Fires and Eternity

October 25, 2007

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.
William Butler Yeats

In a Carnegie Perspectives essay, I argued that one way for teachers to gauge their effectiveness is to ask the same carefully crafted questions before and after instruction. The essay sparked a lively debate over what constitutes a teacher’s effect on student learning. One educator, Thorpe Gordon, felt obliged to respond to the criticism that ascribing student learning to an individual teacher during the course of a semester or school year is problematic because students acquire relevant knowledge from many sources external to the class itself, including TV and the Internet. He had this to say:

Is not part of our job to encourage the love of learning and thus the lifelong learning of the topic to which we are presenting the students as their “first course” of a lifelong meal? While teaching environmental scanning in our topic area, I am very pleased if students use their own curiosity to discover other ways of learning and integrating the material, even if that includes the Discovery Channel. Thus, is that also not material that they did not know before the start of the course and the purpose of pre/post testing?

Gordon’s point is on the mark, and it would be unfortunate if readers interpreted my original essay as implying that a teacher’s influence and impact are limited to only that which transpired in the classroom. If the presentation of the subject matter is sufficiently engaging and students are inspired to learn more about the subject from a variety of other sources, well and good. If the class induces in students a heightened sensitivity to incidental information they encounter elsewhere, fine. This is precisely what teachers should strive for, and such learning can rightly be claimed as one of the effects of good instruction. But teacher effects go even beyond this.

When people are asked “Who had the most influence on your life and career?” countless polls and surveys have shown that teachers are second only to parents in the frequency with which they are mentioned. (Aristotle would have reversed the finding. “Those who educate children well,” he wrote, “are more to be honored than parents, for these only gave life, those the art of living well.”)

Two strikingly consistent features of these surveys are that, first, the teachers cited do not come from a single segment of the educational hierarchy, they span the spectrum from elementary school through high school to college and professional school. Second, student testimonials only occasionally center on what went on in class, or the particular knowledge they acquired. For the most part they talk about how the teacher affected their entire disposition toward learning and knowledge. Many even mention a complete shift in their choice of a career.

The U.S. Professor of the Year Program, sponsored jointly by the Carnegie Foundation and The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), has illustrated the latter finding over and over again. The award is given annually to four professors, one each from a community college, a four-year baccalaureate college, a comprehensive university and a doctoral/research university. Nominations must be accompanied by statements of endorsement from colleagues, university administrators and students. (Thanks to Carnegie Senior Scholar Mary Huber, one of the two directors of the program, it has been my good fortune to read many of these statements over the past few years.) The statements from administrators and colleagues are uniformly glowing, but it is those from students that really grab one.

A community college student changed her entire career path (from accounting to writing and liberal arts) as a result of her study with one professor. A student at a doctoral/research university recounts how years after his graduate study his very thinking and approach to his discipline (physics) are still traceable to the mentorship under his major professor. In virtually every student recommendation, the students talked only briefly about what went on in the classroom. Rather, they stressed how their mentors affected their very disposition toward learning and life.

Our understanding of what constitutes good teaching has made enormous strides since the days of classroom observational protocols and behavioral checklists. We now know that a sound assessment of teaching must include, among other things, a thorough examination of teacher assignments, of the student products those assignments evoke, of the quality and usefulness of student feedback, and of how effectively teachers make subject matter content accessible to their students. It is also clear that however refined our assessments of teaching become, they inevitably will tell only part of the story. Henry Adams had it right, “Teachers affect eternity; they can never tell where their influence stops.”