Thursday, December 6, 2012

What does “teach” mean?

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.


Karen W said...

It is a curious attitude, that I suppose reveals more about the people who hold it than the students. Do they not see the world/universe as being full of fascinating things you'd voluntarily choose to learn about? Have they never seen or experienced joyful, self-motivated learning? Are they afraid that students might make different choices for themselves than they would make for them?

Maybe I've just spent enough time in Montessori classrooms to feel confident that children can be self-motivated to learn reading, writing, math, history, geography, science, art, and music if we offer the opportunity to learn under the right conditions--but I'm with you on the offering rather than forcing.

nomorecollegebills! said...

Of course, as they age, even some Montessori children decide - they've "learned" enough to get by and aren't going to learn more, no matter what you try to "teach" them. Our soon to be "former" college student has decided this. We'll see just how that works out!

Josh M said...

Great post, Chris! The points you raise here are EXACTLY why I never consciously use teach as a verb, and cringe when I hear it. I'll call myself a teacher (noun) but I wouldn't ever say a sentence like, "I have to teach my class," or "I have to teach them how to use commas." Instead, I like to say "I'll be in class," or "I have to show them how to use commas."

One of the greatest compliments I ever received was when a less-than-stellar student told me that he didn't think of me as a "teacher," but rather as a guide. He GOT exactly what I try to do.

Chris said...

Karen -- I always wonder about that. Despite all the talk of creating lifelong learners, the schools' actual faith in the inherent appeal of learning seems only skin-deep, if that. I think there is a widespread feeling that learning actually is aversive, and that that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Nomorecollegebills -- Thanks for commenting! I suspect that's true, but under virtually any conception of education, that becomes one's right at some point. The question is whether particularly coercive approaches make that reaction more or less likely. My feeling is that you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink, and that forcing him to drink may in fact make drinking less likely.

Josh -- Thanks! I find myself becoming more and more conscious of how I use the word. In fact, I think this might be a multiple-post topic -- stay tuned.

Unknown said...

I am finishing my semester with my college students and one of their last assignments is to create a video on an assigned topic; they work in groups of five or six. Today, as they prepared to premiere the videos in class, one student said, "You know, none of us knew how to use iMovie so most of what we did we just kind of figured out by horsing around with it."

Over the years, I endured bad teaching evaluations (done at the end of the semester by all students in every class) because students write that I am too "vague" and don't give good directions on assignments. I give good directions. What I don't do is tell them how to do assignments. So, for example, the instructions or prompt for the videos are complete; they are thought-provoking; they offer guidance. What the do NOT do is explain how to begin a project on iMovie; which buttons to select for each aspect of editing; and how to export the movie to Youtube. I do implore them to begin early and allot ample time for editing.

When the student made that comment in class, I said that I believe that we in education have taken away all sense of learning by exploration and an intended by-product of this assignment is to challenge (force?) the students to embrace some of that curiosity again, even if it is for the sake of a grade.

Usually, in a class of 25 students, three or four get it.

Chris said...

Christy -- I face a similar issue teaching legal analysis and writing. My feeling is that I have to be withholding, to some degree, when I review the students' drafts, or else the final paper will just be an exercise in taking dictation. Grades matter, though, so it's almost hard to blame the students for elevating grade-maximizing over actual learning. I wish more people would recognize the conflict between the two.

Yesterday I gave a talk at a legal writing conference about how we flood students with extrinsic motivators and then complain about how they have no intrinsic motivation. Too often I think the institutional response to that concern is some variation on, "So we need to instruct them to have intrinsic motivation!" I wish people would approach the issue in more psychologically-minded ways.

FedUpMom said...

@Dr Christy Wolfe, I took your comment to my blog:

Figure it Out for Yourself!"