Merriam Webster’s definition of an obiter dictum:
1: an incidental and collateral opinion that is uttered by a judge but is not binding;
2: an incidental remark or observation.
In teaching, the obiter dicta—whether coming from the teacher or from the pupils—are part of what makes a lesson take the form of a conversation, as arguably it should.
Gilbert Highet remarks:
‘The business of the teacher is to pass currents of interest and energy through the facts, while they are being learnt and afterwards, so that they melt, fuse, become interconnected, acquire life, and grow into vital parts of the minds which hold them. One excellent way to do this is to demonstrate how apparently remote facts are organically linked…’ The Art of Teaching, Methuen 1963, p.58.
A lesson in the conversational mode can achieve this. Memory is about connection: and the ability to connect things is the basis of observation, invention, and creativity.
What a grateful parent described as ‘the discursive and serendipitous mode of teaching’* is the traditional mode of English education and is what has produced our creators and inventors in the past.
It is something that has almost disappeared in the withering blast of examinations, the obsession with examinations, and the confinement of teaching to what is in the examination syllabuses. But perhaps this phase in our educational history is going to pass, and we may revert to what is more humane and more favourable to students’ imagination.
*See earlier post: A discursive lesson