Now, I’m not one to preach, but…

It’s time for another Friday Word of the Week. I started this topic to help myself learn more words and to give myself motivation to expand my reading and put more challenging authors into my reading circulation (Hello, Nabakov!). I also found that the intense focus on a word helped me truly learn it in a more complete way than simply looking it up and trying to remember it.

In this journey so far, short as it’s been, I’ve learned some brand new words and explored the origins of familiar words. There’s a third kind, however, that needs to be included as well: words that I recognize and should know, but whose definition, for some reason, escapes me. These are the words that prompt me, when I see them, to think, “Oh, I know that word. It means…um…uh…oh yeah, it’s about…Okay, fine, fine! I’ll look it up. Crap.” I trot off to consult a dictionary. What usually happens next is a sharp slap to the forehead and an exclamation of “Well, duh!” And then comes the forgetting. Lather, rinse, repeat. Several times.

Today, I’m going to put an end to that routine for the word didactic. According to my old OED, didactic is an adjective that means: “Having the character or manner of a teacher or instructor; characterized by giving instruction; having the giving of instruction as its aim or object; instructive, perceptive.” The earliest recorded example is in 1658: “Must I be didactick [sic] to initiate this art?”

A word whose definition is about teaching? And a teacher can’t remember what it means? What’s wrong with me, anyway? Is there any way I can defend myself?

Didactic cats?

Part of the problem is the prefix di- which I always take to mean ‘two’. My knee-jerk reaction, then, is to assume that didactic means some sort of division or duality. I often default into thinking it’s a synonym for dichotomy. Of course, when I substitute that meaning into the context, it makes no sense at all. This should come as no surprise, seeing as though it’s the wrong meaning.

In fact, the word is from the Greek didaktikos, which means ‘apt at teaching.’ It is a derivative of didaktos which is the past participle of the verb ‘to teach’ (didaskein). The base of the word is conjectured to be *dens- in Proto Indo-European. (

It was still hard to tell what the base of the word is, and it nagged at me. I suppose part of me wanted to save face and justify my assumption that the prefix di- was involved. The rest of me just wanted to get to the truth, or as close to the truth as I could manage. It was hard to get any clues, though. My physical dictionaries were of no help and most of the online dictionary sites gave me the same information about the Greek roots. Finally, this turned up from the 2010 Webster’s New World College Dictionary:“Origin: Gr didaktikos, apt at teaching < didaskein, to teach, prob. redupl. < IE base *dens-, wisdom, to teach, learn > Avestan dīdainghē, I am taught.”

What is interesting to me here is “prob. redupl.” – in other words, probable reduplication. The base was repeated, which would result in *densdens-, which would then very likely be reduced to didas- or something of the sort (think of the way a 14th century phrase “God be with ye” reduces to modern day “goodbye”). This helps me put away the idea that the prefix di- (two) is somehow involved.

As for the meaning, it seemed innocuous enough according to the 1933 OED definition. It has, however, a negative connotation that is not conveyed by the simple idea of relating to instruction. It has come to mean instruction that is boring, overbearing, or pedantic. A didactic instructor is one who blathers on in a long-winded, ponderous way and displays unnecessary reliance on lecture or text rather than on discussion, practical activities, or project-work. The definition also includes the idea of moral teaching that is too heavy-handed or preachy.

Mannequins' Ball by Bruno Jasienski, 1931: An anti-capitalist play in three acts (Image courtesy of Elizabeth Philips' Rare Books)

In a literary sense, didactic work is focused on instruction, conveying a single message, and that takes precedence over the artistic merit of the work. It can be said of textbooks, for example, or perhaps of overtly political novels or art. My thoughts turned to the novels of Ayn Rand, whose powerful reaction to Russian communism and propaganda resulted in some fairly didactic literature of her own. I would argue that the political and philosophical underpinnings of her novels far outweighed the literary merits.  Books like Animal Farm by George Orwell, or Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist, however, might not be didactic because the artistic value could arguably stand on its own and not be overwhelmed by the political subtext.

My teaching style is heavily influenced by my early days in the classroom, where teacher-talk was frowned upon and student involvement was paramount. This made sense for teaching English as a Second/Foreign Language because the students, not me, were the ones who needed to learn and practice English. Sure, they would be getting language input by hearing me talk, but that is only part of a language learning experience. They still needed more hands-on (tongues-on? Ew.) practice with producing language, not just ingesting it.

In other subjects, there is value in retaining some form of lecture, but I still believe that it should be minimal, and class time should always include a significant amount of student participation. This is the philosophy behind most of my course and lesson planning, and it’s the idea that is screaming at me in my mind whenever I am in front of a class and I hear myself talking for too long at a stretch.

I would dare to say, then, that didacticism is not my style, and so perhaps I can be forgiven for neglecting to properly learn that word until now. That’s my story, folks, and I’m sticking to it!

What is your preferred teaching/learning style?

10 thoughts on “Now, I’m not one to preach, but…

  1. I think so far my favorite teaching style, likely influenced by my architectural background, is conversational and questioning. Often we ask the motivation behind what students do with design, and while we lecture to show examples, students learn far better by practicing, drawing and building models, then they do by standard lectures. This often works for the more lecture-styled courses, like structures, where its more important to get the concepts than the math right, because in every day life, you have the resources in front of you for help.

    • I agree, especially for a skill that a person needs to practice in order to know how to do it and not just know about it. But even in a more conceptual subject like history or sociology, I prefer a more Socratic method of questioning. It sometimes drives my students nuts because I rarely let them off with an easy, superficial answer, but that doesn’t bother me. At least they’re awake! ;) And I think they benefit from being a little shaken up.

  2. My preferred teaching style is very much hands-on. I taught 8-10 year-olds at a school where ability grouping was the practice. I had the lowest language arts group for the first seven years and the next to the lowest group for my last nine years. My math group was also the next to the lowest. There were lots of children with behavioral disorders and various learning disabilities in all of my groups. ALL of these children were in deep need of enrichment. Hands-on with lots of reteaching really worked for them.
    My personal learning preference is through lecture and reading. I’m an auditory and visual learner. Great post! :)

    • I give you all the credit in the world for teaching such a tough group of students for so many years. Having dealt with both low and high ends of the language-learning spectrum, I know how hard it can be. People think it’s easier but it’s not. All groups have their challenges, but to really teach the lower end, you have to be so creative and energetic and insightful. Big time kudos to you!

    • My girls are sisters and they actually like each other, so I find them in poses like this all the time, which I absolutely adore :)

      I was frustrated that I couldn’t remember that word because I just knew I had not good excuse. If I forget it now, I invite everyone to smack me in the head!

      (Loved that post you sent me to!)

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