What Are Teachers Good For?

Teachers (as in those who help others learn, not as in classroom managers or childcare workers) are often helpful. But not nearly to the extent that most people think they are.

A teacher teaching some students

My first experiences with teaching were, like so many people’s, in the context of mandatory education with grades and tests. And, like so many teachers, I found the task to be difficult and disheartening.

It seemed that my students never remembered what they learned, if they had ever really learned it in the first place. I came to doubt my ability as a teacher, and later, I came to doubt the very concept of teaching. Is it possible to teach? Or is learning simply a journey one has to take on one’s own?

It wasn’t until I came to The Open School that I was gradually able to rediscover the power of teaching — teaching someone who wants to learn for learning’s sake, not just to pass a test.

So what are teachers really good for?

Learning is like running a marathon

Think of learning a big subject like running a marathon, but with 6-foot-high walls erected at various places on the track. A teacher is there to give the learner a boost over the walls — but the learner has to run the marathon.

In other words, learning is a lot of work, and no one can do that work but the learner. And they have to want it badly. Even the most heroic teacher can’t carry a student all 26 miles — it’s just too much weight. But the learner also can’t do it alone, because occasionally there are obstacles that they need help getting over. Not to mention — nobody likes being alone, especially on such a long journey.

Now, it’s not impossible to learn alone. A dedicated student will find a way over those walls. Maybe they just have to try over and over again, building up their strength. Or maybe they get clever and figure something out, like finding a box to use as a step stool. A teacher just makes things faster and easier.

In my earlier article, You can’t teach writing (and why would you want to?), I emphasized the marathon part of the journey while downplaying the role of teachers. Now I want to focus on those walls — the places where a teacher can come in handy.

Enough with the metaphor!

Okay, so what does this look like in the real world?

Recently I’ve been “teaching” a student at The Open School how to program computer games. I’ve used scare quotes around “teaching” because it doesn’t look much like what people generally think of when they think of teaching. I can’t honestly take credit for 99% of the learning that goes on in our sessions.

Based on my experience, these are the 3 things a teacher is good for:

1. Providing companionship to the learner

This is super important and doesn’t get talked about enough. Humans are social creatures, and so often learning seems out of reach because you don’t have anyone to go on the journey with you. A good teacher is someone who will explore alongside you, and marvel at new discoveries with you. They make learning a social experience, when it otherwise would have been a lonely one.

Surprisingly, this is my main job as a programming teacher. My student pretty much figures out how to do things on her own, but doesn’t take much pleasure from it unless she has someone to share the experience with.

2. Providing a map of possible routes

When you’re completely new to a subject, you often don’t even know what questions to ask.

“How difficult is it to program games?”

“What is a programming language?”

“What’s the best programming language?”

“What’s a good manual / website / YouTube channel for learning this programming language?”

A teacher can help you get over this hump by giving you a broad overview of the subject. They can also facilitate access to resources. This can make getting started less of a confusing and scary process.

3. Answering questions when they arise

These are the “walls” in the marathon. A dedicated learner can find their own answers given enough time and effort (and given the amazing resource called the Internet). But there are some problems that are so thorny that they may take hours of research or experimentation to figure out — while a teacher can save the learner that time and frustration and get them back on track quickly.

Sometimes a teacher can also answer “questions” that weren’t asked. If the teacher is tuned in to the learner, they can sense when the learner is really stuck or frustrated, and suggest a solution (which the learner is then free to refuse). The teacher may even know a trick that the learner never would have discovered if left to their own devices.

The important thing to remember is that these questions will be sparse. A good teacher will spend most of their time doing nothing — because it’s really a marathon, not an obstacle course, and the learner has to do the running.

Learning happens when a learner doesn’t know the answer and struggles to find it. The struggle is the learning part — the wondering, searching, failing, head-scratching, questioning, and experimenting. If a teacher gives answers too readily, they are actually hindering the learning process.

What is a teacher NOT good for?

I still need to dispel a few notions before we part ways. Here are 3 things teachers should NOT be expected to do:

1. Causing the learner to understand

When I tell my student, “You can solve this problem using multiplication — just multiply these two variables together,” I haven’t taught her multiplication. I’ve merely solved the problem for her. So I can’t expect her to understand how to apply this tool in other situations.

Humans learn by doing. Maybe now my student knows of multiplication, but she doesn’t know how to use it until she’s spent lots of time experimenting with it and practicing with it. That’s the running part of the marathon. Understanding is something constructed by the learner, not something delivered by a teacher.

This was a big issue for me in my days as a math tutor. My job was to help students with their homework, but I could find no way to help them without simply solving problems for them (in the context of math, “solving” a problem doesn’t mean figuring out the answer, it means figuring out which method to use to find the answer).

The value in homework is that it gives the student a chance to practice on their own. Receiving help defeats the purpose.

2. Providing motivation

There’s no such thing as extrinsically motivated learning. Or if there is, it is better called “putting on a show.” Students in conventional schools get very good at this. They cram their short-term memories so they can pass the test, without actually learning anything (except perhaps how to pass tests).

Real learning has to be intrinsically motivated. This means no rewards, no entertaining lessons, and no gamification. The student has to bring their own interest.

3. Changing the learner’s attitude

Teachers do have an effect on the learner’s attitude. Unfortunately, teachers have little or no control over what this effect is. It boils down to the teacher’s own attitude, personality, or disposition. Deliberate efforts to change students’ attitudes are doomed to fail. Instead, teachers should try working on their own attitudes.

In all, there is very little work for a good teacher to do. In our culture we like to believe that the best teacher is the hardest working one. In reality, the opposite may be true. (I’m not talking about staff at Sudbury schools, who need to be very hard working — just not necessarily at teaching. See here for an explanation of the staff’s responsibilities.)

If a teacher is needed at all — and, as we’ve written in pretty much every other article on this website, most real learning happens spontaneously without teachers — the teacher should ideally be doing as little teaching as possible.



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