Learning to Teach, Teaching to Learn - Y Magazine
Check out the latest podcast episode Listen

Learning to Teach, Teaching to Learn

By J. Bonner Ritchie

Every year the crisp fall air at Brigham Young University is filled with anticipation. As students find their way to campus, as a new freshman class is oriented and boxes are moved from truck and trunk to tiny accommodations, as new student wards are organized, as professors are putting a finishing touch on course outlines, there is always an underlying excitement. Some of this anticipation may be tied to a new season of sports, and some may come from students thinking about important social activities, but most of it (for both students and faculty) is related to new opportunities for learning and teaching.

The quality of this teaching/learning experience is at the very core of what most members of the BYU community believe this university ought to be. We often hear discussions of professional and research contributions, spiritual development, winning athletic programs, general education, etc., with one or another emphasized by different members of the university community. But, regardless of one’s particular emphasis, interest, or stewardship, I think everyone would agree that none of these worthwhile activities are possible or relevant unless we have an excellent teaching community.

The challenge of creating that level of excellence occupies much time and energy at the university. Many hours of department, college, and university meetings are devoted to this issue. And many committees and task forces, including the self-study that has occupied so much of our time the last two years, have as their primary focus improving the quality of teaching and learning at BYU. This issue is also, of course, a great concern for students, as their current and future success in life is in large measure tied to an effective learning experience.

I recall a discussion last year with new students in my honors class. I asked them what they were feeling as we started a new semester (some of them enrolling in classes at the university for the first time). Excitement and anticipation clearly dominated their responses. But there was also anxiety. They were wondering if they were really prepared. Were they as good as the other “great students” they had heard about? Could they get the A they needed to get into graduate school? Would the course, the semester, or their majors be more than they could handle? Or, did they really want to be at the university in the first place (were they there for their own reasons or someone else’s)?

As they were voicing their excitement and concerns, I said that I was also starting a new semester with both excitement and anxiety. I reported that I didn’t get much sleep the night before (nods of agreement), and I was worried about my ability to do my part well in this learning community. And this was my 75th new semester of college since I started as a freshman engineering student at the University of California in 1953. Maybe it becomes routine for some, but for me, entering the classroom on that first day of a new semester is still a magical moment with conflicting feelings.

I have often wondered why I experience the special sense of awe as I approach the classroom experience. (And it is important to note that many of the most important teaching situations take place in settings other than formal classrooms: private conversations between student and teacher, group work where students teach each other, field projects, public or private examples of a scholarly or personal nature, and the university culture or climate in general.) In whatever context the teaching takes place, there is that sense of public trust or sacred responsibility as a teacher is entrusted with teaching an individual child of God.

I always ask myself whether I have selected the most appropriate reading material for this class or individual. Is it above or below their level of comprehension? Is the course structured in the best way for these students to learn? Are the exercises or activities trivial or too complicated? When a question is asked, do I really hear what the students are saying? Will I inadvertently offend someone and thereby subtract from their learning experience?

As I reflect on the thousands of students in my classes over the years, or even those with whom I have had a chance interaction, I still remember many for whom the learning experience was not positive. In those situations where I was trying to push students to be more rigorous in their arguments or create an opportunity for them to accept more responsibility for defining their learning objectives or help them become an independent scholar, I realize that sometimes I pushed too hard, or I did not provide enough structure, or I created a hostile resistance rather than a provocative challenge. And, for the students who were ready to respond, perhaps I did not push hard enough.

Of course, such dilemmas exist in all of life’s arenas. As parents, friends, supervisors, spouses, church leaders, or coaches, we can, in a well-intended teaching encounter, be either constructive or destructive as we try to teach an important lesson. We should never become so paranoid with the possibility of negative impact that we fail to respond to the teaching opportunity. But, in all of life’s teaching challenges, we should accept responsibility for doing the best job we can to avoid exercising “unrighteous dominion” and to make the experience positive and uplifting. This means we must engage in a great deal of study and prayer, gather better information regarding the nature and needs of our students, seek continuous feedback on the student’s experience and our effectiveness, and frequently update our own knowledge of the subject matter.

A factor that seems especially critical in the “objective and impersonal” world of so much of our educational system is the quality of the relationship between student and teacher, between students, and between both students and teachers and the administration. Parker Palmer, in his moving book To Know as We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education, states that in a contemporary world crying for values in education, we desperately need to find (or develop) a quality of love in our teaching relationships. We have often heard, in describing effective missionary work, that “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” In describing effective teaching, some have said that there is one fundamental premise we need to understand: When a student perceives a teacher to be an authentic, warm, and curious person, the student learns; when the student does not perceive the teacher as such a person, the student does not learn. While this may be a slight oversimplification, there is an increasingly important lesson for contemporary education in that statement. The same lesson is seen in our current discussions of leadership. Recent books describe the powerful impact of love in the threatening organizational world of corporate America, and we are coming to understand that neither babies, employees, students, nor faculty can survive without the power of supporting, loving relationships.

This love must never be at the expense of high standards. Rather, it must become a better means to achieving them. Genuine love liberates us from the destructive fear of unfavorable judgment. It does not liberate us from failure or from negative judgment, but a loving relationship helps us make that a constructive part of the learning experience.

An example of this principle is related by engineering students at BYU who tell of the time Professor Ken Solen called each student in his class prior to the start of a holiday period to inform them that there was a mistake in the exam they had just taken. He didn’t want them to worry during the holiday that it was they who had failed to compute the correct answer, when, in fact, the mistake was in the question. Such loving teaching relationships lead to compassion and support along with high standards.

In this context there is an increased sense of individual responsibility for developing and nurturing relationships with teachers and peers, with the community, and the world. And this relationship and responsibility exist, not just for a class or during the undergraduate years on campus, but for a lifetime (or, given that “the glory of God is intelligence,” an eternity). In our classrooms, we do not just expect satisfaction of minimum requirements, just as most of us do not want our doctors, diplomats, engineers, musicians, accountants, English teachers, or chemists to be students who just barely made the cut–who did the minimum to get a passing grade. We want and we need excellence, both on the part of students and teachers.

In addition to the challenge professors have always faced with respect to appropriate content and methodology, there are additional factors today that make effective teaching even more demanding and complex. With the information explosion, the technology revolution, the redrawing of national boundaries, the major scientific breakthroughs, and the health, social, ethnic, and environmental crises in much of the world, the quality of teaching must get even better each year.

Those who teach must be equal to the increasing expectations that derive from this more demanding world. Today we need to work much harder to simply stay up with our fields, let alone push the frontiers. It is easier now than ever to become outdated, and with electronic access to information, our inability to be current or relevant becomes quickly obvious to others, including our students.

Former BYU President Rex E. Lee said:

You cannot be a good teacher–a really good teacher of the type that we want at this university, and that students of the quality of our students deserve–unless you keep yourself intellectually alive: aware of and interested in what is going on in your field, abreast of current thinking and its implications, and, best of all, an actual contributor to that current thinking, one who is actively engaged in testing and pushing out the frontiers of knowledge.

The result of this kind of learning community is growth, not only for the student and the teacher, but for the larger community. This growth includes the long-term capacity to continue learning (for self and others) in many different settings, in addition to increased understanding of subject matter.

When I was an undergraduate engineering student, it was said that the half-life of an engineer (the time in which one-half of what the student learned in the engineering curriculum would be obsolete) was about 15 years. Now, I hear it said that three years may be a generous estimate. This is not only true for the content of a field, but also for the teaching methodology.

Another teaching challenge comes from the differing perceptions of the role of the teacher. Those outside the university often have different assumptions that those in the university may label as misunderstandings. When certain groups (for example, state legislators dealing with state universities) clamor for higher teaching loads for faculty (and perhaps loads should be higher in some cases), the argument is usually based on a production-line model of teaching. When it is assumed that teaching simply involves the transmission of a given body of knowledge or a specific skill, it is easy to conclude that we simply ought to find the most efficient means to deliver this commodity. The cost-saving logic of this assumption is obvious, but the underlying premise needs careful examination. It is clear we need better systems of accountability in our universities, but what does this really mean for the role of an excellent teacher?

Excellent teachers must be passionately involved in both learning and teaching throughout their careers. I am indebted to Professor Dee Fink at the University of Oklahoma for the idea that professors really do only two things: learn and teach. Since we need to stay on the frontiers of dynamic fields, we must have a lifetime learning quest. This means a continuing, disciplined inquiry into the works of other scholars, plus our own testing and reframing of the findings, theories, and paradigms of our fields. This learning commitment and activity is also a critical example for our students as we model and teach them about the learning process as well as about the subject matter.

As faculty publish books and articles or make presentations in scholarly settings, we are sharing and teaching our peers about the things we have learned. As we invite their review and response, we can continue learning and teaching at the leading edge, rather than at the trailing edge, of knowledge.

An important reason for increasing concern with the quality of education we provide at BYU is the high caliber of our students. By both objective and subjective measures, BYU students are among the brightest anywhere. In addition to the high academic standards, there is a great sense of social responsibility and spiritual commitment among our students. In the 23 years I have been teaching at BYU, I have felt each year that the quality of the students has improved (with all due apologies to a great group of very bright former students). Better prepared and more dedicated students demand higher-quality teaching. As Irving Stone said in the title of his book on the early West, we needed “Men To Match My Mountains”; and I would argue that we need teachers (both men and women) to match our students.

As we look at BYU as a community of scholars, it is important to note that students are not invited to just observe, but to become active participants in the process. Being a scholar is difficult for some students (and threatening to some teachers) because much of their previous educational experience involved a production-line model rather than a student-scholar model of learning. The production-line model assumes a standardized product where students typically have a list of universal requirements that are satisfied or checked off as the student goes step-by-step toward completing a course or fulfilling a major. The scholar approach certainly has requirements, but it is much more.

I have previously conceptualized this idea in terms of a scholar-leader metaphor. (See “We Need a Nation of Scholar Leaders,” BYU Marriott School of Management, Exchange, Fall 1980, pp. 28–32.) I have always had great respect for the term “student,” but in the production-line metaphor, students may become like computers. They sit in class waiting for an input–a command or piece of information that someone else (professor, expert, author) thinks is important. The information is then stored or classified according to a previously defined program. Then, at some point -an exam, paper, or recitation–the information is retrieved, possibly printed, graded, credit assigned, and the disk erased. The student becomes a passive recipient and processor of information–and usually blames the teacher when things do not go well. (How many times have I heard a student say that a class was poorly taught when the student made no effort to read, think, contribute, or learn?)

In the student-scholar model, the individual students not only accept responsibility for their own learning, but for contributing to the quality of the class. They read and communicate to learn and to grow, not just to fulfill an assignment or to get a grade. They define learning objectives and activities beyond the course requirements. They do not continually ask if a reading assignment or discussion point “is going to be on the exam.” Scholars initiate and make proposals instead of waiting for assignments. Acknowledging that all professors may not be the most gifted teachers, scholar students can make almost any class a worthwhile learning experience for themselves and class members. I should note that I have seen a very large number of this kind of student at BYU.

In his 1994 inaugural address as President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela said:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.

The production-line view of education allows students to play small. But in a learning community, students are asked to “play large” and use their light to the fullest capacity. Good teachers do not just present material well, they make opportunities for students to let their lights shine. Mandela went on to say,

And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

I have seen outstanding students “play large” and turn an average class into an exceptional one. And, conversely, I have seen production-line students subtract considerably from the best efforts of a teacher. Even bright students need to learn the behavior that will make them constructive contributors to a learning community. Some of these characteristics are nurtured and reinforced before the student arrives at the university. Families who teach and model the positive value of learning make a great contribution to the university learning community. Likewise, public schools, peer groups, the local and national culture, and church influence all help determine whether the student is a cynical opportunist or a responsible scholar.

BYU is full of stories of class projects turning into musical productions, software companies, award-winning documentaries, scientific breakthroughs, and humanitarian service by student scholars. For example, in Professor David Magelby’s political science class, the students learn the principles of political polling. They then conduct polls in connection with elections. These students regularly outperform the professional pollsters. They not only develop valuable experience and confidence, but they also make substantial contributions to the understanding of the electoral process.

Communications students regularly produce news broadcasts that are of equal or higher quality than many of the students might find in their first full-time newsroom job. Recently, a BYU student created an Internet home page for a Fortune 500 company as an intern. Shortly afterward he was offered a full-time job because he was the only person in the organization who could do what it needed. In organizational behavior classes, students are required to engage in a service learning project in an effort to help people and to improve community organizations along with improving the students’ learning. One team of students working in a school led to a change the principal called “a significant improvement in our organization and our ability to educate.”

The challenge and excitement of teaching at BYU is not just a job. It is a crusade. It is a mission. Putting in a day’s work is not enough. The students and the world deserve better. And with the high level of commitment and excellence we demand of all members of the BYU community, we can face an uncertain future with confidence and competence. Combined with the faith and love that enable us to magnify our callings as teachers, the future of teaching and learning at BYU promises to be an exciting adventure.