Good Teachers Don't Teach "Oh, doctor," the grateful patient says, "You've cured my illness."
"No," says the insightful doctor, "I just helped things along a bit."
And the doctor is correct. Doctors don't heal their patients; the patients heal themselves with the doctor doing things like prescribing medications that facilitate the process. If physicians could heal patients, AIDS wouldn't be a problem.
"Oh, thank you, professor," says the grateful student. "You taught me so much."
"No," says the insightful professor. "All I did was provide a learning opportunity, and you took advantage of it."
And the professor is right. Teachers do not teach anything, but if students participate in the learning environments their instructors create, they can learn an awful lot. Learning is at its heart an internal process wherein people are changed both by things they experience and by how they relate those experiences to what they already know.
Learning Environments: Psychological and Physical What are the implications here for teaching? There are many, but two are especially important: Teachers must create learning environments, and guidance must be provided as learners reflect on the experiences they gained by participating in the learning environments.
Learning environments are created both physically (e.g., by arranging tables and chairs) and psychologically (e.g., by ensuring that what the learners value is also recognized by the teacher). In the physical case, an example of a poorly constructed environment is a room set up theater-style even though the teacher's goal is to facilitate discussion. When everyone is facing forward, students cannot see each other's faces, and it is always easier to talk when you can see the people you're talking to. A better arrangement would be to have the chairs set in a U-shape so that learners can see each other.
In the psychological case, an example of an inadequate environment has the teacher failing to understand that things important to him or her are not necessarily important to the learners. A better environment would result from the instructor's finding out what issues are of import to those in the audience and then tailoring his or her comments to those issues.
Having done a good job of creating the psychological environment, the instructor increases the chances that learners will have experiences that, upon reflection, produce insights they will use and value. This raises the question: What can teachers do to encourage reflection?
Creating an Environment for Reflection First, the instructor must understand that reflection is done by the learners, so there is little value in a teacher pointing out all the important conclusions. Second, instructors' questions should help learners put structure to the things they are learning; for example, teachers can ask: "What are the major points here? And which points are less important?" Questions should also help learners see the relationship of the things they're learning to one another. For instance, "How do the things you're learning relate to what you've already learned?" Third, questions asked must be middling in difficulty, since simple questions are insulting while difficult ones are stifling.
Fourth and finally, the ideas learners share must be valued by the instructor. Instructors can reward contributions in physical ways such as "high fives" for particularly good student responses, and teachers can smile while waiting for students to respond to their questions, since this implies the anticipation of good, useful answers.
All of these suggestions for providing experiences and improving reflection seek the same end: To help learners extract insights from their experiences that will be of use in the future.