Why Teach?

Whatever the context of my teaching – school, church, home – my primary goal should be that my students learn something. Yes, I do have other goals. As a didaskophialic, teaching is often just plain fun; thus having fun is a goal of my teaching. But it’s not primary. As a professional teacher, one who makes my living by teaching, being paid for my teaching is a goal of teaching – otherwise how would I pay my bills? But being paid is not primary. Learning is primary.

What kind of learning? In school teaching learning is measured by particular student outputs: tests, papers, projects. All of these can demonstrate that the students have learned something. I would really like it if all my students aced all the assignments I gave them. That would mean that I was effective in my teaching (or that the assignments were too easy). Well, at least for the short-term. The classes I teach now are closely delimited. They begin at the start of the semester and conclude at the end of the semester. They are roughly 17 weeks in length. At the end of those 17 weeks, the students can demonstrate that they know more than they did at the beginning.

That’s not enough for me however. Our assessment tools measure student learning on the assumption that what they demonstrate knowing at the end of the semester constitutes learning. What if, by chance, all this demonstrated was adequate mastery of the form of assessment or temporary acquisition of knowledge? I expect my teaching to produce lasting knowledge, not just semester long knowledge.

When I teach majors in my department this lasting learning can be measured in the progressive nature of the curriculum: the classes they take later presuppose learning from earlier classes. If these presupposed knowledge points prove justified, then lasting learning (at least lasting within this time frame) has taken place. Lasting learning within the department can also be measured by exit assignments like senior exams or projects.

An essential component of lasting learning is missing in the analysis to this point. Learning that lasts has more than a noetic component: it’s about more than mere acquisition of knowledge. It also assumes a particular affective stance toward that knowledge. Students who want to retain knowledge are more likely to retain knowledge than those who do not. If the students merely wants to pass the class – or make some particular grade, that usually requires no personal attachment to the material. If the student values the material and wants to integrate it into a larger whole (life, an education), then a different kind of desire, a desire that goes beyond a mere grade (or other extrinsic evaluation) is required.

How do we do that – how do we inculcate the affective dimension? That, to me, is where the really hard work comes in. It will also be harder to measure, because desire/love is not as easily quantified and measured as are other forms of learning. Someone can ace every assignment in a subject she hates. Contrariwise, someone can perform less than perfectly on assignments in a subject she loves. How do we get at the love? How do we assess this affective dimension? From what I see of current academia, it seems that the affective dimension is mostly ignored if not wholly disdained. I think teachers and students would be much happier if we could develop ways to heighten its importance and explicitness.

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