An earlier form of this essay was published in Gary K. Clabaugh & Edward G. Rozycki Understanding Schools: the foundations of education 1990 New York. Harper & Rowe

Models of Teaching
©2000 NewFoundations

To suppose that you can properly regulate (the) process of forming and accumulating ideas, without understanding the nature of the process, is absurd. --- Herbert Spencer, On Education (1)

edited 4/15/14

Are Schools Liable for Student Failure?
What Can Be Taught?

Teaching As Telling
Training and Nurturing

  In this essay we will look at models of teaching. We can expect that our conceptions of learning and the images of the school will, to some extent, determine those models. They will be
teaching as telling,
teaching as initiating,
teaching as training, and
teaching as nurturing.
Does teaching connect to learning as cause to effect? That will be one of the concerns supporting our inquiry.


In November 1988 Mr. Arnold Rich of Louisville, Kentucky, in behalf of his son, John, filed suit against the Kentucky Day School, a private school his son had attended for nine years. His charge was that the school had failed to give the boy the superior education which the family had contracted for. (2)

From the 2nd through the 5th grades, John Rich was a good student. Then his grades began to fall. The boy, according to Mr. Rich, would do his assignments but leave them in his locker. Thomas G. Monaco, the director of the school, admitted that John had been rebuked as lazy and irresponsible in order to "motivate" him. Finally, the school refused to admit him into the 10th grade.

John Rich's IQ is 135. An evaluation by a psychologist found the boy to be suffering from "attention-deficit disorder," a learning disability that "causes children to be distracted and slow to follow directions." Although using Ritalin, a drug often prescribed to increase attention span, and being specially tutored, the improvement in John's grades was not considered sufficient by school authorities to retain him in 10th grade. They do not believe John has a learning disability.

Mr. Rich, in a court deposition, commented, "If they're the educational specialists that they say they are, they should have the ability to recognize that a problem other than just laziness and irresponsibility exists."

We can see from the example of John Rich that considerations of causation and the relationship of teaching to learning is not just idle speculation. There may be substantial consequences to be faced when disagreement on these issues is met. The accusation of negligence in teaching is the accusation that care has fallen below a certain accepted level and resulted in an injury. Lawyers for the Kentucky Day School did not believe their clients were in trouble and  asked for dismissal of the suit.

From our previous discussion we can discern certain difficulties in Mr. Rich's establishing his complaint:

theories about learning disability are controversial.(3) Many experts believe the terms such as "attention-deficit disorder" are nothing more than a slogan to give a name to our ignorance.

even if there were agreement on the nature of the learning disability, we might not know how to deal with it.

"accepted level of care" is vague. Just because a failure has occurred gives no reason to supposed that negligence has, also. There has to be a broad consensus on the kind of causal relation, if any, that exists between normal traditional schooling procedures and the failures of individuals in a given school.

"laziness" and "irresponsibility" are a kind of causal explanation. But they are ascriptive terms, not summative ones. So they do not indicate conditions which can be manipulated to change an outcome.

"laziness" and "irresponsibility" are also terms which deny concerns and interest. This may be the underlying motive of Mr.Rich's suit. Calling a student "lazy" or "irresponsible" is too easy a way to shift responsibility from the school staff to the student.

Mr. Rich, finally, lost his case. In general, the courts seem reluctant to concede that schools are such a contractual relationship with parents that permits learning failure to be interpreted as a fault. Parents and legislators have other ideas. Consequently, the nature of cause in teaching and learning remains a cogent issue.

What can be taught?

When a superior man knows the causes which make instruction successful, and those which make it of no effect, he can become a teacher of others. Thus in his teaching, he leads and does not drag; he strengthens and does not discourage; he opens the way but does not conduct to the end without the learner's own efforts. Leading and not dragging produces harmony. Strengthening and not discouraging makes attainment easy. Opening the way and not conducting to the end makes the learner thoughtful. He who produces such harmony, easy attainment and thoughtfulness may be pronounced a skillful teacher.
Confucius (4)
Confucius' advice looks sound; to those who know what to make of it and how to specifically apply it in a real teaching situation. Notice, however, that he mentions successful instruction, not learning. He may have meant by "successful instruction" to indicate "learning" but we should not jump to that conclusion. Teaching, even good teaching, does not, in and of itself, guarantee a specific kind of learning. If it could, then "Teach them!" would be a no-fail prescription to cure all ignorance. (Recall chapter 3 and the "Can-it-fail?-rule.")

Teaching is an occupation as well as an activity. Provided we're not merely referring to an occupation, it does no great injustice to our traditional notions of teaching to say that teaching is an attempt to get someone to learn something.(5) Like running in the Olympics, teaching may be done extremely well (6) even if a medal is not won, i.e. even if some circumstance impedes the desired learning. What can we say about teaching and its connection with learning?

We have to be careful not to confuse process with product. "Can X be taught?" is an ambiguous question. It may mean either

a) Can a good faith attempt be made to get someone to learn X? (a process notion) or

b) Is there some way of successfully bringing someone to learn X? (a product notion)

As with learning, a generic concept competes with a multiplex concept. Advocates of the generic concept hold that some common set of teacher behavior is found in every instance of teaching. They have yet to make their case empirically. A multiplex approach would expect no more commonality than with any slogan-like term deriving from a variety of traditions. As with learning, the generic-multiplex dispute is not merely of theoretical interest. The authority of different stakeholders in the schooling enterprise depends on the way the battle goes.

Again, as with learning, no curricular principle can help us determine what can be taught. Because X is in the curriculum does not mean it can be taught, although we can expect that someone with the authority to direct your teaching will call anything in the curriculum teachable. Perhaps what can be learned can help us determine what can be taught.

It does not follow that because something can be learned, that it can be taught. Plato did not believe virtue could be taught, but that it came of a self-discovery process, philosophical inquiry. By "could not be taught" he meant that virtue was not brought about the the attempts of others to get you to be virtuous. Our discussion above on ascriptive learnings lends some credibility to his claim.(7)

For purposes of shorthand, let us use X to mean our curricular item; S, to designate a student; and T, the teacher. The ambiguity of the phrase "X has been taught to S by T" can indicate either:

a) process: "a good faith attempt has been made by T to get S to learn X" or

b) product: "T has succeeded in getting S to learn X"

This permits those who are unobservant of the ambiguity to accuse every unsuccessful teacher of dereliction. Recall that X is learnable if no talent is necessary to do X, if X is physically and developmentally possible and if no other impediments stand in the way. But the problem with what is teachable is whether one can make a good faith attempt to get someone to learn X.

"Teach the children" is a fair demand only if we are thinking of teaching as a fallible process. To command success is a presumption upon deity. The teacher may strive mightily indeed and still fail. The critic, switching to the product sense of "having taught" then unfairly accuses the teacher, "You haven't been teaching!" This is the basic maneouvre in all criticism which goes directly from poor test results to clamoring for the reform of teaching.

Let us consider now the traditional notions of teaching as telling, initiating, training and nurturing We will see that how they relate to learning and the notion of causation involved can vary surprisingly from cases to case.

Teaching as Telling

...but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.
St. Matthew 9,8.

...the Word was God.
St. John, 1.1.

Lecturing and explaining is the predominant teacher activity at the junior high and senior high level.(8) Indeed, in the public mind, teaching is telling. When William J. Bennett, Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration, would visit schools and talk to classes, reporters would rush in afterwards to ask students whether Bennett was a good teacher. The answers they got were not surprising.

Telling, exhorting and preaching are believed to be a primary, if not the primary method of teaching in our culture. This faith in the power of the word supports teaching traditions in which the teacher alone is the source of knowledge and authority in the classroom. It also reinforces the "magic" of speech.(9)

No less important than the contribution of religious traditions to belief in the power of the Word is our everyday experience with swearwords and curses. These may evoke strong emotional responses and they work to maintain general belief in the effectiveness of command. Forgotten is the training that went into producing such responses. The sounds themselves take on the power.

If we add to these traditions the economic reality that lecture is the least expensive form of instruction, that it is the honored form of professorial performance, and that it supports our beliefs in the value of IQ as a measure of personal quality, we begin to comprehend why telling plays such a central role in instruction. If people are told and they still don't learn, we can blame them for not really listening. That is, we then tell them it's their fault. This is the cheapest of remedial services.


Closely related to teaching as telling is the idea that the teacher is a kind of priest who initiates the student into a discipline. Typical initiation processes involve rituals of submission to authority, ranking, testing, enlightenment and certification usually enhanced with a substantial dose of mystery and pomp.

Subject matter traditions, rather than occupational concerns, heavily influence instructional decisions. We saw in Chapter 17, for example, that lesson planning is rarely done in terms of student outcome objectives, but rather in terms of content. Research results are perplexing. On the one hand, high school teachers see the curriculum as more intellectually focussed than they would prefer, while senior high parents find it less intellectual than is desirable.(10) On the other hand, teachers show remarkably little interest in their students' concerns for making a living or learning about careers, while the public thinks much more should be done.(11) Teachers in a specialty are biased. They are successful students in that specialty and they tend to want to make their students into the same kind of success.

Initiation is an ancient rite in all cultures. We have seen elsewhere (12) that in an expanding system of schooling pursuing equity, the diploma loses its instrumental value. Nonetheless, in our culture it marks an important rite of passage.

Training and Nurturing

The point of training is to meet certain external demands imposed on the individual. The point of nurturance is to respond to the developmental needs of the individual. We can conceive of nurturance and training as being on a continuum from low to high imposition of external demands. (See figure 5)

Figure 5

The labeled points indicate different locations along the continuum with different levels of concern with nurturance and training. Point A permits growth undirected by external demands. We can picture this as raising tomatos that are given water, sunshine and fertilizer but allowed to lie on the ground and grow like a weed.

Point B shows some concern for external demands. Here we cage our tomatos to keep the fruit off the ground, perhaps pinching off tertiary shoots (suckers). Point C indicates heavier external demands. At, this point, for example, we might espalier our tomatos, pruning them to a single main stem with three or four secondary bearing shoots supported horizontally with wires. This procedure tends to reduce the amount of crop, but to make individual tomatos very big.

Point D is the point where the developmental needs of the plant ( or individual) are sacrificed to the external demands of the training. Nurturance is foregone. This is like forcing tomatos in winter to get fruit. The fruit will be inferior and the plant will die sooner.

Figure 6

We can locate a variety of social and schooling practices and products along such a continuum. In figure 6, reference points A through D from figure 5 are used, along with the example of the tomato plants to locate some of these practices.(13)


(1) Herbert Spencer, Essays on Education (New York: Dutton, Everyman's Library, 1963) p.23

(2) Kirsten Goldberg, "School in Kentucky Faces 'Malpractice' Charge" Education Week November 16, 1988. p.6.

(3) Cf. Diane McGuinness, "Facing the 'Learning Disabilities' Crises" Education Week Feb. 5, 1986, p.28.
Also, Mary Saily, "Learning Remains Elusive for Handicapped Children" Educational R&D Report, Vol.4, No.4., Winter 1981-82.

(4) Confucius, c.550-478 B.C. Book XVI, HSIO KI (Record on the Subject of Education)

(5) Cf. B. Paul Komisar, "Conceptual Analysis of Teaching" The High School Journal. Vol 50, no.1 (Oct 1966) pp. 14 - 21

(6) Harry S. Broudy, "Can We Define Good Teaching?" The Record - Teachers' College. Vol 70, No. 7 (April 1969) pp. 583 - 592.

(7) See Edmund L. Pincoffs, "What Can Be Taught?" Philosophy of Education 1967. pp.44­54.

(8) Goodlad, p. 107

(9) A sophisticated version of the teaching is telling theory is the "erotetic concept" of teaching. This theory requires that the teacher conduct his or her teaching as though he or she were answering the questions a student would ask about a subject matter if they were clear about how what they needed to know related to what they actually know. This theory presumes that the logical structure of knowledge is the pedagogical structure. (See chapter 17) For presentation and discussion of this theory, see the following:

C.J.B. MacMillan and James W. Garrison, "An Erotetic Concept of Teaching" Educational Theory 33, nos. 3 & 4, (Summer-Fall 1983) pp.157­167.
Robert H. Ennis, "Is Answering Questions Teaching?" Educational Theory 36, No.4,(Fall 1986) pp.343­347.
Shirley Pendlebury, "Teaching: Response and Responsibility" Educational Theory 36, No.4,(Fall 1986) pp.349­354.
C.J.B. MacMillan and James W. Garrison, "Erotetics Revisited" Educational Theory 36, No.4,(Fall 1986) pp.355­361.

(10) Goodlad, p.64

(11) Joyce D. Stern (ed) The Condition of Education 1987 Edition Statistical Report. Center for Education Statistics. (Washington, D.C. Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Dept. of Education, 1987) pp. 78­79

(12) See "Knowledge as a Commodity" on this site.

(13) The phrase "maimed beggars" refers to the practice in some countries of maiming children to make them more pitiable and therefore "better" beggars.