At the heart of durable or lasting learning is the “mind’s eye.” In order to truly learn something, we must see it in our mind. No matter the form of the learning, I believe this is at the heart of the matter. This is the power and explanation for why there really are only two modes of teaching: the mimetic and the dialectic.
Dialectic is the mind in interrogative mode. It is seeking to understand words by the exercise of questioning them. Here, the mind’s eye is seeing ideas, which is to be sure nebulous, but it does occur. I can picture what I think an idea looks like only by applying it what I already know. If I come across something entirely new, my mind seeks to form for it an image that I can see. I saw this happen when after reading to my young sons the great exploits of Frodo Baggins, they went and saw Peter Jackson’s vision of Frodo and were not sold entirely on the vision. “Frodo doesn’t look like that!” literally came from one of their mouths in the opening scene of the first movie. The child had something different in his mind’s eye than what Elijah Wood portrayed on the screen.
Mimetic teaching is using models to bring a learner to understanding. Most obviously this occurs when the student sees a real three dimensional object that brings his mind’s eye to some understanding of the reality around him. By seeing a tomato plant he gains knowledge of plant life. But it goes much deeper, I think, to including art (representation of reality that is still three dimensional and brought to the mind’s eye through the physical eye), texts, especially those texts that are physically ordered such as poetry, with its line breaks, etc. And I think even mathematical problems can fall in this category, not the ideas they portray, for those are still reached dialectically, but the physical arrangement of them (the use of symbols such as + or X or the parenthesis).
In both modes, the act of contemplating is the act of “seeing.” They both lead toward the embodiment of ideas. This demands the disciplines of the senses, of being attentive, of asking questions, and many other discrete acts that can be taught/coached to a student. When we teach them to do this well, the world is theirs on a plate. When it is not, they are limited to what can be poured into them in a stream of information, and the power of their life lies with the source of the stream.