A prophecy on the demise of teaching

Posted September 12th, 2010 and filed in Books, Education

About 60 years ago, Carl Rogers, one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, gave a presentation at a conference organized by Harvard University. The conference members were experienced, sophisticated teachers. He had been invited to give a talk on “Classroom Approaches to Influencing Human Behavior.”

Although he was allotted two hours, his presentation was short. It was simply a few points that expressed some of his deepest views on education. Inspired by Kierkegaard, whose honesty he had always admired, he wrote his points out as honestly as he could and presented them in his usual modest way. Then he opened the floor for discussion.

What happened afterwards was not what he had expected. He was besieged by a storm of emotions, with attacks coming from every quarter. His educator colleagues demanded he confirm that he did not mean what he said. Occasionally, there was a voice of agreement from a teacher who had not dared to utter such thoughts.

Many participants lost sleep that night. Although Rogers made no attempt to have his statement published, it was widely duplicated by members of the conference. A few years later, two journals obtained his permission to publish it.

So what was all the furor about? What did he say?

The main points are:

  1. Nothing significant can be taught.
  2. The only learning which significantly influences behavior is self-discovered, self-appropriated learning.
  3. Such self-discovered learning cannot be directly communicated to another.
  4. When teaching does happen, the results are detrimental. It seems to cause the individual to distrust his own experience, and to stifle significant learning.

Rogers affirmed that many consequences can be implied from these points. For instance, we would do away with

a) Teaching. People would get together if they wished to learn.

b) Examinations. They measure only the inconsequential type of learning.

c) Grades and credits.

d) Degrees as a measure of competence.

e) The exposition of conclusions, for we would realize that no one learns significantly from conclusions.

The complete list of points can be found in Personal Thoughts on Teaching and Learning (1952) , included in his book, On Becoming a Person (1961), which is very valuable reading.

This book also includes an illustrative example of his oddly effective “teaching” as experienced by a participant: Carl R. Rogers and Non-Directive Teaching, by Samuel Tenenbaum, Ph.D. The four-week course described by Tenenbaum took place in the summer of 1958 at Brandeis University. The students were a diverse group of teachers, doctoral candidates in psychology, counselors, psychologists, priests (one from a foreign country). Whoever wishes to “teach” effectively and whoever wishes to take control of his/her own learning should read Tenenbaum’s record. It is eye-opening that real learning can be accomplished in such an awkward way, while the teacher refuses to take on his traditional role and is willing to take blows.

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