As the New Year approaches, every teacher intends to excel and every student hopes to get a “good teacher,” but how will either know if they are successful? This depends upon what is meant by “good teaching,” and that in turn depends on what one means by “teaching.”
Too often, of course, teaching is taken to mean telling; that is, explaining things, and perhaps demonstrating them, so as to impart one’s own knowledge and skill to others. This is, indeed, an important aspect of teaching, but it is entirely insufficient as a description of the act. It is hard to succeed at teaching if you can’t explain things clearly, but it is very easy to fail if that is the sum total of your skill and the extent of your understanding of the process.
Teaching is a form of communication and communication, as is often said, occurs in the listener. What is perceived is what has been communicated, not what was said. A good communicator must be not only eloquent but also able to connect with the audience and to express things in ways that its members will understand and to which they can relate. Similarly, a good teacher needs not only to understand the subject matter being taught but also to connect with students so as to elicit within them a similar understanding and appreciation. A good orator can be a poor communicator and a good lecturer can be a poor teacher; in both cases their success depends on audience response, not simply their own skill.
This is what makes teaching an Art as well as a Science. It is student response that determines if you are successful, and that response is beyond your control. So, a teacher is responsible for student learning, but s/he has no direct control over it. Teaching consists of persistent invitation, provocation, scaffolding, reinforcement, redirection and extension to elicit a desired response that is entirely controlled and determined by the student. To make things even more complex, each student is unique and thus will respond differently.
This is why there is no such thing as “best practice.” What is best depends upon the student and the situation. No universals exist. A teacher must select from amongst practices that have been shown to be effective those that seem most likely to succeed in a particular context with particular students, but there is no guarantee they will work as intended. Thus, teaching is an iterative process of trial and error, guided by careful observation of student response (aka formative assessment). The teacher adapts instructional technique depending upon student response until the desired responses are achieved. When that happens, teaching has occurred. Until that happens, no matter how skillful and dedicated the teacher, and no matter how sincere and committed the effort, there can be no claim to have taught. Instruction may have been given, but there is no teaching until there is learning.
And what is the desired response? Ultimately, of course, it is demonstration of learning, but before that occurs there must be engagement—not just diligent compliance with assigned tasks but genuine thinking that arises from an intellectual and emotional commitment to learning. A flame must be lit. When that happens, deep learning inevitably results and “good teaching” can be said to have occurred. Without it, not so much.
In my next blog I will consider what student responses lead to engagement and in the one following that I will look at the professional expertise that teachers bring to bear in order to evoke those responses.