Great teachers let the learner take charge

The teaching profession has always held a certain attraction for me.

I don’t think I am unique in saying that many of those who have had the greatest impact on my thinking have been teachers. I have great respect for the champions of education, including those with alternative titles such as facilitator, trainer, coach or consultant. Whether we are talking about pre-school teachers, public school teachers, professors or corporate trainers, I feel there is something noble about choosing a vocation that is about helping others become more knowledgeable and competent.

So it may sound strange when I say that I think we put too much emphasis on teaching and not enough on learning.

Although I have had many great teachers, I’m not sure that it was their teaching that made them great. Of course, they fulfilled their duty to teach something such as history, tennis, music or philosophy. Still, what I remember most vividly about these teachers is that they helped me discover that the heart of education is not teaching but learning. They helped me see that it was I more than they who would determine what I learned, how quickly and effectively I learned it and what I did with the learning.

Who is responsible for the act of learning? 

When we think about education, we typically imagine a teacher standing in front of a class of eager students. If the teacher is a gifted speaker the class hangs on every word. If the teacher is boring half of the students receive the gift of an afternoon nap. Either way, the teacher is the center of attention.

But does the teacher really have to be at the center of things? 

I can see the value of designating someone to support or even drive the learning process. I take a major role in shaping the learning of groups I work with as an organization development consultant. Where possible, though, I encourage learners to take charge of the learning process for themselves.

There is nothing new under the sun, but things can always be recombined in new ways.

It is true that even when we feel like we are learning something new, we are often just discovering things that have been discovered many times by others before us. On the other hand, each learning process is also unique because each learner brings a unique combination of experiences to the learning process. Even as we piece together the same puzzle that others have solved before us, as we strive to make sense of the puzzle we add, subtract and recombine the pieces in novel ways that could lead to a new angle or occasionally even a breakthrough. This process should not be micro-managed by a teacher because a teacher tends to lead learners to a destination that the teacher has already been to. In contrast, each learner brings a distinct set of experiences that might lead to places the teacher might not have even imagined.

The teachers who had the greatest impact on me rarely gave me complete answers. 

They provided just enough hints to get me excited about learning more, then they helped me search for or create my own answers. They realized that there is little excitement in repeating an answer generated by someone else. Having the answer can of course be useful. If you have an answer, you can use it to get an A on a test or a good performance appraisal. When you have an answer in hand, though, you are likely to stop searching for alternative solutions, some of which might be better than the one you have been taught.

My favorite teachers led me to a door, helped me find for a reason to enter, then let me decide what came next.

I didn’t always enter those doors. At times, the lack of visibility scared me away as when I decided not to pursue a PhD despite the encouragement I received from my professors. At other times what lay beyond the door appeared tedious; I was never able to get that excited about math. I am sure there were plenty of times when despite the best efforts of a great teacher, I didn’t even notice the doorway at all. However, when I did choose to drive my learning the discoveries had a lasting effect on me. I’ll always be grateful to Mike for helping me discover my passion for language when I was in Nepal to Bill who gave me just enough hints so I I could go back and practice my serve until it became the strongest part of my tennis game or the OD professionals who helped me take my first steps into the field after graduate school. 

Putting the learner at the center is not always an easy task.

Not everyone believes that the learner should be at the center of learning. Many teachers are not comfortable giving up control of the learning process, and many learners prefer to let a teacher tell them what to learn.  Some even prefer to receive exact instructions on how to learn it.  Given that much of our learning occurs in institutions with economic and ideological interests, it may be only natural that we expect teachers to take charge and make the process as efficient and effective as possible.

Still, my experience as a learner tells me that we’ve somehow got the teaching-learning equation wrong. 

I studied Spanish for years with teachers, but I don’t speak Spanish. In contrast, once I had a reason to learn Japanese, I was able to achieve a considerable level of fluency with coaching from friends but without the direction of a teacher.  My experience in many fields – from academic to professional to athletic – has shown me that having a clear reason to learn is at least as important as having a teacher to learn from.

So in the end, though I am grateful for the knowledge and wisdom I gained from my teachers, my fondest memories and deepest gratitude are reserved for those who helped me realize that I could learn on my own as long as I knew why it was important for me to learn.

© Dana Cogan 2009 and 2018

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