Reflections on Teaching and Learning

Educators have a responsibility to guide the moral development of youth

For years I have been concerned over what I view as the seriously truncated understanding of what teaching entails that is now commonly held. Taken hold in most peoples’ minds, it seems, is a very narrow and limited view of teaching, one focused almost solely on the acquisition of knowledge and the instructional aspects of teaching. Teaching, however, is a very complex affair with a depth, breadth, and, indeed, a power seldom recognized. I believe a limited understanding also exists concerning what is involved in learning and how it comes about.

Teaching is inherently and inescapably a moral matter. This reality should be more openly accepted. Education in any form, in fact, is a moral matter, and cannot be otherwise. I have often said that teachers are professors of ethics, for what they do, how they behave, and what they value. You are not just instructors, but are also the chief lesson and the only one that they can be sure every student in their classes will learn. This concept was first proclaimed to educators, as far as I know, by L. Thomas Hopkins in 1936 when he stated, “What a teacher really teaches is himself.” Rudyard Kipling penned these related and most memorable lines, my personal favorites:

No printed word nor spoken plea can teach young minds what they should be.

Not all the books on all the shelves, but what the teachers are themselves.

The historian and educator, Will Durant, made essentially the same point when he expressed the view that “educators should be chosen not merely for their special qualifications but more for their personality and their character because we teach more by what we are than by what we teach.” Teachers are first and foremost persons, unique individuals who bring to the classroom their attitudes, their dispositions, ways of thinking, manners of speech, dress, sources of joy, and a host of other factors. Inevitably, these matters are a part of their teaching; and, in fact, are very much a part of the reason teachers achieve the results they do. Teachers have a moral atmosphere that radiates into space and is picked up—learned—by others who spend time with them.

Of utmost importance is the teacher’s belief about the nature of mankind. How one goes about teaching and guiding youth depends a great deal on what one thinks humans are like. One’s beliefs about human capacities and their potential determine the “take” one uses in approaching educational experiences. Advancing the middle school ideals requires educators to have a genuinely positive view about human potential because helping in-transition young adolescents to believe in themselves is perhaps the number one job of middle school teachers. Unfortunately, this crucial task is seldom placed front and center, as it was in the early days of the middle school movement; while school policies and practices have come to work directly against helping young adolescents view themselves positively with hope (consider the whole grading and evaluation scenario). I have often suggested that middle school teachers should put the following sentence on a card and tape it to their desk where inevitably it will frequently come to mind:

If you treat an individual as he is, he will stay as he is, but if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.

…Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Learning is natural, inborn, intuitive, and ongoing. To live is to learn. Learning is not a means to an end, but an end in itself. And it carries a sense of satisfaction. Learning, in the words of Gilbert Highet, is: “A feast for the mind and spirit and a source of lasting joy.” Learning is not just what results from instruction. We learn through our emotions, our aspirations, and our bodies as well as strictly through our minds. And we learn best by discovery. We rarely stop to recognize—and wonder at as we should—how much infants and toddlers learn on their own, without anyone formally teaching them.

Human life involves many aspects. These aspects are not compartmentalized; they are without borders, interrelated, and connected. This reality is the basis for the “whole child” concept. It is not possible to isolate the “student as scholar” and teach that entity. In an educational activity or experience, for instance, that is centered on the intellectual aspect; social, emotional, physical, and even aesthetic aspects will come into play, whether consciously or not. Richard Lipka’s statement that “Cognitive learning is hard-won by someone whose life is in affective disarray” is telling.

A Spiritual Dimension

I believe that teaching includes a spiritual dimension, one seldom openly acknowledged, but which is of enduring importance, especially at the middle school level. There is in teaching an ethical impulse, which calls for teaching to go beyond the head and touch the heart and soul.

A full education has to involve heart as well as head, attitude as well as information, spirit as well as scholarship, and conscience as well as competence.

I believe further that in every human being there is a spark of the divine that makes the attainment of human dignity a goal and a private challenge. Every person deserves to be taken seriously, treated with respect, and assisted in developing his or her persona and moral self. Education in its larger sense, we must not forget, is engaged in the business of making men and women, helping individuals find and develop their unique abilities and personalities. This task should be a top priority.

Wayside Teaching

Teaching is a craft, even an art, and it simply cannot be carried out fully and effectively if its steps are structured in advance. Well-intended efforts to prescribe the teaching process have resulted in the loss of the ethos of teaching. Fundamentally, teaching is a matter of guiding human growth and development, especially so at the middle level. And this task cannot be accomplished by offering any series of carefully designed lesson plans, but rather by modeling, relating, and, to a degree, simply being among them over time as incidents in social living are encountered in the ongoing life of the classroom.

Teachers shape lives less by direct instruction than by what I have called “wayside teaching”—those small personal, often spontaneous, acts, by probing questions, subtle reminders, earned commendations, and individual challenges extended. A teacher’s influence when formally presenting information to a class is certain to pale in significance when compared to the impact she may have in a 20 or 30 second up-close and personal conversation with an individual student.


The importance of relationships in teaching simply cannot be overstated. Relationships are particularly critical at the middle level, for few if any important lessons are learned except over the bridge of a personal relationship. That point was stated succinctly by Dr. James Comer: “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” In fact, it is from and through these relationships that students learn the important lessons of life. John Dewey stated, “Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only the particular thing he is studying at the time.” He continued, “Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, likes, and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned. For these attitudes are fundamentally what counts in the future.” Eliot Eisner provided a related and packed-with-meaning sentence when he wrote: “Schools teach much more–and much less–than they intend to teach.”

A Special Responsibility of American Schools

Public schools in America have a special responsibility—to perpetuate among youth a commitment to democracy and the democratic way of life. This responsibility, I believe, is one that has been seriously neglected, yet the reason public schools were established as they were in the first place by Jefferson and the other founders was because our new and never-before existing type of society required an educated citizenry whose members would be able to discern issues, think for themselves, and participate actively in its affairs while contributing to the general welfare. James Bryant Conant, then president of Harvard University, said “The primary concern of American education is to cultivate in the largest possible number of our future citizens an appreciation of both the responsibilities and the benefits which come to them because they are Americans and are free…Teachers ought to emphasize to their students the obligations which ‘being Americans and free’ entail.” But do they?

Democracy in America is much more than a political scheme that permits people to vote and pick their leaders. It was and is as well, an attitude, a state of mind, primarily a manifestation of a fundamental belief about the nature of mankind, based on the premise that human beings, no matter what their circumstances, beliefs, or abilities deserve the same rights as everyone else. Our schools never have been the laboratories for democracy that they should have been. A democratic student-centered education is, however, very much in keeping with the heart and history of America. The failure of our schools to perpetuate democracy by practicing it has been evident from their beginnings. I recall the conclusion of a research study done in the 1940s on the high schools of the state of New York. The study concluded that “if the graduates of New York’s high schools were good democratic citizens it was not because of the education they received in high school, but in spite of it.” Would that same conclusion be reached if today’s high school were studied? I’m inclined to think so. We fail to recognize the many lessons that the school itself “teaches.” Some of its lessons are, indeed, positive, but far too many are negative.

Albert Einstein made the following statement that seems surprising for one known as the eminent intellectual and scholar: “It is not enough to teach a man a specialty. Through it he may become a kind of useful machine, but not a harmoniously developed personality. It is essential that the student require an understanding of and a lively feeling for values, and a vivid sense of the beautiful and the morally good.” But I am afraid in our obsession with academic achievement as measured by test scores, we have lost the battle to give equal attention to personal development and social living. Nell Noddings, noted educational philosopher and scholar, claims that students receive schooling for the head but little for the heart and soul. She believes education’s prime goal is simply “to encourage the growth of competent, caring, loving, and lovable persons.” This she says “is a moral priority that our educational system ignores.”

Teaching as Formally Viewed
Teaching was once viewed in magnanimous terms. The broad influence of teachers on the lives of students as persons was recognized, very much sought, and prized. Parents wanted their children to be taught proper behavior, values, and citizenship, just as much as The Three Rs. They knew that students needed those understandings, skills, and attitudes that would make it possible for them to participate fully in our unique American society. Character education, ethics, common morality, call it what you will, was and is, fair game for public education. Our schools must reclaim and carry out their responsibility to guide the positive social, emotional, and moral development of youth. This task will require capitalizing on the full range of teaching’s potential and power.