I’m always struck by how people use the word “teach” to mean such very different things. Sometimes, as Karen W. points out, people act as if “teach” just means “tell.” As a teacher (of law students), I know there have been lots of times when what I “taught” did not coincide with what my students learned.
But even if you focus on the desired end, “teach” seems to have at least two very different meanings:
1. To help someone learn something that he or she wants to learn.
2. To make someone learn something regardless of whether he or she wants to learn it.
There are better and worse ways of doing the former, but it’s not rocket science. Certain qualities help – being good at whatever it is your student wants to learn to do, being able to put yourself in your student’s shoes, being a good listener, patience – but if someone really wants to learn something, you’re already most of the way there.
The second definition describes a much more difficult enterprise. Yet we’ve come to see education almost exclusively in this sense, at the expense of the much simpler activity described by the first definition. More and more, education is now about deciding what kids must learn and then making them learn it, with no regard for what they might be interested in learning, or whether they retain any interest in learning at all.
So many of the features of our educational system – the endless curricular fads, the packaged programs, the reward charts and stickers and behavior management systems, the obsession with high-stakes standardized testing, the movement toward uniform mandatory curricular standards, the authoritarian discipline, the infantilizing micromanagement, the ed school empirical studies, the teacher training programs, the layer upon layer of administrators, you name it – exist almost entirely to serve this second function. Billions of dollars and immeasurable amounts of time and energy are spent on it. Yet, as far as I can see, trying to make people learn against their will – whether it be through outright coercion or through tricks or bribes or elaborate performances, etc. – remains a low-percentage enterprise, not to mention one with many unwelcome side-effects. This seems particularly true when the measure is not how students do on the test at the end of the unit, but whether they retain knowledge and understanding and skills into adulthood.
I don’t find a world in which we simply offered people an education, rather than forcing it on them, as unimaginable as most people do. But regardless, do we have to go quite so far in the opposite direction as we’ve gone?
Part two here.