“Teaching”: What Does it Mean?

When people use the word “teaching” in everyday talk, or when they attempt to define what teaching means, they often overlook some basic facts about the verb “to teach.”

In Chapter 1 of Music Matters, 2nd ed., we explain that “to teach” is a transitive verb. A transitive verb is an action verb; the action “transfers” something from one or more objects, or people, to another, as in “I love you.” In the latter, “I am not just ‘loving’ per se, but I am loving you” (David Blacker, 1978, Dying to Teach, p. 48).

In contexts of formal schooling and informal teaching and learning, where a “teacher,” taken in the broadest sense (e.g., a school teacher, professor, coach, mentor, facilitator, parent, etc.) advances and empowers a person’s understanding of something, or his or her abilities to do something, “teaching” is always transitive.

According to the praxial philosophy of music education we propose, teaching of any kind—e.g., in school or community music settings—always involves at least five inter-dependent dimensions: (1) one or more teachers. . . who engage in (2) acts of teaching, including informal, formal, or any other act of ethical teaching or mentoring . . . (3) something (skills, abilities, concepts, dispositions, critical thinking, creativity, respect for others, etc.) to (4) another person or persons with (5) the conscious intention of developing a person or persons’ abilities, concepts, dispositions (etc.), and empowering learner(s) personal abilities to construct their own thinking-doing abilities from teaching-learning encounters.

As David Blacker (1978) states, “From this perspective, teaching literally makes no sense without the ‘Other’ who is to be taught” (p. 49).

If teachers understand this, says philosopher David Carr (2000), they’ll see why it’s nonsense to say, as slogans often do, that “one teaches children, not subjects (or vice-versa)—for there could hardly be any coherent notion of teaching which did not implicate both learners and something to be learned” (Professionalism and Ethics in Education, p. 5). Carr continues: “In this respect, it is arguable that at least some of the vaunted differences between so-called traditional or ‘subject-centered’ and progressive or ‘child-centered’ educationalists have their source in a simple grammatical error [i.e., the failure to understand that ‘to teach’ is a transitive verb]” (p. 5).

Because this is a very brief note about the verb “to teach,” it’s absolutely necessary to add more inter-dependent dimensions. Obvious conclusion: teaching, which should be educative and ethical, is an extremely complex process. This isn’t news. But with the above in mind, perhaps the complexity of teaching is a little clearer.

Takeaway point #1:

Simplistic dualisms in education (i.e., teaching children and/or subjects) and music education are identifiable by the word “and.” For example, mind and body, thinking and feeling, philosophy and practice, perception and response, performing and listening, skills and understandings. Properly understood, all of these should be conceived as unified processes: mind-body; perceiving-responding; performing-listening; skills-understandings—all of which involve many additional considerations. Unifying “binary oppositions” will go a long way to improving music educators’ conceptual-practical work. So, Down with dualisms; Up with unified thinking-doing, etc.

Takeaway point #2:

It’s obvious to any teacher reading this very brief discussion that we’ve omitted a huge number of the most difficult, real-world, everyday challenges of what “to teach” actually means and involves, which we could summarize, for now, as “contextual” factors.” More about the incredible importance of “contexts” in future blogs.

For now, it’s worth reading one everyday, pop media source. Yep, it’s simplistic, especially because it omits the unique challenges surrounding music teaching. Nevertheless, it serves to make a point that the general public usually doesn’t understand, let alone value: that teaching is among THE most difficult and stressful of all professions.

“Most teachers deal with lots of job stress. They have to be well prepared every day, and they get very little down time—none, really, while students are present. Many people think that teachers have good working schedules, but teachers take a lot more of their work home with them than other professionals. There are always lessons to plan, papers to grade and records to keep. In addition, the pay isn’t much, compared to professions with similar educational requirements. Increasingly, public school teachers face additional problems of lack of respect from students, and even from students’ parents and the general public. Because they’re paid with tax dollars, public school teachers are always under scrutiny. Few professionals are judged as closely as teachers are. Emphasis on test scores finds teachers held accountable if their students don’t improve each year—even if the students may be hampered by factors outside the classroom.”—Linda C. Brinson (2006). 10 Most Stressful Jobs in America. Retrieved from: HowStuffWorks.com: http://money.howstuffworks.com/10-most-stressful-jobs-in-america.htm/printable