Do we want to teach or train our students?

Hi reader(s), today we are going to talk about whether we want our schools to be staffed with teachers or trainers. Let’s start with some definitions to make sure we can understand one another. To train is to form by instruction, discipline, or drill; to make prepared (as by exercise) for a test of skill. To teach is to guide the studies of; to impart knowledge of; to instruct by precept, example, or experience. (definitions from Merriam-Webster online dictionary) Note that these definitions do overlap significantly (each causes or helps their pupils to learn), but the largest difference is the goal or endpoint. The goal of a teacher is to have their student acquire knowledge, but also to use that knowledge to gain or construct new knowledge. The trainer’s goal is to help their student acquire knowledge or skills to address a specific task or set of tasks.
I want to make an important point here, I am not attempting to say that training is more important than teaching or vice versa. I taught mostly science and math classes and depending on the subject for any given day, I would lean more towards trainer or teacher. For example, I would train my students to use a microscope, or to identify organisms they see in the microscope; but I would teach them about how those organisms live and why they are important to us. I assume a good trainer does some teaching, but more training, and a good teacher does some training, but more teaching.
So, the actual question comes down to, do we want our public school teachers to be teachers or trainers. There is a case for either, but I think we need to decide which we prefer and push our schools more towards that goal. We may also decide that we want the teachers in certain areas to function more as trainers, and other areas to function more as teachers. I am not sure I have the perfect answer to this part of the question, but I do think we need to ask it and really think about our answer. The problem right now is that we are drifting strongly in one direction and I don’t think many people have really stopped and thought about if we should be doing so.
Which brings us to high stakes testing and No Child Left Behind. The goal of NCLB is to make sure all students who have finished, say a chemistry course, understand certain concepts and have gained certain skills. This is a laudable goal which I completely support. The secondary goal of making sure all students are getting taught the same general concepts and skills by a competent teacher is also important and laudable. Our system right now is to give our teachers a list of objectives for the students, and the students a large, mostly pass-fail test at the end of the class. While we can and should argue about both the specific objectives and the questions on the test, it is still a pretty good way to accomplish the first goal. But it is a horrible way to accomplish the second goal. The idea, which sounds like common sense at first glance, is that a teacher’s skill or effectiveness is determined by what percentage of their students pass the final test. It makes sense right, if most of the students pass the test, then the teacher taught them the material. I replaced a teacher that had 100% of his students pass their end of course exams. Over my years at the same school, only about 95% of my students passed their end of course exam. So he is the better teacher, right? Here is the thing, he was fired for incompetence after one year because so many of his students asked to transfer out of his class, and many of the remaining students used a tutor to pass. Over the years I taught, almost none of my students needed to transfer or use a tutor to pass, even though we opened up the course to a more diverse group of students (i.e. not just the high achievers).
Remember those definitions, a teacher guides learning and imparts knowledge while a trainer forms by instruction, discipline, or drill for a test of skill. Which of those definitions does having as many students as possible pass an end of course exam sound like. It sounds like a trainer, doesn’t it? And therein lies the problem, we are grading our teachers on how good they are at training students to pass an exam, not on how effective they are in helping students to learn and grow. If you test the students before a class and assess their level of learning, then again at the end of the class you see how much the teacher helped to guide each student and how much information they acquired (if the test is done properly, that is). Since most of the students start at different places on the educational ladder, and can climb at different paces it is a much better measure of teaching skill to see how far they climb, not if they reach a certain rung by the end of your time together.
So I will leave my (our) discussion at this point. Do we want teachers that help students progress as much as they are capable of each year, or do we want trainers who push as many students over a certain barrier each year.


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