I ran across the title quotation in a story told by Monty Roberts, the famous “horse whisperer,” in which he recounts something he learned from his best teacher that he later applied to his work with horses. It’s a rather shocking assertion to say that there is “no such thing as teaching” . . . especially to those of us who have given our lives to the profession.
Here is the full quotation in context:
“Sister Agnes Patricia was the most influential teacher I ever knew. What I will always remember about her is her statement that there is no such thing as teaching — only learning. She believed that no teacher could ever teach anyone anything. Her task as a teacher was to create an environment in which the student can learn. Knowledge, she told us, standing very straight in her long black habit, her face framed by her white wimple, pointed at the top like the spire of a cathedral, needs to be pulled into the brain by the student, not pushed into it by the teacher. Knowledge is not to be forced on anyone. The brain has to be receptive, malleable, and most important, hungry for that knowledge.”
How closely related that is to some of the “eternal verities” that guide Golden Apple’s Inquiry Science Institute: “Teaching and learning are not synonymous.” “We can teach, and teach well, without having students learn.” “Knowledge is seldom transferred intact from the mind of the teacher to the mind of the student.” “Knowledge is CONSTRUCTED in the mind of the learner.”
If these assertions are true, what’s a teacher to do, particularly in the current high stakes test environment?
One of the most difficult lessons for us to learn as teachers is to step back from being the asker of all questions and the font of all answers, and to let students explore, question, design, ponder, and grow in their own way and in their own time. To an extent, some of this is beyond our control, given the rigid testing schedules and prescribed curricula most teachers must follow. But there is always a significant portion of the classroom experience that is within our control, and that’s where our professional responsibility kicks in. Because the struggle is more often with our own need to control and direct the learning process than with external directives. But when we can challenge that need in ourselves for the benefit of our students, something wonderful happens.
From various teachers in our Inquiry Science Institute program, I’ve heard versions of the following: “I never realized how smart my kids are. It was hard for me, but I’ve been letting go and they do just fine figuring things out on their own. Better than I expected. Now I’m learning right along with them.”
They aren’t the first to make this important discovery. The acknowledged father of adult learning theory, Malcolm S. Knowles, described how he came to adopt an inquiry approach in his own teaching. Or rather how he became “a facilitator of learning” rather than a traditional teacher. He took a course at the University of Chicago with Professor Arthur Shedlin who placed responsibility for the seminar squarely in the hands of the students. At the end of a semester in which Knowles said, “. . . I had never worked so hard in any course,” he did what all good teachers do, he reflected on what had happened, in this case, what it means to be a facilitator of learning, as Shedlin called himself, rather than a teacher.”
“I . . . experienced myself as adopting a different system of psychic rewards. I had replaced getting my rewards from controlling students with getting my rewards from releasing students. And I found the latter rewards much more satisfying. . . . I found myself performing a different set of functions that required a different set of skills. Instead of performing the function of content planner and transmitter, which required primarily presentation skills, I was performing the function of process designer and manager, which required relationship building, needs assessment, involvement of students in planning, linking students to learning resources, and encouraging student initiative. I have never been tempted since then to revert to the role of teacher.”
Because as Sister Agnes Patricia so wisely said, “there is no such thing as teaching.”
Have you stopped teaching? What is the most difficult part of becoming a facilitator of learning? What have been the psychic rewards of doing so? The challenges? How have your students responded? Will you continue? What next?