Teach the student, not the subject

Yesterday evening I went to see Sir Ken Robinson speaking on the subject of ‘Educating the Heart and Mind’ here in Vancouver. For those of you who haven’t seen him speak, there are a lot of videos of him on YouTube and on his own website.

Sir Ken’s talk was rich, and a number of subjects were covered in the space of some forty –five minutes. What I want to write about in this post is an analogy he made which started me thinking about the way we train teachers in ELT and generally.  He talked about Peter Brook’s book on the theatre, The Empty Space. In that book, Brook suggests that drama doesn’t need a building, a playwright, a stage, or even a script. For drama to happen, there needs only to be an actor and an audience- even if it’s only an audience of one. What we call drama is born out of the relationship between the actor and the audience. The art form of acting is in that relationship. Sir Ken went on to say that he felt that this was the same with teaching and learning. In essence, teaching and learning don’t need all the normal trappings of education- the school building, the curriculum, the materials. It’s the relationship between the teacher and the student which is the heart of the educational process. Teachers need to be teaching the student rather than teaching the subject, he suggested, personalising learning so that each student is attended to for what they are and for the talents they have.

Well, OK. Apart from reminding me of Mark Twain’s famous quote, ‘I never let education get in the way of my learning,’ it got me thinking. Without getting into the whole dogme/technology discussion within ELT, it seems to me that teachers today arguably have a lot of distractions that could easily take their attention away from that central relationship.  So what are we doing about ensuring that the relationship between teacher and student is at its best?

Well, after his talk, Sir Ken went into a moderated conversation with Dr. Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl , who’s  an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia. She reported that she had done research into pre-service teacher training in North America and found that none of the official teacher training programmes included any focus on any of the kind of skills that would allow teachers to effectively teach the student rather than the subject. No focus on training teachers to listen effectively, no real training in how to foster each student’s individual talents. The question, which was rather left hanging in the air, was whether all these qualities need actual training- or not.

So what do you think? Do the teacher training programmes you know have any focus on effective listening skills, for example, or train teachers to really attend to the individual nature of student talent and learning? Are teachers taught to teach the student rather than the subject? And how do we train teachers to help students to find their own personal way of learning – in our case enabling students to learn the language most effectively?


19 thoughts on “Teach the student, not the subject

  1. Sue, its really true. Specially in Nepal, students are forced to learn from books and listen to teacher all the time. Things are changing slowly, yet… This is an inspiring article. Students should be taught using various method, not the book.

    • Hi Radha- Thanks for visiting, and for your comment. Interesting to hear your insights from Nepal. Yes,the book can certainly be a straitjacket, can’t it? Good to hear things are changing , though, if only little by little.

  2. Nice read, Sue. Not many of us grew up with a student-centered education, so even with good intentions, it’s easy to fall back into a content delivery method that is strongly subject-oriented.

    I agree that listening, and being perceptive to all that is going on is so key, and yet I’ve rarely seen it pushed in training seminars or courses. I even proposed a “soft skills” workshop at an upcoming conference and an insider told me it was rejected because it was a bit too “out there”.

    These days, there’s so much focus on the “what”, that we often disregard the “how”.

    • Hi Brad.

      Thanks for your comments. Very much like the point about the ‘how’ versus the ‘what.’ I sometimes feel like there is so much of the ‘what’ that it can become quite overwhelming- and yes, to echo what you say about the workshop, a lot of of what goes on at conferences seems to be about ‘subject’ -or content. I wonder if that’s because the other stuff is supposed to come naturally, or if it’s because it’s much harder to describe and systematise?

      • Or maybe it’s because no one wants to be told “how” to teach. We all have different personalities and ways of communicating. It gets personal if we question whether a teacher is “listening” enough with all of their senses.

        Either way, I’d love to be in a room of open-minded educators exchanging “how” they teach. Thanks for your thoughts 😉

      • Indeed, in most venues, the agenda is set well in advance and it’s not easy to switch gears to zero in on what people are most ready to learn at any given moment.

        But it is possible to create venues and situations where we promote and honor learner-driven agendas, and facilitate the process of gaining insight into whatever an individual is most primed to learn at any given moment.

        As I see it, the relevant clue is to attend carefully to the affective emotional state of the learner and to adapt in an agile manner to zero in on topics where the learner is most fascinated, most intrigued, most confused, most perplexed, or most frustrated.

        More details can be found here:

        “Cognition, Affect, and Learning”


        • Thanks for your interesting comments, Barry. I wonder if you think those skills need some kind of training, or whether they come along with experience? Personally, I think it’s probably a mixture of the two.

          Thanks for the link too.

          • There are gifted educators who know these things intuitively.

            But even those who have good insight and intuition appreciate having a scientific model that elevates their intuition and insight to the level of an express theory that can be shared with others.

            My feeling is that a review of the meta-cognitive theories and the associated derivative practices is helpful, even to those who have already mastered the art of teaching, if for no other reason than to explain to others how they employ meta-cognitive techniques in their own practice.

  3. small steps make a big difference even though it seems insignificant in the beginning… Trainers like You have made difference in the education system in Nepal…like u made difference in me…thank you

  4. thanks for this great article which ends with very important question I hope I find good answer for it .how do we train teachers to help students to find their own personal way of learning – in our case enabling students to learn the language most effectively?

  5. Interesting post and very true.It saddened me to see that many students struggle with certain subjects and teachers don’t really care, they forget that they are there to educate the students not to educate themselves.Many teachers don’t love their their work , to them is another way of making a living they don’t care at all about their students.

    I think it would be best if students wanting to study teaching are interviewed before they are enrolled or accepted.

    • Many thanks for dropping by, Glen. Sorry to hear that that has been your experience of teachers. Is it a question of not caring, or a question of lack of training, do you think?

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