What is Teaching?

Russ Roberts says:

Great teaching is more than passing on information. For that you can read a book or watch a video. A great teacher provokes and takes you on a journey of understanding. That requires grappling with the material and making it your own. Usually that means applying your knowledge to a problem you haven’t see before. At least that’s often the case in economics. I think Doug Lemov said it in his EconTalk episode — you haven’t taught it until they’ve learned it and learning is more than just hearing the facts or the answer to a problem.

This was the view I heard at UC Berkeley among faculty — when they weren’t complaining about teaching.

I disagree with this. The best teachers bring out what is inside their students. They provide the right environment so what is inside each student is expressed. How to do this will be different for each student, so you have to learn about them — not just generally, you have to learn about each one. (Or at least you have to grasp their diversity and allow for it.)

Learning is natural. Every student, in my experience, wants to learn something. What makes the situation much more difficult, is the false assumption that every student wants to learn the same thing or can be cajoled into learning the same thing. One of my Berkeley students said that in high school he had had a “great teacher” of philosophy, much like the teachers that Roberts praises. He had made philosophy so interesting that my student had originally majored in it. That had been a mistake, said my student.

I believe human nature has been shaped in many ways to make our economy work. Human economies center on trading. You make X, I make Y, we trade. If everyone made X, that would be bad economics. So we have been shaped to want to go in different occupational directions — you want to be an Xer, I want to be a Yer. This is deep inside us and impossible to change. When healthy students have trouble learning, I think the underlying problem is their teacher wants them to be an Xer (like the teacher) — but they want to be something else. A great teacher finds that something else.

Even the term great teacher is misleading, because it seems to imply that being a great teacher (= every student learns a lot) is difficult. I have found it’s easy, just as swimming with the current is easy. It requires a certain psychological ingenuity to fit this way of teaching into a system that doesn’t understand it. But after I figured out how to do it, it was so much easier than teaching the traditional way. I used to try to make all my students learn the same thing. That was really tiring — like swimming against the current. After class I’d be exhausted. Now I feel fine after class.

11 Replies to “What is Teaching?”

  1. How would you adapt your teaching style to something like math, where the thing the student might want to learn requires a great deal of knowledge they might not be interested? It seems unavoidable that a certain core of mathematical subjects is necessary while the students do not want that knowledge for its own sake. A big difference is that you have the luxury of teaching a subject where the particular knowledge and experience acquired in your course does not have to satisfy as many prerequisites. Additionally, the material in such subjects is artificial with respect to human experience. Adapting it to a format where it aligns with what people want to learn requires many acts of ingenuity.

  2. Along the same lines as what Zach says…

    My wife and I are very involved in the elementary teaching sphere. There are fundamental things that people simply need to know, whether they are particularly interested in knowing them or not. It’s the price of admission to civilized society. How to add, subtract, write, etc.

    To use an extreme example from the opposite end of the teaching continuum from where you practice, when a kindergarten child shows up in school not even knowing his own name (happens every year – parent issue), then he needs to learn it or he can’t function. Doesn’t matter whether he wants to.

    I think your philosophy finds a home at the (perhaps) high school and university level, but probably not earlier than that. In the early grades, the genius of teaching is being able to get kids to engage in and be excited about learning what must be learned. Until they have been exposed to the broad range of all that has been learned before, they can’t know what may interest them.

  3. Every state now has “learning standards” that say, “Students will learn X, Y, and Z.” Teachers are legally supposed to have no choice: they must get students to know X, Y, and Z. So legally, a “good teacher” HAS TO “make all my students learn the same thing.”

    State learning standards don’t care whether “every student wants to learn the same thing.” Students don’t have a choice. So one of the tasks of a “good teacher” is to try to get all students “cajoled into learning the same thing.”

    (Of course, one of the results of this is that students don’t learn a whole lot of what they are supposed to, though almost all do a certain amount of “learn, get a grade, and forget.” But “Students will learn X, Y, and Z” is the official policy of all states, and all of them pretend that’s what is actually happening.)

  4. Great post.

    So much of civilization is the attempt to force people to adapt to the constraints of mass production, rather than the reverse.

  5. If one person is an X-er, another a Y-er and still a third is a Z-er, there is probably a collection of knowledge and/or a set of skills they all need in order to conduct economic transactions with each other.

    For example, a natural born visual artist may not be as quickly able to learn to read as a natural born journalist, but learning to read benefits both the economy and the visual artist if the visual artist.

    It’s more efficient if the visual artist can, say, understand a written agreement to sell her artwork to the journalist, and so on. If the visual artist has to pay someone else to read and interpret that written agreement, then some efficiency is lost and the visual artist is less well off.

    But in a society where the visual artist is forced to learn to read by a rigorous school system she benefits by being more efficient, and having a lower cost of doing business than if she were illiterate.

    On the other hand, maybe this idea is just wrong.

    Maybe it’s a waste of time to teach a visual artist to read. She could, instead of wasting time understanding written agreements to sell artwork, be actually creating artwork, which would benefit her more than the savings she experiences from reading her contracts herself.

    How is an educational system supposed to know which skills to teach all people and which skills to teach only to certain specialists? What if the educational system gets the mix wrong?

    And, what if you are, by nature, a visual artist, but not good enough to be economically viable? What should the educational system do for you in that case?

  6. Good post. Thank you for sharing it. We homeschool, and I see lots of what you said in both my kids and the kids I teach chemistry to in our homeschool group–and myself as I teach them! Take care.

  7. Seth,

    As someone outside of the schools, who has been teaching for 20 years (dozens of unrelated topics, hundreds of audiences), and considers himself a philosopher of education…

    What you’ve said here is very important, and I would refactor it substantially…to make both your and Russ Roberts’ statements basically true.

    1. Motivation is the core of learning. When someone wants (badly) to learn something, one can’t keep them from learning it with a team of horses…teacher or no. When someone actively doesn’t want to learn a topic, the greatest teachers in the world cannot teach them.

    Normal education is the business of trying to make a recalcitrant student learn something they don’t care about. Your model, as far I’ve been able to piece together over the course of the last couple years on your blog, centers around letting students learn about things they do care about.

    As such…you maybe shouldn’t take the title “teacher”. You are perhaps instead an education sherpa…you help a student to take their own journey.

    I think the gap is huge between what you’re talking about and what “teaching” is understood to be.

    My line: teaching and helping the student learn are effectively unrelated topics. I’m into the 2nd, not so much into the 1st.

  8. Zach,

    I’m in the fields of math and computer education.

    You asked Seth: How do you adapt your method to a topic like math.

    My shortest answer is: I don’t.

    I can teach K-8 mathematics (1+1=2 through fractions/decimals/percent) to a group of interested previosuly math-free homeschool students Aged 10-14, in one hour a week for a semester…and I have.

    Once I know that that’s the parameter against which I’m working (K-8 math for an interested student takes 20 total contact hours)…why would you? Almost everyone at one point or another decides that knowing some math is better than not knowing any. Home-/un-schoolers find it pretty easy to teach then. It’s only fitting that approach into traditional big-box schooling that is hard.

  9. Seth, I don’t think the comparison is fair. Roberts is obviously talking about teaching of some particular subject, in the way the word is usually used. You are using teaching in the sense of bringing out a person’s potential… I think?

    Why is one of these superior to the other? I met a wonderful teacher of First Aid, CPR and AED. I mean, he was truly excellent. He didn’t bring out any of my latent potential or anything of the sort, though. But I see nothing wrong with that.

    1. Not a fair comparison? You mean: we are talking about different things?

      I doubt it. I think Roberts is talking about most formal education. For example, economics classes at a university, high school classes. So am I.

      Roberts describes the usual view of teaching: take what is in the teacher’s head and put it in the student’s head. I am not saying that’s wrong. I am saying there is another goal that deserves more attention than it gets: helping each student achieve his/her goals. In the discussions of how to teach I’ve heard — for example, I attended lots of workshops at UC Berkeley on how to be a better teacher — this never came up.

  10. Yes, my take was that you are talking about different things. I think I misunderstood. I was thrown off by your comment that being a great teacher is not difficult. I suppose I agree, if we’re talking about those of us who teach a relatively small number of eager undergraduates whose goals are not altogether different from ours.

    Coincidentally most educational research at the very least pays lip service to constructivism, the idea that students construct their own knowledge. A typical advice for teachers, then, would be to meet students where they are and work from there. Unfortunately, details are seldom given.

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