Is it conceivable for one person to actually teach something to another? I suspect teaching is simply impossible! You cannot really “teach” anyone anything and I will illustrate this using an avocado as an example.
Some months back I decided to grow an avocado plant from a seed. I love avocados, so the next time I bought one, after very quickly devouring the flesh, I decided to save the seed and make an attempt to grow my own avocado plant. It is really simple. Just take the seed, push three toothpicks into the seed at its widest part so that it can be suspended over a glass full of water, and put it in a well-lit place, making sure to change the water regularly in the weeks that follow.
A few months later and my avocado plant is almost 50cm, not quite a tree but getting there. I am actually quite proud of my accomplishment and I enjoy looking at the plant on a daily basis.
But what have I really done to make this happen? A few things actually. To start with, I was motivated to grow the plant, and I did some research to find out how to do it. Then I looked for the necessary resources (the glass, the water), I supported the seed so that it would not “drown” in the water (using the toothpicks) and gave it a lot of attention (regularly changing the water). I trimmed the thriving plant here and there and that was it. I didn’t do much else but what I did – personal motivation, intention, research, developing competence, providing the right context, care and attention – made all the difference.
But this is not about growing avocados – the avocados are just the perfect example to illustrate the point that teachers do not exist because we cannot teach anything to anyone. I was not directly involved in making the avocado sprout. I just created the right conditions in which the avocado could flourish and facilitated its growth. Just imagine if I had spent time showing the avocado seed some video about how it is supposed to grow, gave it a lecture about how to break the shell of the seed, how to grow its roots, grow the first leaf… It might have been funny actually, but that is where it would have stopped. I doubt the avocado seed would have taken any notice.
Let’s now think about teaching. Are we sure that what we do everyday in class is actually teaching? What does “teaching” mean? Does it mean repeating the same thing ad nauseum, hoping that somehow, by doing so, the students will have been taught? Or is it about creating the right conditions for the learners to understand what is going on, and discover for themselves the concepts that we try to share with them? In other words, do we teach or do we facilitate learning?
There is a scene in the film The Matrix which beautifully explains this concept. Morpheus is sitting in front of Neo in a false world which up to that very moment Neo considered to be the real thing. Morpheus tries to explain how things stand, but it is difficult for Neo to believe him. At one point, Morpheus, exasperated, summarises our pedagogy in a few words – I can only show you the door. You have to go through it yourself.
Perhaps it’s time to stop thinking in terms of teaching and instead start facilitating learning.
To help this change in our approach to teaching and learning, we could eat avocados more often and why not, watch The Matrix for good measure!