The Aims of Teaching: We Change But They Stay The Same.

Posted on November 28, 2015


AimsofTeachingI’ve been thinking about the aims of teaching.

I was spurred to think about these aims because of a course I recently developed for Carleton’s Learning in Retirement [LIR] program. Although I have decades of teaching experience, I have never taught a classroom of people who are twenty, thirty, and possibly even forty years older than me. I have, of course, taught individual people who are older than me, but never a group of them. Moreover, LIR courses are not for credit. The students aren’t enrolled to get a degree or to get ahead at work. They aren’t even assessed through tests or assignments! So, for this kind of student, in this kind of learning environment, as a teacher, I asked myself, what should my aims be?  

I was also spurred to think about the aims of teaching because of the internet and the incredible resources that are now available on it. Most of the age-old gatekeepers of knowledge have wholeheartedly embraced the internet, are now providing high-quality and expertly vetted resources, and are very often providing them for free. So, in this information age, with an abundance of high quality resources at everyone’s fingertips, as a teacher, again I asked myself, what should my aims be?   

After much thought and several false starts on the articulation of my thoughts, I realized that the aims of teaching remain pretty much the same whomever is taught and whatever the number of resources available. For example, whatever the age of the students might be, an effective teacher needs to identify and understand their learning needs and create a safe space where they feel comfortable to learn. Similarly, whether you have access to one book or all the books, a teacher will always need to curate and prioritize whatever information is available for study.

I think what is true of these examples is probably true for any of the teaching aims we might identify. The expression or application of the aims will change for different audiences and different circumstances, but the aims themselves won’t because the desired outcome is always the same: a person who is newly knowledgeable and, ideally, wise with respect to the area of inquiry. Teaching, for this reason, seems to be definitively and, perhaps, distinctly other-regarding. A person may be able to learn alone, but s/he can never teach alone.

Here’s a list of teaching aims I came up with. They have been shaped/reworked thanks to some very insightful feedback from friends on Facebook. Do you have any thoughts or additions?

  1. Identify and understand the needs of the student.  
  2. Create and manage a physical and social environment appropriate for healthy learning. (e.g. students know they can fail safely.)  
  3. Curate the domain of inquiry (e.g. learn this before that.)
  4. Facilitate knowledge transfer and discovery, while inculcating the tools and tactics of inquiry.
  5. Facilitate the development of critical reasoning skills.
  6. Facilitate the ability to articulate and/or express ideas, opinions, arguments and conclusions respectfully.
  7. Model and inspire relevant virtues and values (e.g. curiosity, hope, enthusiasm, honesty, openness, an appreciation of these virtues in others, etc.)  
  8. Acculturate the student into the relevant community.
  9. Ameliorate the student.
  10. Solicit feedback on the effectiveness of methods and resources employed, reflect on the results and adjust accordingly, and, when relevant, share the lessons learned with other teachers. 
Posted in: Teaching