Teaching as learning together

In June, I posted a brief note about three of the books I would be reading over the summer. Most summers, I make it a point to read at least one book on teaching, one book on writing, and one book on the state or future of higher education. I’ve already posted a review of Anthony Haynes’ Writing Successful Academic Books and some notes on Victor Ferrall’s Liberal Arts at the Brink. I’ve just finished reading The Elements of Teachingby James M. Banner, Jr., and Harold C. Cannon.

The authors say that “the book is intended to highlight the qualities that make up great teaching,” which they have observed in their “two lifetimes of teaching in many settings, from an elementary school classroom in the slums of southeast London to graduate seminars in an Ivy League institution.”

Banner and Cannon catalog nine attitudes, dispositions, and capabilities that they say characterize excellent teaching in any discipline. Leaving aside questions of method and technique, they examine the importance of authority, order, imagination, compassion, and patience, among other qualities. The authors make no claim that these nine exhaust the characteristic attitudes, dispositions, and capabilities of great teaching, admitting that there are others–such as “devotion, industry, honesty, courage, and spirit”–that would deserve attention in any complete treatment.

According to Banner and Cannon, “the purpose of teaching is to enrich students’ minds and spirits so that they can lead full lives through their understanding of life itself.” In my opinion, the most significant weakness of the book is the implication that teachers are those whose minds and spirits are already sufficiently enriched. While the authors occasionally nod in the direction of the teacher-as-lifelong learner, especially in the chapter on “Learning,” they presume a great distance between learner and teacher. For example, the book emphasizes that the authority necessary to teach well comes from a formal distance between teachers and students that is cultivated through, “carriage and conduct,” “dress and speech,” as much as by any other means. 

While there are indeed meaningful differences between teachers and their students, Banner and Cannon seem to multiply and intensify these differences and then make them the basis of excellent teaching. I think that Banner and Cannon take this too far.

In two days, I will leave for the Northwoods of Wisconsin, where I will participate in Wheaton Passage, our first-year transition program for freshmen and transfer students. During the program, students work with faculty and staff to learn about four themes–community, service/justice, spiritual formation, and the life of the mind–that will get them off on the right foot for their undergraduate careers at Wheaton College. During our time together, we will use readings, experiences, and active reflection to build platforms for discussion of each theme, with the objective of helping students to identify, articulate, and achieve worthy goals for their undergraduate careers. Needless to say, I won’t be wearing a tie on the high ropes course or a suit in our canoe. During this program, almost three dozen excellent teachers—many of whom will be dressed more formally when they stand in front of a traditional classroom a week later–will collapse some of the distance between themselves and their students without compromising learning. Hopefully, they’ll enhance it.

While we may have much to learn from Banner and Cannon about the elements of great teaching, they seem to miss the possibility that some great teaching is learning together. They implicitly favor a “sage on the stage” model in which the qualities they emphasize ease the transmission of knowledge from teacher to student. Teaching does often involve transmitting knowledge. But so often what we do as teachers involves learning together. The best seminar courses, collaborative research and writing projects with students, and many other experiences involve teachers facilitating an experience of learning together that meaningfully, even if momentarily, collapses the distance between teacher and student. Some of our signature learning experiences are not entirely unlike canoeing together with our students while learning about community.

Indeed, some of the best teaching is not marked by an attempt to create or reinforce the distance between teacher and student, but by intentionally and carefully closing the gap between an accomplished learner and those who are just beginning learners in a certain field. Sometimes, closing that gap means socializing the students into the professional expectations of the scholarly life through collaborative research or innovative classroom teaching (my favorite course evaluation was from a student who said that taking my course made them feel like they weren’t learning about political science, but were doing the work of a political scientist). At other times, it is because the teacher is in the same boat as the students… literally.


(h/t Joel Moore, Towson University, for calling my attention to certain features of the Banner and Cannon text. It was great to have Joel reading along at the same time.)

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