June 17th, 2015

What Is Teaching without Learning?

By:

teacher at the board

W hen you take ideas to places of extremity, they become distorted. “It is not part of my job to make you learn,” Philosophy Professor Keith M. Parsons writes in his syllabus to first-year students. “At university, learning is your job—and yours alone. My job is to lead you to the fountain of knowledge. Whether you drink deeply or only gargle is entirely up to you.”

Yes, students are responsible for learning. Teachers cannot learn anything for them. But what happens when the teaching and learning tasks are thought of as being separate—where I have my job and you have yours? That quickly pushes us to this place: If I do my job and you don’t do yours, it’s not my problem. Teaching Professor Blog

It’s a separation that raises the question of purpose: Does teaching have any reason for being if it doesn’t result in learning or promotes it intermittently? Learners don’t need teachers the same way teachers need learners. Learning can occur without a teacher, but teaching in the absence of learners is an activity without justification, it seems to me. In his Huffington Post article, Professor Parsons makes the point that teachers are paid the same whether students get As or Fs, but if many of a professor’s students are failing to learn, the larger issue is more moral than financial.

Moreover, when students enroll in a college or university, that’s at least a tacit acknowledgement that they want to learn from and with teachers. Professor Parsons is right—students come to learn from experts, those who can lead them to knowledge. But is that all students want or need? Is that all teachers have the responsibility to provide?

Teachers can provide guidance. They can show students the way to knowledge, but they don’t have to stop there. They can make suggestions about the best ways to acquire that knowledge. They can point out the pitfalls, the mistakes, and the barriers that get in the way of knowledge acquisition. They can keep learners on track and prevent them from getting lost. Those who hike with a guide still do the walking, but the guide is there with them and his or her presence makes the hike safer, easier, and more pleasurable. A guide also expedites learning how to hike safely on your own.

Teachers can provide feedback—and I’m not just talking about those final assessments that grade the learning. They can coach students working to win the learning game. During a game, coaches provide feedback immediately relevant to the unfolding situation. Afterward there’s more feedback—for individuals and for the team, in this case a community of learners who are encountering challenging content and trying to master it. It’s feedback that aims to improve performance. The coach wants the team to win as much as the players do.

Teachers can provide motivation. By example, they can showcase the value of learning—why a learner needs the knowledge being provided in the course. So many current college students lack confidence—not ability—and do not always believe they can accomplish their goals. They experience failure and conclude they aren’t capable. At that point they don’t need a teacher who lowers the standards or makes it easy, but rather one who encourages them to keep trying, shows the lessons to be learned from failure, and helps them use small accomplishments as stepping stones to more significant gains.

Do teacher guidance, feedback, and motivation make a difference? Of course. Research and experience confirm their efficacy. Yes, students do the learning and they can do it on their own, but they can do it better with a teacher who connects with them as learners. Many of us teaching today are doing so because we had teachers who saw themselves as something more than conduits to knowledge. They not only introduced us to knowledge, but they stayed around and helped us have successful first encounters with new and challenging material. And that not only benefits learners, it makes teaching something more than just a job.


  • Perry Shaw

    Thanks Maryellen. I am always disturbed to hear professors who see no responsibility for the students' learning. I love Elizabeth Barkley's comment: Saying “I taught students something, they just didn’t learn it” is akin to saying “I sold them the car, they just didn’t buy it.”
    While there are always students who don't want to learn, if this is the predominant mood of our classes then there is a problem with us – not just the students.
    And if we actually believe that the knowledge and reflective skills we have are worth passing on to students then surely we would be passionate enough to do all we can to make the content and methodology of our classes conducive to learning.
    To your excellent suggestions here I would want to add one more:
    * Teachers can develop a love for learning and a love for the material in our classes. The way we approach our teaching is contagious: if we love what we are teaching and the process of seeing learning take place, the students often are profoundly affected and likewise come to love both the material and the process.

    • Saaa

      if you teach in American School system and still believe the statement"" While there are always students who don't want to learn if this is the predominant mood of our classes then there is a problem with us – not just the students." then I would say,you are still a theoretical teacher,who never ever can be a teacher,you can be a dreaming teacher,thinking that,I will improve ,or there is problem..and make change…but he /she cannot succeed..always teach for students,students means pupil who starving for knowledge..it is very simple..

  • Deb Pagnotta

    Maryellen and Peerry:

    I wholeheartedly agree with you both – the core of teaching is not to deliver a meal to the table and walk away whether the diners eat or not, but to motivate, guide, give feedback, and engage by showing passion for the subject.

    And I add one more: teachers can spark curiosity, helping students awaken. There are few things more gratifying to this teacher than having a student who slowly or quickly begins to engage and then brings their findings and ideas to the table – “look at this!” Teaching, like communication, is never a monologue, not even a dialogue, but always transactional and transformative (to student and teacher).

  • Timothy Massey

    Your thoughts here are cogent, yet only taking a snippet of what Prof. Parsons had to say in his article seems to be a bit of misrepresentation of his intent. His point of contention was aimed more toward the current view by student, parent and sometimes administration that education is being seen more greatly as a commodity with an expected satisfactory outcome by the student consumer regardless of their level of effort in the learning process. In 30 years of teaching, I find this becoming more and more the current environment. Students are willing to "do", yet hesitant to "embrace" ideation and iteration.

    • Taka

      And I might add politicians, a majority of whom don't know much about education, to the list of people who view education as a one-size-fits-all commodity to be paid for.

    • Pavan Kauhsik

      I completely agree with you Timothy Massey. I wish to add further that education system in the recent past has changed from "Students are the products of an institute" to "Students are our customers". I really cannot understand how this can work. Coming from the industry, we are taught that "customer is always right". When the so called learner is made to think that he/she is "right", is that not a dead end for learning? This is the reason that the Industry-Academy gap is widening continuously. The point made by Mr. Bernard below is a dangerous reality which is taking the world towards doomsday. To quote him "My institution deals primarily with adult learners and many, many fit the model you present, but a great number have enrolled not because they really want to learn from anyone in any literal way. They want the diploma. They want the qualification, the degree.
      The cost of that diploma is not necessarily a desire or a passion to learn but the work they need to do to satisfy those who will be assessing their written work (and the discussions they engage in in the class-room (on line or in a bricks and mortar room) "
      We need to think seriously and work on this issue sooner than it becomes too late.

  • Bernard Smith

    I agree with a great deal of what you write but I think the issue is more complex than you present. You state as if it were almost axiomatic that "when students enroll in a college or university, that’s at least a tacit acknowledgement that they want to learn from and with teachers." but that is not at all clear to me. My institution deals primarily with adult learners and many, many fit the model you present, but a great number have enrolled not because they really want to learn from anyone in any literal way. They want the diploma. They want the qualification, the degree.
    The cost of that diploma is not necessarily a desire or a passion to learn but the work they need to do to satisfy those who will be assessing their written work (and the discussions they engage in in the class-room (on line or in a bricks and mortar room) . That is not quite the same thing as being receptive to the very best work a teacher can do. After all, they may have enrolled because the organization they work for now requires they have a degree; they may have enrolled because their marital status has suddenly changed and now they are the sole bread winner for their family; they may have enrolled because life after the military seems to require better qualified job applicants.

  • Bernie Dana

    Excellent blog! I became a college professor after 28 years as a business executive and consultant. I was engaged in corporate training and professional development where the goal was for everyone to learn. I was amazed to realize that many in the teaching profession I entered sensed little responsibility to understand and adapt to the needs of their students.

    • Joybelle

      I have been in corporate all my working life and have a passion for teaching adults who cannot read or write. Currently, I am at the tail end of my doctoral program and cannot wait to get my feet wet. Bernie you say you were "amazed to realize that many in the teaching profession…sensed little responsibility to understand and adapt to the needs of their students." Well, I believe it has to do with many educators not having the vision or passion that would open their hearts and not just their pocket books to teaching. While most educators will say it is a low paying job, it does have its perks. I believe that in order to be a well-rounded educator every entity involved must be included in order for the wheel to spin without a hitch.

  • Paula Ahles

    While we can and should provide feedback and guidance, we cannot motivate students. The definition of motivation is an inner drive. We can support student effort, provide encouragement when they are struggling, and perhaps even inspire them, but the students must provide the motivation, and the willingness to put in whatever time and effort is necessary to be successful.

  • Rajan Paudel

    This is what I say to my students (MBA) in the first day:
    Learning is your responsibility
    Teaching is my responsibility
    My job is to help you learn

  • Amir Abbasi

    If we hold that teaching is teacher’s responsibility and learning is learner’s then the teacher and student are made to stand at the same level. In fact, the teacher enjoys a much higher pedastal. He is sitting on one of the tallest trees in the jungle of life and has far better opportunity and greater responsibility to guide the new travellers through the winding and dangerous paths, safe and secure. Student is at the disposal of teacher. Learning is like a candle lit by the teacher and handed over to the student to find his way through, and teacher has also to guide that how to lit many other candles before the first one ends.

    • joybelle2015

      I believe in a learner-centered environment where the educator is more of a facilitator and stands equal to the student (as you state). I also agree that most teachers "enjoy a much higher pedestal"; but I think that is an internal complex. The reality I see is that regardless of how equal both parties are, at the end of the day the educator still holds the fate of the student in his/her hand; therefore, I ask the panel is equality truly equal here?

  • Pingback: ???? ???? ??????? ???? ????? - ????? ???????()

  • BVLGARI(?????????)CHLOE(????????????????,??,?????????????,???????????,??????,???????,?????,?????????,?????????,????????,????,?????,??????
    100%???????????????!”??????????????? ????????? ??????????,????????????????????????????????????????????????? ?????????????? ????????????????? ????????? ??????????,???????????????-jck35??:?????????,??????,?????,?????,? ??????,????????,???????,???????,??????????, ?????????,????????,????????,D&G ?????,???? ?? .2013???????????????,???????????????????? ??????????????????????????????????? ?????????????????????.????????,??No.1??????????????????????????????ROLEX?????????????? ?????????????????????2???????,????? ??????? ??,????????? ???n??????? http://www.bestevance.com/vuitton/index.htm

  • ???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????
    ????????????????????????????????????????????.????????????? ??????,?????,????????????????,?????????????????????100%??????! ??????????No.1????????????,????? ,???????????(n??)?? ???????(?????,???????,??????,???,???????)??? ?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? http://www.ooobrand.com/bags/prada/index.html

  • ???????????????????(N??)?????????????????? ?????????? ???????????? ? ??????? ? ????????? ???????? ??? ????? ???????????????? ??????????????????????????????????..
    ???????????????????????????????????????????? ??????????????????????????????????????????????9????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? http://www.newkakaku.net/lb1.htm

  • ???????????????????????????????????????????????????SS??N?????????????2015????????????????????(????)????????????CHH67723(*^^*)11??????????(*^^*)?????????????????CH783283????? ??????????????????? ?????????? ?????????? ??????????????????????? ??????? ???
    BVLGARI(?????????)CHLOE(????????????????,??,?????????????,???????????,??????,???????,?????,?????????,?????????,????????,????,?????,?????? http://www.msnbrand.com/brand-copy-IP-2.html

  • ???????????????????(N??)?????????????????? ?????????? ???????????? ? ??????? ? ????????? ???????? ??? ????? ???????????????? ??????????????????????????????????..
    ?? ????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????? ?? ???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????IWC????????????? http://www.ooobrand.com/bags/prada/index.html

  • Dr. Mike Youssef

    The student holds his/her own fate; the Instructor help carry only. Students who are not self- or intrinsic-motivated will drop their fate. The Instructor will carry on helping other students. The equality here remains in the fact that we are all the same, differ only in the amount of knowledge and the way to convey it to others. If students can take ownership of their career/fate, with our help, they chose to succeed, if not the decision is theirs.