The question in my title truly masks a pair of inquiries. I will try to address both of them in this post. First, and most importantly, it focuses on the nature of teaching as an act, and on a range of specific elements that comprise the normal or typical praxis, outlook and character of someone who claims to be a “teacher.” Secondly, and just as richly, it ponders the nature of the elements that define the highest level of effectiveness and quality in the elements of practice, outlook and character constituting and animating the dynamic ensemble that we would recognize as a “good teacher.”
I say that the first question is more important, although it might have been more fitting to say that it is more intriguing, more complex and, perhaps, more problematic. What I mean to suggest is that “teaching” is not necessarily “something” that one “does.” Or to put it another way, teaching is, or can be, or ought to be about “fostering learning,” more than it is an act in and of itself. The colloquial way of talking about the paradigm shift that I am referencing is to say that a teacher is no longer a “sage on the stage,” but is now a “guide on the side.” Those who want to inculcate and sustain the best and most effective kinds of learning probably need to stop thinking of themselves as folks who do this thing called “teaching,” and focus instead on being subject matter experts and “resource persons,” who are also mentors, advanced organizers of learning activities and exemplars who inspire and support learners. Teaching truly is not just one thing, but a whole panoply of practices and roles and manners and modes of attention and focus. It is about understanding learners and understanding and promoting learning. It is about effective monitoring of learning practices and careful attention to each and every learner. It is about organizing learning activities and assuring that students have the motivation, knowledge, strategies and resources that they need to complete the learning work. It is about supporting learners and facilitating good, resonant and durable learning. It is about fostering metacognition and resilience and curiosity.
Teaching that arcs toward what I am calling, with hope in my heart and mind, the “future of learning” is a complex and difficult enterprise. It is not to be undertaken by the faint of heart or by the uninspired or the lazy. It is hard work. Being a teacher in its best incarnation means fulfilling a multitude of roles simultaneously, with wit, and grace, and care.
And that leads us to the second question. What is “good teaching”? It is about focusing on learning and assuring that students know how to learn, assuring that they are prepared to do the activities that they need to accomplish for good learning to take place. It means assuring that they adopt and use learning practices that maximize learning for all involved in the activities. A good teacher inspires learners and helps them develop strategies and mindsets that support their learning, or that helps the learner improve his or her ability to learn effectively alone or collectively and knows how to apply new knowledge and skills impactfully. A good teacher has a sense of the attitudes and levels of engagement, and intellectual strengths or weaknesses, of each of the learners that she or he is working with. In other words, in my view, for an effective future of learning, it will be necessary to redefine teaching in a universal way to embrace this dynamic, complex, difficult set of interwoven competencies, propensities and potentialities. That kind of “teaching for learning” can be extremely difficult — because the challenge of it is continually renewed, moment to moment — and it requires interweaving many roles, juggling many priorities and managing many sets of information, with an eye turned toward the target of effective and durable learning for every single learner in one’s class, course, room or purview.
In subsequent blog posts, I expect to unpack at least the most salient of the multitude of skills and roles that teaching for optimal learning seems to demand.(To understand and master teaching skills for fostering learning, it is necessary to understand how human brains work, how lasting memories are formed and how to motivate and guide learners. Those are a few aspects of learning (and teaching) that we will focus on in future posts, along with investigations of kinds of learning, and appropriate modalities for administering and managing the complex processes of education. Unpacking these ideas will require talking about cognitive science and models of learning. It will touch on assessment. It will touch on questions about what education is for. So… it’s a vast and complex agenda that I had packed into a single — or was that a double? — question.