Should Teachers Teach?

Does anyone rationally believe it is possible to teach Steven Jobs to be Steven Jobs?  What do you think is teachable?  If anything?

For many years, at least 30, I have been complaining that the education system aims at the wrong target.

Our current system trains for the wrong skill set and is too concerned about how the students feel.  We are far from the path we need.  While self-esteem may be desirable, unearned self-esteem is deadly to a modern society.  It leads to entitlements, even entitlements for which there is no rational basis.

The Asian systems are still fundamentally the way ours is, absent the self-esteem issues.

The 3 R’s were exactly the minimal requirements you needed to work in a factory and if you notice, the rise of the factory coincided with the rise of public education as we know it.

The 3 R’s were the proclaimed important knowledge, but regimentation, punctuality, team play and obedience were the key skills to be taken away.  Factory skills.  In our world, these takeaways are perhaps the things you need to be a bureaucrat.  Or maybe someone else in a system that does not value personal measurement and accountability.  Emphasis on personal.

We cannot live forever in an environment where the team can lose but none of the players can lose.

With fewer factories and a smaller bureaucracy, the skills needed are more subtle.

  • The ability to find and describe opportunities and problems.
  • The ability to do research.
  • The ability to think critically.
  • The willingness to take risks and learn from the inevitable mistakes.
  • The search for creativity and innovation.
  • The search for objective reality and the ability to base your actions on what you find.
  • The ability to communicate.
  • The ability to build productive teams that disassemble once the project is complete.
  • The ability to fit easily into divergent teams.
  • The ability to lead and be responsible.

While I have little sympathy for the education system we have in place, I doubt there is any system yet that effectively teaches the needed skills.  Why?  The skills above must be learned not taught.

Somewhere about 50 years ago, teaching became a self-described profession.  Teachers teach.

But, do they really?  What if you cannot teach someone?  What if the best you can hope for is that you can help someone learn?

There is a big difference between learning and being taught.  Learning is proactive.  Being taught is reactive and easy to tune out.  Teaching can improve skills, provide order and discipline, and it can help the student avoid dead ends.  It cannot replace learning.

You can learn to play golf, you cannot be taught to play golf.  You need to hit a few dozen balls into the woods or the water to learn.  You cannot blame anyone else, so self-esteem is tied closely to performance.  Scariest of all, you can find out how hard it is to win a $1 bet with a six foot putt.  Especially when you have only 25 cents in your pocket.  (I played golf a long time ago so adjust the numbers to current reality)

There are many examples in conventional curriculum that are similar.  Public speaking, creative writing, research, debate, athletics of all kinds, and technical writing for example.  Success is objective.  Self-esteem must be earned. Fear is an issue.

I suspect, but cannot prove, that video games teach these skills to some extent.  You are never “given” a win.  You need to seek alternate methods to a given goal.  Sometimes bad things happen because you did not anticipate well enough.  Specific skills must be mastered but will not alone guarantee success.

The Khan academy demonstrates that people will learn if they receive the opportunity to do so at their own pace and with the ability to go back and pick up the pieces they have missed.  It works especially well if there is an organized program.  Like programmed learning used to be.  You could watch “Let’s use video to reinvent education” at for useful insight.  As tablets become more capable, no teacher will be able to compete solely based on their skill in delivering lessons.

It is time for teachers to get out of the way.

Google “Sugata Mitra” and “hole in the wall.”  It is plain that one of the biggest obstacles to learning is the teacher and I suppose, by extension, the administration and curriculum.

The system will not change on its own.  The status quo is too valuable for too many people.  In the interim, the parents and others must fill the gap.  You cannot wait or the children will be hopelessly behind.

You do not do it by teaching, you do it by creating situations where the children can fail constructively or can succeed in unforeseeable ways.  Succeeding in unforeseen ways is dependent on being willing to fail in unforeseen ways.

And that is the lesson for today

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.

One Comment on “Should Teachers Teach?

  1. Pingback: What The Heck Do We Mean By Education | moneyFYI

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