Saturday, 2 February 2008

Metaphors for teaching

After reading interesting posts in the Students 2.0 blog about how today’s teens see learning, I started to reflect on how I see teaching, and my role as a teacher. My first reaction is to question the connotations of the actual words ‘teacher’ and ‘teach’. In my language, at least, they infer a one-way process where the teacher, who is in authority and sole possession of knowledge, transfers this knowledge to a group of ignorant students. I actually tried to find the etymology of the English ‘teach’ and ‘teacher’. Apparently, in Old English the verb ‘to teach’ had the meaning “to show, point out”, whereas to indicate “to teach, instruct, guide” a verb, which is the source of modern ‘learn’ was used. Today we seem to have gone back to include the idea of teachers partly being co-learners in class again. Funny enough, before gaining its modern meaning around the 14th century, ‘teacher’ was used to mean ‘index finger’! This instantly evokes angry and intimidating caricature characters like this, at least in my imagination.

Unfortunately, even if not angry, many teachers still consider themselves as the controllers of learning in front of the class. They keep complaining about the inability and laziness of students, who don’t seem to remember what they, in their well-meaning wisdom, have told them hundreds of times. The old behaviourist belief that teaching (=telling/lecturing/pointing out) will inevitably lead to learning hasn’t yet been replaced by new constructivist methods in most classrooms. Some colleagues even feel that they are not properly earning their salaries if they don’t teach (=speak) in class most of the time, and spend countless hours outside the classroom chewing and organising all the material required by the curriculum into easily digestible chunks to then serve to the students.

However, it’s a totally different story when you start focusing on what actually happens in the students’ heads in class. Are they learning? And if not, why not? I can repeat the same old English grammar rules till I’m blue in the face, and still, over half the class never get it – the same infuriating mistakes recur on too many exam papers, course after course, year after year. Brings to mind the old slogan used in an MTV environmental campaign: If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

So, if I don’t want to be a teacher in the traditional sense, what should I call myself then? A facilitator, a guide, a trainer, a coach? In fact, why try to be clever and think of a new name, I am still a teacher, but in the 21st century the meaning of the words ‘teacher’ and ‘teach’ should be reconsidered and expanded. I’ve been thinking of nice metaphors to illustrate how I see my role as a teacher.

I might see myself as a construction worker putting up the exactly right scaffolding needed for each student to create their magnificent and unique buildings of personal knowledge.
On second thoughts, though, even if this idea is widely used in constructivist theories, somehow it seems too technical for my more humanistic mindset.

I need something more poetic. I know, I am a gardener who lovingly tends to every little sprout, sapling and bud in the hope of one day seeing all of them flourish in a most unique and colourful display. This time of the year, this picture especially appeals to me, since the grey, white, dead winter period has gone on too long, although I’m not very happy about the gardener being a totally separate entity from the plants.

Maybe I’d rather be a match to ignite the eternal flame of learning in my students. Burn baby burn!

Or how about something cooler. Perhaps my role is to be like droplets that, when falling into water, will start the ever-expanding circles of ripples around them, whose effects may be felt far far away.

Hmm… Can’t I come up with anything more original? All the previous pictures have been repeated too many times in different contexts. As a foreign language teacher I could be a fellow traveler, one in a group of global trotters on a tour around the world. For a while, we all make the journey together and marvel at the magnificent diversity of languages, cultures, people and nature on this earth. The only difference between me and the students is that I as the more seasoned traveler, can give them good tips and advice, while they, in turn, can help me with the latest technology, for example, and keep me young at heart with their enthusiasm. Eventually, after many invaluable moments of sharing our knowledge, we will all continue along our own life-long paths of learning and adventure.
The only problem, of course, is that some people prefer easy, ready-made package tours. How do I motivate those reluctant youngsters, who have an aversion to any kind of project work, but instead just want ‘ordinary teaching’, ie. the teacher making all the effort while they passively listen (or simply shut their ears)? Lindsea’s idea that ‘Ignorance can also be the willful act of not learning’ struck me as so true. I have plenty of these willfully not learning students. Shall I just leave them to mature hoping that they will hop on the learning train later on in life, while I and the willing excitedly explore the wonders of the world now? The tragedy in this, of course, is that the present school institution is capable of extinguish the will to learn of innately curious young people and making them waste many years on underachieving and not being able to take any responsibility for their own learning?

If any fellow teachers read this post, it would be really interesting to hear what metaphors you may have for your role as a teacher!

Photos (other than my own)

No comments: