Knowing, Learning and Teaching 3 – Teaching

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:37 am

With all this stuff in place by way of background, time to talk about teaching. In the same way that I said a theory of knowledge can provide a sort of foundation for a theory of learning, but that it requires further thought and we bring in other commitments, beliefs and assumptions when we move from knowing to learning, I also think that understanding learning does not, by itself, provide us with a theory about teaching. What we think, know and understand about teaching will draw on particular ideas about what it means to learn and what we have to do to support that. But it will also draw on our experience of being students, children, teachers and parents, and on a whole raft of our other ideas and beliefs. I’ll talk about this more at the end, but teaching really draws on all of who we are.

My colleague Max van Manen here in Secondary Education at the University of Alberta writes about teaching more touchingly and beautifully than anyone else I know. He doesn’t actually talk about ‘teaching’, because that focuses too much on what the teacher does, but about ‘pedagogy’. He defines pedagogy as ‘any relationship in which an adult is with a young person with the intention of helping the young person grow and develop’ (that’s my paraphrase). That means that quite a lot of what parents do also counts as ‘pedagogy’ under that definition, and also that quite a lot of the managerial and other stuff that teachers do doesn’t count as pedagogy. Pedagogy exists in relationships, and Max’s interest is most strongly in recognising what the experience is like from the child’s perspective.

Max has written two books, ‘The Tact of Teaching’ and ‘The Tone of Teaching’, that both address what it means to be a teacher in relationship with students. He talks about ‘tact’ as relating to the two different senses of ‘thoughtfulness’ – to be thoughtful is to be kind, caring, considerate, to place the child’s interests ahead of our own, but to be thoughtful is also to be reflective, to think about what we’re doing and find ways to do it better.

Learning to teach is an iterative process of paying attention to the students and to ourselves – of reacting in the moment to the situation as it presents itself, but also of thinking later about how we could have done it better. Here’s Max:

…pedagogy requires a reflective orientation to life… By thoughtfully reflecting on what I should have done, I decide in effect how I want to be. In other words, I infuse my being and my readiness to act with a certain thoughtfulness. And yet, how I am now as a teacher will not be clear until I have had further opportunities to act in more appropriate ways. How I am as a teacher depends on what I do, on my possibilities for acting thoughtfully. But my possible actions do not magically arise, they depend on the thoughtfulness that I have been able to acquire in recollective reflection. (Van Manen, 1991, p. 116)

A lot of nonsense has been written lately in education (actually, since about the late 1960s) about ‘teacher as facilitator’, and about moving from being ‘the sage on the stage to the guide on the side’. The language of ‘student-centred instead of teacher-centred’ teaching is also emphasised, and ‘learning’ is talked about much more than ‘teaching’. Yet all this stuff tends much more to diminish than to redefine the role of teacher – and I think that’s a mistake. I’ve written about ‘the myth of student-centred’ teaching and the ’empty centre’: that is, the teacher steps out of the ‘centre’1, but the students choose not to step in, so the course ends up with an ’empty centre’.

I think it comes from an egalitarian impulse to get away from a hugely unequal power relationship between students and teachers – and perhaps also from the fact that the growth of knowledge means no-one can be ‘the expert’ any more. But I think it’s a mistake for a number of reasons:

  1. The teacher just simply does know more – in the rich, structure/network/soup sense – about both the content of the subject they teach and the methods of knowing and learning in that area. To pretend that s/he doesn’t is just to waste that source of knowledge.
  2. The teacher does have much more power than the students, and that’s necessary and good. Children and young people are immature because they’re supposed to be, and the teacher’s power is legitimate (when it’s not abused) to help the students become more mature. Pretending that everyone in the classroom is equal is fake, and kids see through fakes in a second. It also puts the power relationships beyond negotiation, so ironically it’s less empowering rather than more.
  3. The teacher knows how to plan the learning and activities so that they’re fun, varied, interesting and challenging. The teacher knows how to differentiate the activities for students with different needs and abilities. The children aren’t yet mature enough to plan their own learning.

I’m not advocating for the teacher to just stand at the front of the class and lecture: there’s lots of excellent research to show that that doesn’t lead to good learning. Look at the knowing and learning posts again: students need opportunities in class to process the new knowledge, by themselves, with the teacher and with the other students, not to just absorb it. What I’m saying is that the teacher is responsible for planning what happens in the classroom, and for finding rich ways to impart knwoeldge, skills and, yes, values and beliefs too.

Teachers need an extensive repertoire of different learning activities (also called ‘teaching strategies’, but maybe I’ve succumbed to some of the ideas about focusing on learning!) that includes some lecturing when it’s appropriate, some use of technology, some group work, some whole class discussions, lab work, drama and role plays, field trips, guest speakers and as many other alternatives as their creativity will allow them to use. Teachers also need to have expert content area knowledge in their teaching subject(s) – not so much because they’re the source of knowledge for the students but because they need to know about the field in a deep way. I really like Lee Shulman’s retort to George Bernard Shaw’s (in)famous: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”. Shulman said “Those who can, do; those who understand, teach.” What a teacher needs in addition to what a practitioner needs, in any field, is some understanding of why the practitioners do what they do.

Final point about teaching – we teach out of who we are. Everything that happens in the classroom, including our eye contact and body language and relationships, the jokes we tell and laugh at, the ways we choose to explain ideas, the students we ask to answer our questions and those we don’t… everything is important to who we are as teachers. And it’s just impossible to do all of that consciously and intentionally: it can’t all be planned. That means that we teach based on our whole selves. That further means that developing as a teacher means developing as a human being: becoming more caring, more wise, more connected with other people, kinder, smarter, better…

Let me finish with a quote from another wisdom literature:

James 3:1 Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers [and sisters], because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.

It’s true – judged by ourselves and by our students. It’s a calling and a vocation and a profession, and it’s not easy – but it’s incredibly rewarding.


Van Manen, M. (1991). The tact of teaching: The meaning of pedagogical thoughtfulness. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

  1. What ‘the centre’ means is itself often not clear: does it mean the authoritarian centre of power and control, or the authoritative centre of knowledge and skills, or the emotional centre of relationships, or the conceptual centre of planning and coordination? Probably some of each of these, but talking about it as though it’s one thing is counterproductive

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