Lessons About Teaching from Hubert Dreyfus

Fall 2021

By Todd Eckerson

Professor Hubert Dreyfus brought a distinctive and open-minded approach to his teaching. It is a style full of broad implications and applications. Incongruous as it may seem, Dreyfus embraced the lecture format.1

One of the preeminent philosophers of his generation, Dreyfus taught at MIT from 1960 to 1968 and then at Cal Berkeley from 1968 to 2016. He passed away in 2017. Some of his specialties included Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, skill acquisition, existentialism, and phenomenology. Dreyfus is also well-known for “his decades-long critique of Artificial Intelligence.”2

But do not be alarmed or intimidated by Dreyfus’s intellect. As Dreyfus himself said: “I don’t get my identity from philosophy.… I think my calling is being a teacher.…”3

Much of my insight into Dreyfus’s approach to teaching comes from two interviews, both conducted in 2005, one by Harry Kreisler4 and one by John Hanley.5

Dyslexia and Philosophy

Right from the beginning, Dreyfus serves notice that his approach to teaching, learning, and education differs from the conventional.

Harry Kreisler, host of the Conversations with History series from Berkeley, asked Dreyfus about his dyslexia and his decision to study philosophy. Dreyfus’s response proved surprising.

It was clear that I couldn't go into history or English, or anything where you had to read a whole lot. … But philosophy is funny. You can only read Kant at ten pages an hour—that's probably too fast, maybe five—and Heidegger too, who is my favorite now. So, it doesn't matter if you're dyslexic. It's almost an advantage because you've got to slow down. So, that influenced me, I'm sure.6

Teaching as a Calling

Why did Dreyfus believe his calling was to be a teacher?

[When I was a teaching assistant, I] discovered that I could throw myself into a discussion section so completely that I literally forgot where I was, and for about an hour afterwards I was wandering in a daze because it was just so fascinating. And it's been like that ever since. I still put so much energy into teaching, and I still just sort of forget where I am. I'm sure anybody in flow, doing whatever they do, feels it. And that was a calling.7

For anyone committed to teaching, these instances of enraptured engagement are probably quite common.8 Unfortunately, the joy of teaching often gets submerged beneath all the ancillary and sometimes mind-numbing duties also associated with the profession—grading papers and tests, writing comments, maintaining classroom decorum, proctoring study halls, attending faculty and department meetings, etc., etc., etc.
 
What if one consciously attuned oneself both to recognizing and honoring these exultant occasions? In other words, what if one consciously tracked such instances of delight? Wouldn’t one be more likely to recognize them when they happened, be more likely to remember them,9 be grateful for them?      
 
To this end, and for the first time in 40+ years in the classroom, I have begun keeping a Teaching Log or Journal, the purpose of which is to identify peak experiences.  Whereas, in the past, I let the hours spent teaching wash over me, now I consciously try to “seek the peaks.”10

Be like Ishmael, not Ahab

Dreyfus did not enter teaching fully formed. It took time. Perhaps the simplest way to describe Dreyfus’s growth as a teacher is to invoke one of the key themes of his lectures on Melville’s Moby-Dick11—the difference between that novel’s two central characters, Ishmael and Ahab. Dreyfus’s main assertion could fit on a bumper sticker: “Be like Ishmael, not Ahab.” In short, don’t impose your will on the world (i.e., Ahab) so much as be open to what the world brings your way (i.e., Ishmael).

Early on, Dreyfus went through his “Ahab phase.”

I started out, I think, very badly as a TA at Harvard. I had in mind exactly what I wanted the students to learn, and I had a plan for the whole hour, and all this energy that I felt, and intensity, was to make sure that they got exactly where I wanted them to get in exactly the time I wanted them to get there. That was not the way to do it. You've got to take advantage of the accidents that come along, and follow them.12

Probably with help from both his study of philosophy and his research on skill acquisition,13 Dreyfus moved away from the forced march and adopted a more open format—one that allowed him to take risks in the classroom.

Consider the following descriptions Dreyfus offers about his Ishmael-like approach to education:

I just go up there in class and I suppose I somehow demonstrate as I teach that what I care about isn’t looking good or getting honors or getting paid or anything like that. I want to know what truth these authors have found and I’ve got no preconceptions and I’m ready to give up any view I’ve got if some student gives me a better one. …14

I won outstanding teaching awards at MIT and here [at Berkeley, and I’m told] that what I do is I involve the students in a joint process of learning. And I'm not faking it. I'm always learning. Again, you don't figure these things out, they just happen. I didn't say to myself, "Ah, teaching is really learning." Oddly enough, Heidegger says exactly that. But I just wouldn't want to teach if I weren't learning something at every lecture.15

What if teachers designed their daily lessons so that they went into every class with the goal of learning something new? What would a lesson plan based on those premises look like?

Over the years, I have picked up two techniques that can help teachers discover something new, even about a well-known topic: The Analogy-Making Machine16 and the Literary 3x3.17 In fact, it was in response to a discussion about Maslow’s conception of peak experiences and then the challenge of the Literary 3x3—create three, three-word sentences summarizing class—that one of my colleagues18 coined the phrase: “Seek the peaks” (now my catchphrase justification for keeping a Teaching Log/Journal).

Dreyfus Turns Teaching on Its Head

In moving from Ahab to Ishmael, Dreyfus turned his teaching on its head (despite relying on the lecture format). No longer is the teacher merely the expert. The teacher becomes a student:

I’m just absolutely, as far as I can tell, open to whatever problem comes and grabs me and whatever student comes [into] my office and tells me about something interesting that I hadn’t thought about. Merleau-Ponty said “We’re open heads turned toward the world.” I think that’s right.19

Below, Dreyfus describes one unique manifestation of being a partner in seeking the truth, as opposed to being the unassailable fount of knowledge:

That’s why I can stand up in front of the class and admit that I was totally wrong and foolish [during] the previous lecture and isn’t it wonderful that some student has come to my office and pointed out the sense in which the text says just the opposite of what I was saying.… I can take back the whole lecture in the last 5 minutes.20

Thus, at least while teaching, Dreyfus seems to lack the professional need to defend the conclusions he reached through the long scholarly process of acquiring his expertise.

But, an obvious caveat here. The openness that Dreyfus takes to the lecture podium must be earned. Thus, Dreyfus’s early experience as an “Ahab-like” teaching assistant was probably a necessary step. A young educator must gain control of class. At the same time, an inexperienced teacher must also be open to change—to seek command of both the subject and the pedagogy.

Ultimately, then, the willingness to change one’s mind that Dreyfus models requires a certain confidence earned over time, a confidence consistently on display and thus consistently reinforced.

What would education look like if each teacher’s long-term goal was to adopt Dreyfus’s willingness to make mistakes, to learn, to grow—to change one’s mind?

I have had the good fortune of teaching an online series of courses made available to our school’s alumni and parents (i.e., an unforeseen silver lining of the pandemic and our collective introduction to the possibilities of Zoom). Recently, during a “semester” devoted to Borges’ Ficciones, we came across the following in Anthony Kerrigan’s “Introduction”: “In literature it is only necessary to outline the steps. Let the people dance."21 Despite being constrained by the lecture format, Dreyfus managed to “let the people dance.” The effect of my own online experience with this group of exceptional adult learners has turned me from teacher into student. The often excellent, even stunning, insights of the alums and parents make it clear that I need to follow Dreyfus’s lead “across the board” and learn to adopt both his ability to “let the people dance” and his willingness to make mistakes, to learn, to grow—to change his mind.

Dreyfus Studies Philosophy and…Teaching

But all of this flexibility and this seeming lack of a scholarly ego doesn’t just happen by chance. Dreyfus worked at the profession of teaching.

I have a peculiar habit,… I always tape my lectures, and when I’m going to give the lecture on that subject again the next year, I listen to the previous lecture.... [What I discovered is that] if you just take [risks] and suffer the consequences and feel good about the results, it tunes the neural net in your head and you’re not stuck with rules and you get so that you can respond to each particular situation in a way that mostly works. And if it doesn’t work, that’s all right too, because that’s how you learn.22

Later in the interview with Harry Kreisler, Dreyfus connects the approach he described above to Aristotle’s conception of phronesis or practical wisdom—a stage beyond mere expertise which Dreyfus ultimately identifies as mastery.

Aristotle says if you keep acting and getting experiences and making mistakes and learning, you will finally become phronemos, a person of practical wisdom, and that means you’ll do the appropriate thing at the appropriate time in the appropriate way,… And that’s being a master. That’s the highest thing you can be.23

Beyond Expertise to Mastery

Mastery is that somewhat mysterious and therefore difficult-to-define stage of development when one begins to rely more and more on experience and intuition and less and less on principle or rational calculation.24 It is a state in which one takes one’s arduously acquired expertise and uses it as a springboard to even further development. One no longer feels the need to stake out one’s territory and defend one’s opinions. Rather than being “the satisfied expert,”25 one commits to continual growth.

Conclusion

What does this all mean?
  • Be open to the call of teaching. Identify, remember, and be grateful for moments of joy. “Seek the peaks.”
  • Be open to the detours that often occur in class. Risk following where the “accidents” lead. Be like Ishmael, not Ahab.
  • Prepare your lesson plans so that you, the teacher, discover something new each class. Find your Analogy-Making Machine and Literary 3x3.
  • Turn teaching on its head. Be a model of how one continues to learn. Be more teachable than your students. “Let the people dance.”
  • Be a student of teaching. Strive for expertise and make your goal mastery. Be more like Hubert Dreyfus.

Notes

  1. I never took a course from Hubert Dreyfus, but I have listened to his lectures. I urge you to do the same.
  2. https://philosophy.berkeley.edu/people/detail/12
  3. Kreisler, H. (2005). Meaning, Relevance, and the Limits of Technology: Conversation with Hubert L. Dreyfus, Professor of Philosophy, UC Berkeley [Interview]. Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley. http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/people5/Dreyfus/dreyfus-con0.html.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Hanley, J. (2005, October 20). Interview with Hubert Dreyfus. Full-Tilt Boogie Blog. http://full-tilt.blogspot.com/2005/10/hubert-dreyfus-interview.html
  6. Kreisler Interview with Dreyfus, p. 1.
  7. Ibid., p. 2.
  8. Lang, J. M. (2020). Distracted: Why students can’t focus and what you can do about it. Basic Books. p. 58. Lang says: “Teachers might find themselves regularly experiencing flow in the classroom, . . .”
  9. Wilson, C. (2019). Superconsciousness: The quest for the peak experience. Watkins. p. xiii.; Wilson, C. {1972). New pathways in psychology: Maslow and the post-Freudian revolution. Mentor/New American Library. (pp. 1–7).
  10. Stevens, A. (2020, November 11). Westminster School Alumni and Parents Philosophy and Literature Class.
  11. Dreyfus, H. (2018, October 3). Hubert Dreyfus — Melville’s Moby Dick [Video]. Lecture 6 in the series Man, God, and Society in Western Literature—From Gods to God and Back.” YouTube (8:36:05). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eq5LDSZDr2E.
  12. Kreisler interview with Dreyfus, p. 4.
  13. Dreyfus, H. L., & Dreyfus, S. E. (1986). Five Steps from Novice to Expert. Mind over machine: The power of human intuition and expertise in the era of the computer. The Free Press. (pp. 16–51).
  14. Hanley interview with Dreyfus, p. 5.
  15. Kreisler interview with Dreyfus, p. 4.
  16. Saphier, J., & Haley, M. A. (1993). Summarizers: Activity structures to support integration and retention of new learning. Research for Better Teaching. (pp. 52-55). Saphier and Haley call this technique “Synectics, literally translated [as] ‘bringing together diverse elements’…” and attribute it to Sidney Parnes and Alex Osborn. I renamed it “The Analogy-Making Machine.” You could call it “The Simile-Making Machine.” Saphier and Haley describe it this way: “To begin, a teacher [randomly] selects—or elicits from students—the name of a familiar ‘everyday’ object (e.g., a grapefruit). Then the teacher poses the question, ‘What are all the ways a _____________________ (the concept or topic studied in class) is like a grapefruit?’” Make sure to check the graphic on p. 55 of their book (i.e., randomly pick four everyday objects and relate them all to the concept to be summarized)!
  17. I’m not sure where I first heard of Literary 3x3, but see Daniel, R. (2008). Establishing the AP English Literature and Composition Writing Environment. AP English literature and composition. College Board. (pp. 8–10). https://apcentral.collegeboard.org/pdf/ap-sf-englit-writing-about-literature.pdf?course=ap-english-literature-and-composition
  18. Stevens, Philosophy and Literature Class.
  19. Hanley interview with Dreyfus, p. 6.
  20. Ibid. p. 12.
  21. Borges, J. L. (1962). Introduction. In Kerrigan, A., Bonner, A., Reid, A., Temple, H., & Todd, R. (Eds./Trans.), Ficciones. (p. 10). Grove Press.
  22. Kreisler interview with Dreyfus, p. 4.
  23. Ibid. p. 5.
  24. Poole, E. (2015). Capitalism’s toxic assumptions: Redefining next generation economics. Bloomsbury. p.75. Eve Poole put it this way: "Moving from unconscious incompetence through conscious incompetence and conscious competence, to unconscious competence."
  25. Dreyfus, H. L., (2001). Two: How far is distance learning from education? On the internet. 2nd ed. Routledge. p. 41.
Todd Eckerson

Todd L. Eckerson ([email protected]) is the lead teacher of the Civic Engagement courses at Westminster School in Simsbury, Connecticut.