The value of teaching, no matter the age of the student

Manly Beach, Sydney/Dennis Sparks

A teacher’s job, as I understand it, is to ensure students’ learning no matter the age of the student—that is, all students will speak, think, understand, and act in new ways. Teachers begin with the learning and well-being of students in mind and design outward, employing a variety of methods that make a sustained cognitive demand on learners to ensure learning. Teachers continuously make adjustments until students have mastered the understanding or skill. In successful classroom, students are active in reconfiguring their own brains.

That’s why I believe there is no profession or calling more important than teaching. It is both a title and job description that can be worn with pride, even in the midst of a great deal of public criticism of schools and teachers. In fact, I would prefer that the term teacher be used for those who promote the learning of educators rather than more commonplace titles of presenter, speaker, trainer, or consultant.

A subtle denigration of teaching

There is a subtle but important denigration of teaching that occurs when those who “teach” at universities are called lecturers or professors and those who “teach” teachers or school administrators are called presenters, speakers, trainers, or consultants. In the educational hierarchy “professing” or “presenting” to adults seems to be regarded by many as a higher-order responsibility than “teaching” young people.

The unthinking use of these terms and the conceptual frames they represent also provide a clue about a source of leaders’ low expectations for the “presentations” that continue to dominate the professional development of hundreds of thousands of educators each year.

Consider the verbs hidden within those “higher-order” nouns—lecture, profess, present, and train—teaching methods that most educators who have thought much about it would like to see minimized in K-12 classrooms.

A speaker or presenter’s job seems to be, well, presenting information—as in “This is the content I will be delivering in this session”—rather than ensuring learning. That’s probably why I cringe a bit inside each time I am introduced as a “presenter.” I once asked a group, “If I am your presenter, then what are you?” They responded, almost as one, “The audience.” No one said, “Your students.” While many presenters work hard to involve their audiences in some way, more often than not PowerPoints rich with information dominate the session, and the cognitive demand on participants is typically low.

Presentations—including brief ones that we call speeches—do have a value. Leaders can offer them judiciously to provide a sense of direction and provide inspiration to the school community. Presentations can help educators decide where they want to invest time and resources to achieve important goals.

But with few exceptions, presentations—because of their typically brief and superficial nature—do not change beliefs, create deep understanding, or cultivate new habits of mind or behavior because they are seldom truly intended to achieve those ends. And if those are the expressed purposes of a “presentation,” let’s then call it what it is—teaching.

I know that for too many educators presentations rather than careful teaching are the sum and substance of their professional development, which is another reason why I cringe when the title “presenter” is used in reference to me. And because what we observe is usually is more persuasive than what we are told, it’s easy for “audience” members to walk away believing that this approach must be the best one to use in classrooms and faculty meetings, where teacher and administrator talk too often dominates.

Presentations cannot replace teaching. Receiving information is not a substitute for the intellectually rigorous engagement required to think and act differently in ways that benefit all students.

That why I’d like to see the term “teacher” used whenever student learning is the primary purpose, no matter whether the students are 5 years old or 55. When meaningful learning and continuous improvement in practice is the goal, there are only teachers and students. And no more cringing.

4 Responses to “The value of teaching, no matter the age of the student”


  1. 1 Denny Berry November 8, 2010 at 6:26 am

    This entry so resonated with me. I, too, cringe when I am asked to be “the presenter” in a variety of contexts within my school system. I know part of that way of thinking has to do with my role in my school system as the director of one of our clusters of schools. I also know that it is the familiar way of thinking…that somehow I can “present” complex ideas with the hope that something will stick. I have been trying to recast that language. This post will help me to continue that effort. Meanwhile, I plan to share this with colleagues.

  2. 2 Cathy Gassenheimer November 8, 2010 at 9:33 am

    Very thought-provoking post, Dennis. Just this morning, before I read your post, I emailed my colleagues telling them that I was facilitating a session today with educators. Effective facilitation, to me, requires skills, knowledge, and the ability to listen. Effective facilitators constantly adapt based on the feedback they receive. They work hard before the session to ensure they are well-prepared.

    I’m not claiming to be the most effective facilitator; in fact, I’m still working on it and learning from masters like Jackie Walsh, Joellen, you and others.

    I’m interested in hearing more about your views on the term facilitator. Seems to me that it should be a higher-order skill, right along there with effective teaching.

  3. 3 Dennis Sparks November 8, 2010 at 10:05 am

    This is how I think about it, Cathy (but I reserve the right to change my mind in the very near future): Facilitation is a subset of good teaching. There are times for teachers to “present,” but we don’t want teachers’ talk to fill classrooms. There are also times when we want teachers to design and lead activities through which students have valuable experiences and engage in conversations primarily with one another, not the teacher. I think of that as facilitation, or at least one manifestation of it.

  4. 4 Charles Mason November 8, 2010 at 10:06 am

    Hey Dennis,

    I always enjoy your posts, and since I’m working with all adults all the time, this one was particulary interesting to me. We’re promoting the use of the word “learning” over “training” to emphasize the importance of results that are more complex than just doing something in a particular way. Hope you are doing well and that you’ll be in Atlanta in a few weeks.


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