What Is Teaching, Anyway?

Of those who hold advanced academic credentials and who work in universities and colleges full- or part-time, most of us are classroom teachers. Of course, we do not all teach. Some are full-time administrators, some work full-time in academic functions other than classroom teaching, for example international programs, or Teaching and Learning Centers, or student affairs, or libraries, or course development, or outcomes assessment, or accreditation, or full-time research, or in a range of other integrated academic activities. But most teach, and whether one teaches full- or part-time, teaching is an essential feature of our professional lives.

            I will assume that most of us take our professional activities seriously, and that we wish to perform them well. If that is true, then teaching well is an aspiration that we all, or anyway most of us, share. Since for whatever we do, we can always do it better, efforts to improve our teaching are permanent features of our professional lives. This, after all, is the assumption of such projects as QEDEX, and the activities of Teaching and Learning Centers, and the many other forms of professional development that characterize our institutions.

            One of the reasons that these sorts of activities are important is that many of us, probably most of us, who teach in institutions of higher education never learned systematically how to teach well. We have learned as we go along, usually from colleagues and such systematic efforts as QEDEX provides. When I was a Ph.D. student, in the admittedly antediluvian days of the late 1970s, some of my fellow graduate students and I tried to convince our department to organize a seminar on teaching for us. We were told that our purpose was not to learn how to teach but to learn how to be professional philosophers, and so our request was denied. We thought that this was rather short-sighted of the department, so we organized our own teaching seminar. But this attitude well reflected the common view at the time that teaching in higher education was of secondary importance, and something that one could pick up along the way, despite the fact that most of us were destined for careers that would emphasize teaching more than anything else.

            Fortunately, there has been a shift in this perspective over the decades. It is now more generally recognized that teaching well is not something that happens automatically, and that it is something to which we in higher education should pay sustained attention. That is all to the good, though it leaves open an important question. We now generally grant that teaching well is a value to which we should attend, but that does not automatically answer the question what character teaching in higher education should have. What I mean can perhaps be captured by this question: should teaching in institutions of higher education be conducted more or less on the model of teaching in primary and secondary schools, with lesson plans, and discrete outcomes specified for each component of a lesson plan, and common textbooks that guide students through similar experiences; or should teaching in higher education institutions be less explicitly determined, more exploratory, and more a matter of guidance for students to develop their intellectual curiosity and the skills required to satisfy it? Either way, learning to teach well is something to which we need to attend, but granting that point does not by itself help us to decide which conception of teaching we want to endorse in higher education.

             I would like to make a case, albeit briefly, for the more open-ended, less fully determined, sense of teaching in higher education. I do not mean to say, by the way, that there is some sharp break between what can or should be done in the upper levels of secondary school and in higher education. In my own case, my transition from secondary school to university was relatively smooth, in part because in the last year of secondary school I was already being introduced to the study of literature and philosophy and geopolitics, among other subjects. This was done at levels appropriate for 16-17-year olds, but also in ways that were not sharply different from what one might encounter in the first year of university.

This does suggest that one of the reasons teaching should shift gradually from the more determined forms in early years to more open-ended forms for older students has to do with the development we can expect in the intellectual maturity of students as they grow older. As they move through their mid-teens to early-20s, we can and should expect students to develop the ability and inclination to take greater control of their thinking, questioning, inquiry, creativity, and study, or to put it in a single word, their learning. If that is right, then our teaching needs to shift its character in such a way that it can keep up with the intellectual development of the students as they mature. The situation is never simply one or the other, and careful teachers know when a student needs more or less control. But the general trajectory ought to be from being a provider of information and skills to being a coach, a guide, and a companion in intellectual growth and development. This is what is implied by what I have called a more open-ended sort of teaching.

Yet another reason for such a shift in our conception of teaching in higher education is that as students engage their worlds with an eye toward a fuller understanding, it becomes necessary to organize the process in a way that is suitable to the character and complexity of the world they are seeking to understand. When we are trying to help younger children learn the basics, we can, and probably should, structure the material and the process in organized packets of information and activities. But this will never do for a more sophisticated understanding of the world, for the simple reason that the world is not itself structured in discrete and organized packets. There are two reasons for this. One is that the world is not structured in simple facts and data, but in complex sets of relations, and to understand the world requires wrestling with those relations as much as it requires comprehending the data and facts.

The second reason is that understanding the world is not a matter of collecting facts, data and relations, but of understanding their actual and potential meanings. And this is true for every subject matter, without exception. If we are guiding our students to an understanding of contemporary politics, or international relations, or human experience, or social relations, or biology, or astrophysics, or calculus, or civil engineering, or business, or sculpture, the general demands are the same. At earlier stages of development, children need the structure required to gather relevant information and develop basic skills. But understanding the world, any part of it, at more advanced levels, which is what we aspire to in higher education, requires an appreciation and fruitful handling of its complexities. This, in turn, calls for a guide and coach, not a simply a source of data.

The transition from conveying information to facilitating understanding has to be a gradual one. If students are accustomed to having their hands held as they are guided through pre-determined cognitive experiences, it will be difficult, because alien, for them when they find themselves in freer educational environments. They have to be brought along so that they can take proper advantage of the atmosphere appropriate to higher education. But their ability to take advantage of it is something that will happen naturally, barring some exceptional circumstances. As educators, it is our responsibility to facilitate rather than impede that process. If in higher education we are engaging with our students more or less as we would with younger children then we are stunting their educational growth instead of enabling it. Enabling students’ education at more advanced levels takes different activities and different sets of skills than does teaching at lower levels. As we engage in improving our teaching and the requisite professional development, we would do well to keep that in mind.

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A Plea for Equity

Que sera, sera, and we would be far better served by thinking about what it is we wish to accomplish in our teaching, and in education generally, regardless of the post-pandemic details. It is only then, assuming we can carve out opportunities to influence the future of higher education, that we will exert such influence toward justifiable ends, and that que sera will be something we value.


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  1. I could not agree more with your argument on the importance of improving teaching by transitioning from merely conveying information to facilitating the learning process. As a staff member with a terminal degree and (in the recent past) adjunct instructor role, I have found challenging to invest time in professional development (for teaching) due to limited power of decision adjuncts face when teaching courses led by tenured professors. For instance, I have completed multiple professional development activities through the Center for Teaching Excellence in my institution, but often found resistance in implementing changes that relate to the teacher-student dynamics during the time I was teaching.

  2. Really interesting, and thought-provoking read John. Particularly re. the age of students. For many years I working in HE Adult Education (aka Lifelong Learning/Continuing Education and work-based learning) then moved to a Dept. whose main recruits were (are) typically 18-19 year olds. I’d always tried to use a teaching/facilitation approach broadly based on Knowles’s Andragogy. I did find considerable differences between the older students I was used to teaching and those I now taught.

    In terms of understanding I’m a great believer in the distinction between surface and deep learning (originally from Marton and Saljo in the 1970s, though much built upon since their foundational work). From my own research I now believe that enjoyment is linked to understanding (see http://www.edupij.com/index/arsiv/27/132/the-role-of-interest-and-enjoyment-in-determining-students-approach-to-learning – free download) and that students may articulate their understanding of understanding differently (I’d use a different phrase here, yet there’s no word that directly replaces understanding in this context). I found that when students say ‘understand’ they may be referring to partial understanding or more surface learning. Yet when they referred to ‘fully understanding’ it was more aligned to the deep approach.

  3. I believe that teaching-learning process will never be limited to basic standards or general ones. It is a process that should be differ from one culture to another, from one generation to another, from one environment to another, etc. Fifty years ago, the teacher was the king of the classroom; his way of teaching was fully presentation lecture, where students receive the information. About thirty years ago, scientists began to develop new strategies in teaching where interaction and students’ participation were implemented in the teaching learning process. About fifteen years ago, scientists found that it is not enough to have only participation of students in the teaching- learning process; they said that the teacher should guide students as a coach or mentor not teaching them. Therefore, they started to encourage the use of activities and peer groups among students during lectures. Nowadays, unfortunately, no one knows what teaching is! some scientists are against online teaching and the use of technology in the teaching- learning process while others insist on their use, some insist on the traditional way of teaching, while others don’t,
    some insist on conducting exams to assess the understanding of students while others prefer submission of projects. What is worth than that, quality assurance panels come from west countries to evaluate the teaching- learning process in the east countries based on their developed standards and vise versa, where mostly this evaluation focus on documentations that take a lot of time from faculty to prepare them. The use of technology is important in teaching, but the question is how can we use it where students, in some countries, are unable to buy computers or pay internet subscription?! On the other hand, this devise is available for students in some other countries. In fact, this we are dealing with with digital students that they do not prefer normal classes as they can have different explanations for any subject area through YouTube and other applications. Hence, it is highly recommended to let every country define its own teaching, based on the students’ environment and culture, and to follow this sentence taken from an old song which states” We don’t need now education…Hey teacher leave them kids alone”. Students are able to teach themselves, and we need them to define their own teaching.

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