from educational Horizons Winter 1996

©1999 Gary K. Clabaugh

edited 9/2/11
See also, Education for Democracy: more than rhetoric?

Remember the hullabaloo when Dr. Jocelyn Elders, then our Surgeon General, recommended that educators consider "teaching masturbation?" This suggestion got her fired, even though it was unclear precisely what she had in mind. Did she just want educators to teach kids that they can be their own date? Did she just want to communicate that fact, or was she thinking of teaching them the mechanics of masturbation? On the other hand, perhaps she was thinking of actually teaching them to masturbate? You know, "It's fun and you should do it;" that kind of thing.

What we are talking about here is the difference between:

teaching that,

teaching how,

teaching to.

These distinctions are fundamental; yet they are forever being muddled. It is commonly assumed, for example, that "teaching that" translates readily into "teaching how to." It doesn't work that way. Students spend hour after tedious hour learning all sorts of facts, only to be dumbfounded when asked to apply these facts to one or another practical task.

If we intend that students learn "how" to do something, we have to give them ample practice at actually doing it. This sounds self-evident, but present educational practice proves it is not. Far too many teachers instruct only in the telling mode, an approach to teaching that almost exclusively involves "teaching that." Students are expected to "learn the facts;" and when that's said, it's all said.

We might expect "learning that" to triumph in subject fields lacking in immediate practical application. History, for example. But what about subjects with lots of "how to" power like math or science? Sadly, "teaching that" prevails here too. Students who take science course after science course, for example, still have no clue about actually doing science! That can only be explained if these courses are in a "teaching that" mode. Even science courses with labs are commonly in the "teaching that" mode. How is that possible? Because they use a cookbook" approach in which outcomes are known in advance. In such a lab "doing an experiment" is roughly akin to saying the Rosary. Rituals may have profound religious meaning, but they have no connection with doing science. In fact, such an approach encourages a seriously flawed notion of what science is all about.

Why, in the face of all we now know about learning, is "teaching that" so enormously popular. It's easier. It requires nothing more of teachers than doing to others what was done to them. It requires nothing more of students than cramming and regurgitation.

"Teaching that" is also safer. There isn't much chance of stirring up the natives if students are never expected to do anything with what they learn. Who gives a hoot if a kid learns that the earth is about four and one half billion years old, provided that never leads them to draw any conclusions about the veracity of the Bible.

"Teaching that" also permits teachers to "cover" a great many topics. Of course, the learning is only skin deep, but at least they got through the syllabus and, in the best case, students learned a lot of facts. Just don't ask them to use these facts -- they don't have a clue. Moreover, in the worst case they never bother learning the facts to begin with; at least not in any durable form -- perhaps because they have no apparent relevance.

The "teaching that" mode enjoys one final, perhaps decisive, advantage. It conceals the fact that some school subjects, at least in their present form, are of no practical consequence whatsoever. If students are required only to master factoids, and never, ever expected do anything with them, the question of a course's utility is avoided altogether.

"Teaching how " is orders of magnitude more difficult than "teaching that." It requires cleverly contrived practice trials before we can even hope that someone has learned. Oddly, however, "teaching how," can be less prestigious. In fact, it may not stretch things too far to say that the prestige of a subject is inversely related to its practical utility. After all, only the well-born can spend years learning things which are practically useless. I once read a treatise in sociology that made this point. It told of a practicing physician who aspired to wed a rich young debutante. She was favorably inclined and encouraged him to ask her father's permission. Daddy reluctantly consented, but only on the proviso that his daughter's suitor renounce all future practice of medicine. Apparently it was too, too gauche to have someone marry into the family who actually worked for a living.

We haven't yet discussed "teaching to;" and it is the most difficult teaching of all. Students who have "learned that" and also "learned how" still have not "learned to." How is that? Consider the very distinctions being described here. One can readily imagine that upon finishing this essay the reader will have "learned that" these distinctions can be made; and, perhaps, also intuit "how to" use them in various circumstances. Has the reader "learned to" make these distinctions in future? That is very doubtful even when circumstances fair cry out for them. Developing that habit of mind requires many reminders, much practice and encouragement sufficient for internalization.

Nowhere is lack of attention to the different modes of teaching and learning more obvious than in assessment. Ask, for instance, what objective tests are best at measuring, "teaching that," teaching how to," or "teaching to?". Multiple choice, matching and true false questions primarily measure "teaching that" .outcomes. Teach future teachers that children develop in stages and you can handily see if they learned the names and characteristics of these stages using an objective test. If you want these aspiring pedagogues to know "how to" use that information, you might better ask them to produce a lesson that is developmentally appropriate. And the only way we could tell if they had been successfully "taught to" use this knowledge in their daily teaching would be to periodically check on their teaching practice as it develops over the years.

Did you ever wonder why educators so seldom try to find out what people are doing, or not doing, with school learning years after they graduate? If they are really concerned with "teaching to," -- in other words, with encouraging habits of mind and heart -- they should be supremely interested. Yet they aren't. Religious educators, for instance, routinely claim they are teaching students to be better Christians, or what have you. But they almost never check on their graduates 10 or 15 years later to find out if they are actually living Christian lives.

Why don't they check? Perhaps for the same reason educators in general seldom take samples of this kind. They are so caught up in "teaching that," it never even occurs to them. Of course, the brighter ones might also be afraid of what they would find out.