What If Teaching Were a Kind of Helping?

Teaching scouts about HIV/AIDS 01

I fear that in higher education, we often have the wrong framework around teaching. Three frames in particular seems ineffective.

  1. The Radial Model. The professor is the sun, and the students are flowers, soaking up the sun-professor’s knowledge ray’s.
    • This isn’t just a metaphor: it’s a structure. The professor is the hub, and each student is at the end of one spoke. The professor speaks to all students, and each student carries on a dialogue only with the professor. (No “passing notes” in class!)
  2. The Cognitive Frame. Learning is amassing knowledge. It’s all about information and the brain. The head matters more than the heart or the guts. Learners pile in information, and then, as an afterthought, solve problems, invent new solutions & new problems.
  3. The Moral Frame. Since the professor delivers information, it’s the student’s responsibility to learn it. The professor bears no responsibility for how the students learn, nor whether. The student’s performance reflects entirely on his character: his brainpower, his stick-to-it-iveness, his ability to work hard.
  4. The Winnowing Frame. The professor separates the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad.
    • Pre-major courses winnow majors from non-majors, those who have the goods from those who don’t.
    • Major courses separate those who can continue on to grad school from those who should not.

These models fit together to make the professor a person who stands and delivers information, which the students soak up, write down, and spit back. It’s fine if students fail or perform poorly, because it’s all part of the professor’s job: separating the mini-me’s from the not-our-kind-dears.

There are other ways to think about teaching. Three seem richly needed. They are moral frames, but they are humanistic and skill-based.

A. Teaching is a kind of helping. No matter what the subject matter, the teacher is a kind of coach who helps students improve their skills at learning.

  • While the professor may be a subject-matter expert, most of her students are not going to become similar experts. When only a small percent of undergraduates are going to become professionals in a discipline, there’s little excuse for treating all students as if they are future professionals.
    • (Indeed, the main thing a student learns from most courses is: how to immerse yourself quickly in a speciality, talk the talk, and walk away with something of value.)

B. Learning is a skill: you can get better at it. Studies bear this out: teaching study skills makes a difference. General executive skills, such as time-management, form a crucial part of learning. It’s only shameful to help students succeed if you think your authority arises from your ability to cause others to fail.

  • If we help students get better at learning, then they will not only learn about our discipline, they’ll be better at learning what comes next.
  • Something new is always coming next because innovation is central in our economy. To teach a fixed body of facts and rules is basically to mire students in the past: it also makes students dependent upon an expert, when we should be helping them to think for themselves.

C. ‘Know thyself’ is still a good directive for undergraduates (not to mention grad students). What are your strengths? Where are your weaknesses? How can you overcome your weaknesses and build on your strengths?

  • Answering these questions involves not just finding out where you are on the curve; it involves self-knowledge.
  • Self-knowledge, self-awareness, the ability to introspect and observe oneself: these are core humanist values. Helping prepare students for the future, including the job market, depends crucially upon values the humanities have long held dear.

Moving away from the first set of frames and putting into place the second will not be easy. But if we care about our students as self-directing human beings who need to master their own potential, then the challenges are worth it.

–Edward R. O’Neill


  1. Testify!

    To be sure, we should view ourselves as facilitators for and guides in our students' growth. I work in faculty development and the current framework is indeed our greatest obstacle. Yes, we may be called "Professors" but our responsibility goes far beyond simply professing our knowledge. Thanks for sharing these much-needed insights.

  2. Guides, facilitators, cheerleaders--yes, all that and more!

    Even though we have expert knowledge, is it so bad to see yourselves as fantastic tour guides through a complex territory? Or even popularizers of wonderful, sophisticated knowledge?

    Thanks for commenting.

    1. "...fantastic tour guides through a complex territory"--well said. I can't think of a better definition!


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