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Teach the Person, Not the Subject

July 2, 2012

What do Horses Have to do With Anything?

My parents came to horse riding relatively late in life.  Although both had been on horses in their childhoods, they never owned or rode horses regularly until they’d retired.  They decided they needed some training, so they found a series of videos on “Natural Horsemanship” by renowned trainers Pat and Linda Parelli.  What they found surprised them: the videos were much less about training horses than they were about training the people.  In order to create the best system for bringing all levels of humans into the world of horse training–to help each owner become his or her own trainer, as the Parellis say–they needed to bring in an expert not in horsemanship (they already had that) but in adult education and “learning behavior.”  They revamped all their courses to focus on teaching adult riders how to train their horses, not on the finished product or on training the horse itself.

Parelli Training

So what does this have to do with anything?  It tells us that, no matter what the subject–whether it’s creating buy-in among your employees on a new procedure, helping your freshman students understand the characteristics of clear and precise prose, or making your horse back off when you want it to–it’s really all about teaching the people.

I think, in fact, that one of the telling changes that happens between middle school and high school, and even more so in college, is the change in terminology when instructors say what they do.  A second-grade teacher, for example, generally says that they teach “second graders.”  A high school teacher, on the other hand, is just as likely to say that she teaches “math” or “English” (or now “language arts”).  College professors often go even further, saying that they teach microbiology or painting or sociological research methods–often referring as much to what they research as to the subjects of their lectures and lessons.

A Change in Terminology: So What?

The change in the Parelli approach suggests how important this “terminology” change can be–how much more than a change in terms it really is.  They revamped their entire line of videos and other resources to focus on teaching people how to work with horses, revising an already highly-successful program, bringing in outside expertise, and spending a great deal of time and money.  Why was it worth it?  Because a number of wonderful things happen when you teach people, not subjects–humans, not “horsemanship.”

The first wonderful thing that happens is a certain amount of letting-go of expectations.  And along with that comes a change in how you evaluate both the students and the course.  If you are teaching “introductory chemistry,” then you have X amount of material to cover in 15 weeks, so many chapters, so many terms, so many tests and evaluations.  If, on the other hand, you are teaching young college students about chemistry, you have instead of X amount of material, X number of individual students.  Instead of a certain number of concepts or chapters to cover, you have a certain number of people to turn on to the value and meaning of chemistry.  You begin to evaluate the course in terms of how many students are “getting it,” rather than how much of “it” you’re “getting to.”

This is the basis, by the way, of the single most successful education intervention ever: mastery.  This simple shift in thinking simply means that with each student, you don’t move on to B until they’ve got A, and so on–especially when A is necessary to understand B.  Overall, this means that your class or meeting or video lesson becomes an answer to the question “how can I move 20 people who are now at level A to an understanding of B?” instead of “how can I cover all of chapter 17, or all of the new procedures, or all of the aspects of horse behavior” in one lesson, meeting, or video.

The second wonderful thing that happens is that you begin to think, as the Parellis did, that the expertise you need is in learning, not just in your subject.  You begin to study your students, employees, or customers as people–as learners.  What do they already know?  What do they need?  What aren’t they getting and why not?  What would make this easier/more fun/more understandable/more acceptable to them?

This attitude can also counter a great deal of the burn-out that comes with any kind of teaching (“Why aren’t they getting it?  Why don’t they listen?  Why don’t they work?) and replaces it with experimentation.  What about this?  What if we tried that?  I’ve even involved my students in the experimentation, trying out a new activity and then having them evaluate its effect on their learning, their investment in the course, and their expected take-away from the course to the rest of their lives and careers.  And you know what?  They are very perceptive and can become real assets to your teaching rather than impediments to the transmission of your knowledge.

I’ve started rephrasing my “what I do” statement to be about people, not subjects: I teach college students, I work with faculty members, and so on.  What might you change if you thought about what you do primarily as teaching people and only secondarily as teaching a subject, topic, or concept?

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7 Comments
  1. http://www.englishwithanaccent.com/

    Hey there! Check out this linguist blog!

  2. Thanks–the piece on there about rising inflection and girls’ speech patterns is interesting in particular.

  3. “Wonderful things happen when you teach people, not subjects – humans, not horsemanship.”
    This is an excellent post and ought to be read by anyone who trains to be a teacher or a tutor of any sort – who should therefore be studying pedagogy and not a ‘subject’. Learning how to learn is the most important thing any of us can do, and helping someone to “learn how to learn” is the key task of the teacher. As is understanding how the best learning takes place. The world’s best school systems [eg Finland] understand this and therefore achieve the best results. The rest of the world needs to catch up as a matter of urgency. Good luck with your endeavors to create change!

    • I agree with you completely. My parents get the Wall Street Journal, and a few years ago (2008), the WSJ ran a great story on Finnish schools and, in particular, the Finnish teacher training program. I certainly don’t always agree with the WSJ, but in this case, they were right on: we need the same kind of intensive, learning-based teacher training, and we should be finding and developing our best young graduates to be teachers. Providing incentives and more professionalization, sabbatical, and research opportunities for teachers would also be great. I’ll definitely be checking out your blog!

  4. What an excellent post! Teaching is actually just helping people learn, so I very much liked the way you brought it all together in the last sentences. I, too, teach people (or facilitate their learning, to be exact), because I believe it is more productive to build strong learners than measure performance. But, then again, I am a Finn 😉

    Also, your thoughts about Parellis’ work are excellent, I think, because no matter how good SME (Subject Matter Expert) you are in your field, you are unable to teach it well unless you understand how learning happens and start building on that.

    While thinking education in general, I see learning being much more important than teaching, because (in spite of the teachers’ evaluations and measurement of efficiency) good quality learning is the desired end result. And it is funny how much better test scores become just by paying more attention to learning than teaching!

    • Hi. Your insights about assessment are along the lines of what I have been thinking about as well, and I think they relate to what you say about being a subject matter expert but not being able to teach. I think the two go together, in the sense that subject matter experts can easily learn to administer–and even write–exams and tests, but not necessarily to facilitate real learning or create more complex assessments that get at what students really know (rather than crammed material). Thanks for reading!

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