, and a final exam) share a near identical format. Are we assuming that all students are alike here, or rather that in the interest of convenience, those who learn/process/test in different ways or at different paces should best be left behind? I don’t think that’s the intention of the course, and indeed at this point I don’t think anyone is being “left behind.” But as things progress and get more difficult, this is a danger, for myself as well as for others. Sadly, it’s a danger that would be pretty easy to remedy. And since one of the things I learned as a teacher was to never point out a problem without also offering a solution, here’s what I would do as a progressive educator, were I back on the other side of the desk:

  1. I would place the quizzes at the end of our 1st morning precept sessions, rather than at the beginning. Seeing as they are followed by a 30 minute break, this would give those who need it more time. It also has the advantage of allowing students and preceptors to go over the homework (i.e. more practice which breeds more understanding) before the quiz.
  2. I would allow/encourage the usage of flashcards, the textbook, and/or class handouts during quizzes and exams. Then I might feel free to make the quizzes more “tricky” or challenging — it would teach students to use resources better, think more critically, and more meticulously. And *that* will serve them best in the worlds of ministry AND academia.
  3. I would encourage students who feel that the tests/quizzes don’t reflect their actual knowledge of the subject matter to propose alternative strategies for themselves — I could then accept, reject, or modify these based on my own evaluation of the student’s needs, using my judgment as a professional educator. I might even be surprised with some of the ideas that result.

Actually that’s just a start — I’d probably overhaul the entire class to make it truly constructivist, which would require a different seminary with a different approach to education altogether. Nevertheless, any of these things alone would go a long way toward improving the course. All of them together would be outstanding.

Today, our professor cited our uniform high grades on the last exam, accompanied by the adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Well, I think the high grades are more reflective of the intense pressure of this particular competitive academic environment. Broken things are sometimes not evident from surface level assessments. For example:

  • Do we want students to merely “ace the class,” or do we want them to build habits for the future?
  • Which habits, and what are we doing in our methodology to encourage those habits?
  • Even if all the students excel in the class, how much is the educational methodology doing to foster a lifelong love and use for the subject material?

I find that it’s quickly killing off what was an initial excitement and interest for me (and I love languages, as well as Ancient Greek culture and literature, so that’s pretty hard to do). In the future, I will most likely associate Greek with having to recall things quickly under pressure. I guess if someone holds a gun to my head someday and asks me to translate a passage from the New Testament, I’ll be well prepared!

***Please Only Read this Post in Conjunction with This One, Published Shortly Afterward.***

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19 Responses to How (Not) to Teach Greek

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