What is Real Teaching? (Part 1)

With recent discussions on Pseudoteaching, flipped classrooms, and a host of other fabulous concepts arising recently in the Webosphere, I thought it worthwhile to step back and try to take a look at what real teaching actually is. This is the first post on this topic, and there are several more in various draft stages; this is not a sound-bite topic.

In the spirit of the acronym world we live in, I hereby dub this thread WiRT (What is Real Teaching?):

First, I would like to define my terms. Many would interject that it’s not about teaching, it’s about learning. That may well be, however the reality is that most of us who identify ourselves as teachers have a defined curriculum that we are responsible for ensuring the students learn, and so we can link the two by defining teaching not as information delivery, but as the guiding of learning, in whatever form it takes. Thus, while learning can happen anytime, anywhere, teaching involves some form of direction and support towards specific learning.

Now a bit of deconstructionism. If the definition of pseudoteaching is the post-hoc recognition that intended learning did not occur despite all parties thinking it had, then I suppose the definition of Real Learning is that the intended learning did in fact take place. In order to determine whether learning has in fact occurred, we need to use assessments of some description, so determination of learning is always going to be post-hoc.

What then, is the purpose of teaching? We have specific outcomes in mind (or in required documentation), but effectively the purpose of teaching is to prepare the students for future learning. In effect then, we can’t know whether our teaching is truly successful until our students move to the next course, or grade, or workplace, or whatever we were preparing them for. All we can do, in the meantime, is to run analyses that we think, subjectively, provide an indication of future retention of concepts.

Now, how many of us think that all of our students will develop a deep understanding of a complex topic the first time they are introduced to it? I have been fortunate to have had students like that, but they are very few and far between. Repetition, practice, observation, breaking down preconceptions, more repetition and practice, and teaching it to others. That’s how learning occurs. So, though we may beat ourselves over the head when we recognize that pseudoteaching has occurred, we need to be cognizant that in fact it just means that learning hasn’t solidified yet. It doesn’t mean a complete failure.

One thing that has not been mentioned in all of this is the students’ attitude toward learning. And, if the definition of real teaching is strictly that students are prepared for the next level, then whether or not the students like the material, or are engaged with the material, or enjoy the course, is actually not part of the equation – at least not directly. Hypothetically, if I am able to get students to retain a deep understanding of Newton’s Laws through threats and coercion, then Real Teaching has occurred. Since there is probably none among us who would actually do this, perhaps we need to extend our definition of Real Teaching to include some intangibles.

Let us say that Real Teaching involves not only providing our students with prerequisite knowledge and skills for the future, but also the skills and desire to continue learning of their own accord – the elusive “love of lifelong learning”. But how do we measure that? The answer is that lifelong learning is not quantitative. We can only subjectively interpret behaviours and actions as evidence of success.

So, when we break it all down, all of the teaching we do is subjective. We must use experience and professional judgment to determine progress towards effective learning, and we won’t know for sure if Real Teaching has occurred for months or years to come. A reliance on subjective measures to determine progress is not a bad thing, however, it just means we have to recognize and treat it as such, rather than pretending it is objective.

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