Learning is the Teacher's responsibility

This ought to ruffle some feathers….

Reflecting on the technology and boredom issues in the classroom, raised in Michael Wesch’s “A Vision of Today’s Student” (see previous post), I am not going to blame the student, even though they’re an easy target; nor the university system, where the economics pressure inexperienced teachers into the classroom; nor the fat, overindulged American society as a whole; I’m going to side with those who put the ultimate responsibility for daily engagement with students on the individual teacher.

Bruce Wilkinson, in his 7 Laws of the Learner, says the responsibility to communicate rests with the teacher, and lists a lot of excellent tips on how teachers can do that more effectively… even when students don’t seem interested. Though specifically directed to a religious audience I think the principles apply in secular settings as well.

Here are his 7 maxims with my own comments:

Maxim 1: Teachers are responsible to cause students to learn.

Here’s Bruce’s diagram to show that, yes, students must take responsibility for listening, but teachers have the power to unlock and motivate that action through their content and delivery and, most importantly in my view, their personal authentic passion for the material. Note that the “cause to learn” function is separate and distinct from the “Words” and content. Presenting the content is not teaching. Teaching is the process of figuring out how to establish the necessary motivation, attention, and human connection to bridge the synapse between the two parties, teacher and student.

7 Laws illustration

Maxim 2: (restated) Teachers are accountable for their influence.

For me this attitude was epitomized by Chauncey Veatch, the keynote speaker at the NACAC national conference last fall in Austin. His address was the most moving speech I have ever heard… and he spoke of how he entered teaching as more of a calling and obligation than a career. His description of the impoverished Latino community whose lives he has transformed was absolutely inspiring. You can read a similar address here.

Maxim 3: Teachers are responsible because they control subject, style, and speaker.

Mimi Chenfeld, one of my favorite people who happens to have lightened my life as a folk dance teacher a number of years ago, calls it “Teaching in the Key of Life.”

Maxim 4: Teachers should judge their success by the success of their students

Rafe Esquith, another legendary teacher who I heard at a CASE keynote a few years ago, points to the success of his students as the success of his students. That’s what he focuses on, and that’s what he wants to be judged by. In There are no Shortcuts my takeaway was the long-term impact on the kids who he prods, cajoles, and leads to excellence.

Maxim 5: Teachers impact more by their character and commitment than by their communication.

In addition to my personal observations of Veatch, Chenfeld, and Esquith, this concept reminds me of an interview I once did for Ohio Wesleyan. Philip Meek, a nationally-respected publisher, spoke to me about a prof way back in 1958 or so who had come to class and said (paraphrasing) “I always prepare at least 2 hours before class, and for a variety of reasons I could not do that today… you are dismissed.” Phil said, “That taught me more about commitment to excellence and character than anything else that ever happened to me.”

Maxim 6: Teachers exist to serve the students.

Just a few weeks ago I was interviewing Dick Lucier, an emeritus economics prof from Denison, and he said:

“Teaching is so damn time-intensive and labor-intensive… and I never found a shortcut that would work.” And then he goes on for 4 minutes, tossing off nuggets about valuing students and coming prepared and keeping the subject fresh in his own mind.

What a privilege I have had, working for schools like Denison, Ohio Wesleyan, and Cedarville, all of which prize great teaching and keep the classes small so that committed profs can get to know their students. It makes me wish I had pursued a doctorate and become a prof at a small liberal arts college myself….

Maxim 7: Teachers who practice the Laws of the Learner Teacher can become master teachers.

Well, I guess that one’s pretty obvious. Value the students, and the students will value the teacher.

Denison's Toni King on how colleges can improve

Toni KingThis week I had the pleasure of interviewing a number of faculty and students from Denison University. Here’s a golden nugget from Toni King, professor of women’s studies and black studies…

I asked her how an institution gets better/improves and here’s what she said (paraphrasing from memory): “I believe an institution can make itself better if it has a strong sense of identity. It has to know who it is, and be able to articulate what it does well. If it can do that, it can identify how to do those things better. In this way it can avoid trying to be what it is not, and it can get better and better at what it is.”

Identity. Sense of self. In an institutional sense, that’s the core criterion for a brand. Thanks to Toni for words of branding wisdom every college can take to the bank.