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.
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.