An analogy for teaching

On the topic of education, I began with a story about learning, and my experience with learning thus far, and so I think it only fair that next I take a look at the idea of teaching. In the minds of most people, I think it is fair to say that the words ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ go hand-in-hand. Yes, one can be self-taught, but throughout history there has existed a model in which the ‘teacher’ guides the ‘learner’. Even if we do not think of ourselves as a teacher, we still teach others through the things we say and do. We serve as examples to others, not just our children, just as we often learn from watching what others do and internalizing the things that work, while discarding the things that do not suit us. Thinking about this has led me to ponder, time and again, this question: what makes a good teacher? This is, of course, a rather broad question, and I think that there is no single answer that can be held up above one’s head (cue the Zelda music) as the universal truth when it comes to teaching. So how can I explain what it means to be a good teacher? I decided that the best approach for me is to craft an analogy that I think makes sense. As it turns out, I really like analogies as a way to describe things. A picture is worth a thousand words, as the saying goes, but sometimes you do not have the luxury of using a picture…at least, not a physical one. Analogies are a way to help someone else form a mental picture, that can often be much more informative than a lengthy, verbal description.

Let us begin by thinking of knowledge as mountains. There are many peaks, each of which represents different subjects that one might study, and often these peaks are grouped together into mountain ranges. As you follow a mountain down towards its base, you see where it connects to other mountains, and how various ranges are related to one another. Now take these mountains, and put them in a sea of water. Many peaks project up out of the water, standing tall, while others are like the tip of an iceberg, with so much of the mountain sitting beneath the water. Some connections are visible above, or at the level of the water, while others lurk just below the surface. Some mountains run so deep that the base of them disappears into the darkest depths of the sea. As you look out across this waterscape from a distance, you see the mountains as islands, or chains of islands, rising up out of the water. The peaks of some are shrouded in clouds, and would require an arduous ascent by a skilled climber, while others sit low in the water with wide open spaces that are easily traversed. These peaks, and the land you see above water, represent what we know. Some knowledge is easily explored, while other knowledge requires much effort to explore, and while the sum of it appears immense, relative to our stature as human beings, it is all dwarfed by what lies beneath the surface of the water. The depths of the sea represent that which we do not yet know. Some knowledge can be easily seen, and is waiting to be explored, but much of it exists at depths that are unfathomable at this moment. This is the setting in which education must occur. Now enter the teacher.

The obvious role for the teacher is that of a guide: someone who must take you out on a boat to explore some island and lead you up the mountain until you reach the peak, or wade out in the water with you that the two of you might plunge below the surface together and examine what lies below. I think this is a fine analogy, and perhaps we could call it done, but I am not entirely satisfied with it. In this version, the teacher is merely a participant, and has no control over the environment. One could argue that this depicts real life, as the teacher is often beholden to the whims of an institution, a school board, parents, government standards and more, this also says that teachers have no control over the learning environment that they provide, and I think that is not true. Taken to another extreme, the teacher could be seen as a puppet-master of sorts, pulling the strings. The teacher controls the waves, and can make the water churned and muddy, or calm and crystal clear. The teacher can make the islands foggy and impossible to see, or the paths slippery and treacherous with rain. Here, the teacher is in absolute control, and is responsible for making the conditions perfect for learning. This is, I think, the image that some people have for teachers, and perhaps the image that some teachers have of themselves. Omnipotent and all-powerful. This, however, places unreasonable responsibility and expectation upon the teacher, as teachers are not supernatural beings, and do not have that level of control. So what, then, is the role of the teacher in this analogy that we are building?

Let us go back to the image of the teacher as a guide. This was not bad, but it could be better. Teachers are not all-powerful, but there are a lot of expectations placed upon them, and their job is truly a challenging one to do well. Teachers must be more than just a guide to show you the way. They must be skilled at predicting the weather, and be prepared to deal with whatever is thrown their way. They must be able to navigate difficult waters without churning up the silt and obscuring the view of what lies below the surface. They must do more than just show the students a path to the top, instead showing them how to climb for themselves, or how to dive and swim below the surface. They must read personalities, bridge gaps, mend wounds and show their students how to do the same. They must constantly find time to explore themselves, and spend time as students as well. They must stay current with the advances of technology, and find ways to use technology to help more students explore the knowledge before them. They must recognize that not everyone can easily ascend to the highest peaks, and must find ways to help all students climb as high as they are able. Finally, though not superhuman, the teachers together must do what none of them can necessarily do alone, which is to find ways to continue lowering the water level to bring more land into view and make accessible the deeper depths for future students to explore. On its own, the word guide seems inadequate to describe this complex and challenging list of responsibilities. In this analogy, teachers must be not only guides, but also pilots, swimming instructors, mountain climbers, weather forecasters, psychologists, engineers, navigators, medics, students and many other professions. It is a lot to ask of one person, and a lot for one person to aspire to be, but it is the most accurate way to describe the function of a teacher in this analogy, and a suitable metaphor in general for what a teacher should be.

Category(s): Education

2 Responses to An analogy for teaching

  1. I think this is a great analogy for a mentor-mentee relationship. It accurately describes the complex, dynamic, and often challenging facets of a teacher. What I like most is how you distinguish an adequate “guide” teacher from a “superhuman” good teacher. The guide teacher may be good enough, and maybe some students will excel, explore, and get to the top of the mountain with his/her teacher’s guidance. But it’s the superhuman teacher that encourages the learner to blossom: to immerse his/herself with learning and explore all areas of that mountain and the surrounding areas.

    Like I said, I think this is a great analogy for a mentor-mentee relationship because there is only one learner and one teacher. But what happens when there are many learners on one mountain, or many learners in one mountain range with only one teacher? What happens is this teacher is only a guide and not a superhuman? What can we expect from the learners? It must take an extreme superhuman in this case….

    sequencingscott says:

    Thanks a lot! Those are great questions, and I was thinking about that as I wrote, though perhaps I did not take the time to spell out every scenario. I actually envisioned this scenario as pertaining to a teacher with any number of learners, because that is the reality of education. It all depends upon the skills and experience of the guide. This person might be an excellent guide in a one-on-one situation, immersing him/herself and drawing the student into a place of learning, but perform as little more than a tour guide when confronted with a group of ten, twenty, fifty, or hundreds of learners. This holds true for the learners as well. Some will thrive in any environment, while others may only thrive under certain circumstances (small group, smooth water, cloudless sky, whatever). That is the reality of education, and hence, why it is so important for the teacher (in the role of an almost superhuman guide), to work to mitigate such circumstances.

    I agree completely with your final statement, and this was my final thought as well: there are a lot of expectations heaped upon educators, and it is often a thankless task these days, but that does not mean that it is not a worthy goal.

    I recently saw this article, and it reminded me of that point:

    http://www.newsobserver.com/2013/10/12/3277055/one-nc-husband-whos-happy-his.html