Anatomy of Teaching

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been writing about teaching and learning and commenting on trends and fads in teaching and in educational research. Why am I doing this?

I am writing to learn. As an educational insider—teacher, researcher, academic, student and parent—I know that I have thousands of unarticulated fragments of knowledge bouncing around me head. I have been deeply involved in education for most of my life—public school, a technical diploma, four university degrees, 20 years of classroom teaching, sessional teaching at a university, 6 years of educational bureaucracy, modest academic publishing. I’ve said and done a lot in, with and for education. But I can’t shake the feeling that most of my ideas and insights, not to mention false leads, remain unarticulated. This blog is my attempt to excavate what I can from the depths.

I am flattered and honoured that you are taking some time to listen in on my monologue. Thank you. Please join me with your comments, if you will.

So what is an Anatomy of Teaching?

Imagine teaching as a body. To write an anatomy of teaching, I hope to find a simple description of the surface anatomy of the body. Can I find a small number of “big ideas” that provide a complete but undetailed description of teaching? This will be the coarse anatomy of teaching. A more detailed anatomical description will involve taking the bigger ideas and looking at them more closely.

After giving a few general thoughts about a number of issues, yesterday I made my first anatomical discovery, I believe. Teaching has something to do with responsibility. It’s hard to say how I came to this, or why I thought it was important, but it hit me hard and I made a very short post about it yesterday. And then I slept on it. I think I understand better what I needed to say yesterday, but did not yet have the words to articulate.

A teacher bears responsibility for another person’s learning.

A teacher doesn’t just make learning happen, intentionally or unintentionally. When we say “the burnt hand teaches best” I don’t think we truly mean that the hot stove is a teacher; this striking metaphor says something about learning, not about teaching. But it’s a great line nonetheless.

A teacher does not merely recite a lesson. Words scratched in the sand can do that, and are no more a teacher than is a hot stove.

The teacher not only intends that a student learns, but also assumes a moral position of responsibility for that learning to happen. The teacher does not bear all responsibility; the student and in many cases the student’s parents/guardians, and other members of the student’s community also bear some responsibility. Perhaps they are teachers too: my intuition is that they are, but I’ll have to think about it a bit more.

If I’m right, and that teaching involves responsibility for another’s learning, then two important features of the coarse anatomy of teaching are revealed. Teaching involves the will to fulfill moral obligations, and it involves some kind of technical execution for that fulfilment.

So here’s my first attempt at the coarse anatomy of teaching.


Such a lot of work for such a simple picture.


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