What does it mean to teach?

There’s an age-old question that people will sometimes debate:  “If a tree falls in the forest, but no one is around to hear it fall, did the tree make a sound?”

Broken Tree in Forest

Broken Tree in Forest: Can you hear it?

A similar question could be posed about teaching:  “If an instructor is standing in front of the room “teaching,” but students are not learning, is he or she really teaching at all?”

This question gets at the heart of what it means to teach.

Several decades of research suggest that there are three broad ways that instructors understand teaching: teacher-focused (transmission), student-focused (acquisition), and learning-focused (conceptual change or engaged).

For many instructors, teaching refers to the  transmission of  a teacher’s content knowledge, skills and expertise to (hopefully receptive) students.  This orientation is often referred to as teacher-focused (sometimes called teacher-centered), because the process is essentially a monologue by the teacher.  Due to an emphasis on covering material, the instructor may ask for little to no input from students.  Instructors holding this orientation might say: “I will teach them this material so my students will have (at least some of) my knowledge.”

Other instructors take a student-focused approach to teaching,  viewing teaching as a process of helping students acquire the teacher’s content knowledge and skills. Their focus is on helping students acquire the course content (tools, knowledge and skills). For many holding this conception, teaching is a process of explanation.  Such instructors might say, “I’d like to give my students the tools  that will help them solve problems.”

In contrast, a third group of instructors conceptualize teaching as a process of facilitating student learning.  Instead of simply transferring their knowledge to students,  these instructors seek to help students construct knowledge for themselves. The process of teaching is a dialogue, as the instructor seeks to help students engage with the material and one another.    This orientation is referred to as learning-focused (or learning-centered), because it focuses on the learners’ generation of knowledge. Instructors holding this orientation might say “I’d like my students to be able to generate questions and ideas of their own.”

We know, from research on student learning, that students learn more deeply when they are able to make connections among ideas, look for patterns, create their own links, reflect critically on course content, and be given the opportunity to ask meaningful questions.  (For a more thorough explanation of deep and surface learning, see Noel Entwistle’s well-regarded explanation of the terms).

So the question is: Are you teaching in order to cover material and give your students knowledge that you’ve already learned, or are you giving them the opportunity to make sense of knowledge and find connections among ideas for themselves?

Consider how you understand teaching. What does “teaching” mean to you?

[References: Prosser, M., & Trigwell, K. (1999). Understanding learning and teaching: The experience in higher education. Buckingham, UK: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press; Light G, Cox R, Calkins S. Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: The Reflective Professional. Sage Press; 2009; Entwistle,  N. (1997) ‘Contrasting Perspectives on Learning. In: Marton, F., Hounsell, D. and Entwistle, N., (eds.) The Experience of Learning: Implications for teaching and studying in higher education. 3rd (Internet) edition. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, Centre for Teaching, Learning and Assessment. pp. 3-22.]

Susanna Calkins is associate director of faculty programs at the Searle Center for Advancing Learning & Teaching. She is co-author of Learning & Teaching in Higher Education: The Reflective Professional (Sage, 2009)

About Searle Center for Advancing Learning & Teaching

This is the official blog for the Searle Center for Advancing Learning & Teaching at Northwestern University.
Aside | This entry was posted in deep and surface learning, Entwistle, Learning, Learning-focused, teacher-focused, Teaching and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to What does it mean to teach?

  1. Pingback: Designing a course with your learners in mind | Searle Center for Advancing Learning & Teaching Blog

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