Is teaching really a form of learning?

When I was doing my undergrad studies, I (as a social coordinator at my college) invited a new assistant professor (AS)  to give us a little about his life as a new professor. One of the lessons I never forget is he said the first day I taught at the college and was walking out of the class and another “full” professor (x) met me by a chance and asked me a question: “what would you do if a student asked a question and you do not know the answer?”. Professor AS said simply I’d say I don’t know! professor X was shocked and went crazy, asking him to not do that as it would affect him negatively! professor X thinks a professor should not show the inability to answer any questions and always should make himself as “a man knows everything in the planet”. Professor AS’s approach is to mislead his students when they ask questions he doesn’t know! YES that what he does, unfortunately!

The good part of the story is that professor AS didn’t take X’s advice and instead he approached his way by saying “I don’t know the answer and I promise you I’ll look for it and bring the answer with my next class”. Two years later, professor AS said I’ve learned a LOT from my students. They keep me everytime thinking and looking at things differently! although I’m teaching a basic and “non-interesting” course, I get challenged by my students and never stop learning.

This story raised a big concern for me since I was an undergrad student (10 years ago). I asked myself:  how many times professor X has refused a chance of teaching himself and benefit from his students? How many times professor X misled his students and block their creativity? On the other side, how many times professor AS has learned and improved himself? how many times his students get motivated and encouraged in the class? how much interest the professor is giving every class?

Takeaway message: whatever you teach and regarding how basic/boring the course is, there is a great chance you learn every class!

16 Replies to “Is teaching really a form of learning?”

  1. I truly think that how much you learn as a teacher is actually one of the greatest rewards of teaching. Heading into my first year as a TA I had no clue how much I was going to take away from the students I taught, however I was beyond pleased with how much I learned that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. While they may be undergraduate students, they are incredibly smart and insightful individuals, thus their rank in school should not matter. Because of this, you are absolutely right, never be a Professor X!

  2. Inspiring post. Me personally had a similar peroid that pretending knowing something even though I don’t. I no longer doing that after I realize that when pretending knowing something, the conversation between you and the others will no longer go on, and no one can ever get anything from it. In opposite, admitting we don’t know something, that usually the start of learning and communication.

  3. I really like the title of your post here ! I absolutely agree with you that as educators we always have the opportunity to learn by teaching, and that we, in principle should always take that opportunity. What I am curious about is the “circumstances” and “work conditions” that generate professor X. I am quite certain that when she was starting, she had the same ideals as prof. AS. So what happened? A system that does not reward self-improvement beyond tenure. Low pay for teaching professors with long hours of work poured into course preparation. Classes with 110 students. My point is, if we don’t want AS to turn into another X down the road, we have a support system that understands and values the sincerity of its educators in recognizing their vulnerabilities.

    1. Thank you, Arash, for your thoughtful comment. Besides the excellent points you mentioned, it’s more likely that feedback was NOT taken from students every semester as VT is doing now, and thus there is no way the university can distinguish between “good” and “bad” professors.

  4. Agree with all of this! But I would also note that I think it’s important for students to see that their profs do not, in fact, know everything — that we are all still learning and are works in progress. Letting students know that we are not infallible and all-knowing helps ease their concerns about making mistakes (everybody makes mistakes), and if we handle it properly — for example, we can tell them how would figure out something we didn’t know, or explain why we got something wrong, or ask them to help us think through a problem — we can model a kind of collaborative teaching and learning that can be very effective.

    1. Thank you, Dr. Neslon, for shining on the other side of the problem. In my culture, people exaggerate the achievement of the Ph.D. holders and think it means knowing everything in this field! and thereby students have much more expectation from professors when getting into college. I feel the university has the responsibility to clarify and address this.

      I really like the “collaborative teaching”.

  5. My advisor gave me the same advice as Professor AS: If you don’t know, don’t lie, but tell students you will get back to them.

    1. I think this helps to break down some of the barriers that intimidate students about approaching professors and faculty members. While we, as grad students, IORs, lecturers, have a deep knowledge base, our areas are sometimes specialized and we don’t know everything about everything! One of the things that took me by surprise when I gave my first guest lecture was how much I actually did know based on questions the first years asked, but I still don’t know everything.

    2. When we come back with an answer, not only are we acknowledging to the student that their question is important, but we’re also allowing a learning opportunity for the whole class. When students are engaged and feel comfortable asking questions, their learning experience can be geared to their specific interests, which might help them stay focuses and engaged in lecture.

  6. I’m really glad that the professor did not take Professor X’s advice. Beyond the fact that lying to students and making up an answer is hurting the student’s education, that approach is simply arrogant and totally unnecessary. However, I do take a different approach to being asked a question I don’t know the answer to. I will either walk through the issue with the student to see if we can’t figure out the problem together, or if its a more involved question, ask them to look into it and bring the answer to the next class. In the first approach, it is rewarding for both of us and everyone learns a little something. With the second approach, the student gets to take responsibility for their learning rather than relying on a professor to tell them everything, and everyone still learns a little something.

    1. Thank you, Sarah, for your good suggestion. I really like the first approach. My only concern for the second approach that when we ask students to search for the answer and bring next class that they might feel that we punish them for asking questions the professor don’t know, so they might get discouraged to ask questions.

  7. This story is great to see! Professors are traditionally taught that they are the authority in the classroom, which comes along with a ton of pressure. How do you maintain that authority? How do you keep your students thinking that you are this all-knowledgeable being they can learn about everything from? I think sometimes that pressure can lead to professors defensively putting up that fascade that they know everything about everything. But it is great to see that way of thinking being questioned and readdressed so that students can receive a more genuine learning experience and teachers can maintain a more mutually-beneficial environment.

  8. To some extent, learning is achieved through conscious and unconscious inquiries, interactions and observations, either a controlled and uncontrolled environment. This is true for both students and professors. Just as students learn from each other, it reasonable to assume that instructors or professors should be able to learn from their students. Students and professors learn in different ways, but to be clear, professors must be able to learn from students. However, learning from students will vary by situations or circumstances. In all, every professor has to define what they expect to learn from their class, and also have to find their voice or mojo.

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