In Defense of Teaching

Mark Twain once remarked that “All generalizations are false, including this one.” It seems that we are in a time—an educational crossroads of sorts—when teaching is overgeneralized to the point where it can be difficult for professionals to have meaningful conversations.

Tired descriptors such as “sage on the stage” and “guide on the side” have permeated the pedagogical literature for more than two decades now even though they greatly oversimplify what really takes place in the college classroom. Most teaching occurs on a continuum between these two extremes. But now the term “lecture” is equated with using didactic instruction and nothing else. It is regularly blamed for a multitude of pedagogical problems in the academy. Articles in various educational journals regularly associate teaching with telling and continue to recommend that this traditional method be completely abandoned in favor of more student-centered strategies that promote active learning.

Educational research findings do need to be applied more regularly to teaching, and there is no doubt that student-centered approaches are integral to student success. We are in a robust time of pedagogical design aided in some measure by technological development and faculty creativity. However, at times the emphasis on student learning ends up devaluing teaching and diminishing all that it contributes to student learning.

Many educators now opt for metaphorical descriptions such as guide, mentor, coach, designer, choreographer, and tutor rather than calling themselves teachers. In fact, in his Nov./Dec. 2001 Change article “The Case Against Teaching,” Larry Spence ends with the sentence “It’s not the teaching, it’s the learning, stupid.” Although a provocative statement drawn from presidential politics of the time and one that challenges educators to think about the very nature of teaching and learning, it’s not useful to pit teaching against learning.

We reject the notion that teaching is just telling and feel that the focus on learning diminishes the critical contributions teachers make in the lives of their students. Indeed, we believe that good teaching embodies a wide variety of metaphors used to describe it. At times, students need a sage who challenges them to think analytically and critically. Other times students need a guide to help them while they construct their own ideas and apply problem-solving techniques to different issues. Some students need to be motivated, and others need a mentor who offers advice on educational and career paths.

It is time to reassert the role of teacher as a multifaceted individual who contributes to learning inside and outside the classroom. Teachers positively impact students on many levels, including curriculum design, intellectual challenge, personal growth, career guidance, and other less tangible areas. Our students do not know us only as teachers who designed their course, but they also know us as the people who listen to their aspirations and struggles. Indeed, students’ memories and experiences with teachers are often just as important to their success as the skills they develop and the knowledge they acquire. Mark Twain might consider that one of those false generalizations; we’d be inclined to disagree.

Dr. James Ricky Cox is a professor of chemistry at Murray State University. Dr. Dave Yearwood is professor and chair of the technology department at the University of North Dakota.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 27.1 (2013): 4. © Magna Publications.