Teaching a man to fish…

People are supposed to be good at a few things and relatively decent at others (I can’t bring myself to say ‘bad’ even though that’s how I would characterise myself at, say, dancing). If you’re doing a PhD, it may not be farfetched to assume that you might be a specialist sort of person—someone who knows what you are good at and who keeps chipping away at the same block. At least, that’s how I am.

When I started on my PhD journey, I was looking forward to the prospect of doing research, of discovering patterns and insights, of uncovering something new, of maybe making a difference in the realm of ideas. I didn’t really take into account that in reality there are many other things that an academic, and by that logic a doctoral student, is expected to do. One of the important things happens to be teaching. Something I had never done in a formal capacity so far and certainly not within the higher education context. I had delivered one-off presentations and training sessions in my previous work roles, but those were a miniscule percentage of my portfolio. The real issue for me, however, was the suspicion that teaching might be one of the things I would be decent at rather than great or excellent. It’s not the being able to do it that I was worried about so much as to be able to do it to a very high standard.

Luckily for me, I was introduced to SLP (Lancaster University’s Supporting Learning Programme, now ATP). All new doctoral students who are also going to work as Graduate Teaching Assistants are asked to undergo this programme. I must say that it is through this programme that I was able to more deeply explore the meaning and practice of teaching essentially as a means to support learning rather than as an ability to ‘perform’ teaching. The self-reflection that I did … who would have thought my own journey as a learner shaped how I approached teaching? …and the knowledge that I gained from the pedagogical material and discussions with fellow researchers transformed the way I thought about teaching as well as learning. It also opened my eyes to the complexities inherent in both. Take, for example, learning approaches. Students may have a ‘deep’ learning style or a ‘surface’ learning style or a ‘strategic’ style that is a bit of both. I wondered how students come to have a style (which might be a topic for a separate blog!).

The questions that I found relevant to think about from this newly informed perspective were of a very different variety: how could I create the right kind of environment for learning, how could I support students with different learning needs better, what did I need to do to develop students’ learning style, how could I connect with different students with different learning backgrounds and levels of knowledge in the same class, what strategies could I use to motivate students in the class, and so on. I noticed that the emphasis in my mind had shifted to learners and helping them with their challenges, away from teaching and blowing my own challenges out of proportion. It seemed to me that to be a great teacher, all I needed was a genuine concern for the intellectual development of my student learners… and if I had that the rest would eventually fall in place.

From reflecting on my own successes as a learner, and indeed as an individual, I have come to realise that as a teacher the best I can do is to help my students cultivate intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and openness to ideas so that their learning is secured for a lifetime. To put it another way, to teach them to fish rather than to give them a fish. In this sense, I feel teaching is far more challenging than research because it is arguably more challenging to transfer ideas to person than to paper. The paper simply absorbs my ideas but the receptivity of the ideas and their assimilation depends to a large extent on the person’s pre-existing knowledge and beliefs, without even considering the cultural complexity.

But that should not deter one, should it? The future of the world would seem to rest as much on the shoulders of eager teachers as researchers…