Jeremy Côté

Learning to Teach Yourself

I’ve always liked teaching others. I enjoy being able to connect with students, understand their struggles, and offer what I know as a way to help them make sense of a concept. My particular subjects of interest are mathematics and physics, but the real joy I get from teaching is simply being able to help others.

Teaching has a fairly good reputation. It’s seen as a respectable profession. I don’t doubt that teachers do important work, but lately I’ve been thinking about how much of a difference I make as a tutor. In particular, I’ve been pondering the effectiveness of teaching in general.

Let me explain. The traditional way of teaching is to have a student follow an expert who can explain a concept until they understand. In essence, it’s kind of like an apprenticeship. The student can then ask the teacher questions, and slowly they start to form a better understanding of the ideas.

I don’t deny that teachers can have a huge influence over how much a student learns. What I take issue with is that a teacher can cause a student to learn.

As I’ve gone through my undergraduate degree, the lesson I keep on learning over and over again is that learning is on me. Yes, professors are required to put effort in helping us learn, but they can’t make us learn on their own. If I don’t cooperate, any learning that occurs will be limited. In the end, the primary variable that determines if I learn a subject or not is if I invest a lot of time in understanding the concepts. It’s as simple (and difficult) as that.

This might not be the news you want to hear. After all, many of us like to show up to class, give the minimum required effort, and then leave. We want our teachers to transfer their knowledge to us without needing to put in a lot effort ourselves. I think this is a critical error to make in how we view teaching.

Before I continue, I want to make a few things clear. I’m not saying that a teacher should not care about their students. I fully understand that a teacher makes a big difference. I’ve had good teachers and average teachers, and there’s a definite difference. What I’m arguing here is that, no matter how enthusiastic and well-wishing a teacher might be, if we don’t take responsibility for our own education, we won’t learn as much as we could.

Teaching as signposts

I’ve been trying to think of teaching in a new perspective. Instead of seeing teaching as a person who imparts knowledge to students, I’ve been thinking of it as a person who establishes signposts in the landscape of a subject. The teacher’s job isn’t to make every connection and lead a student by the hand through a bunch of ideas. Rather, it’s to be near to the student while they are struggling in order to point out a new direction to take. The teacher is less like a GPS device and more like a map with a few landmarks.

If the student wants to get from A to B, they need to put in the effort to navigate the actual terrain. This is the key distinction I think is often missing from the discussion of teaching. Teachers shouldn’t have to light the whole way. Teachers should give students the tools they need so that they can navigate the terrain on their own.

Teachers won’t always be beside a student in order to help them out, so I think it’s reasonable to prepare them for this reality as soon as possible. This doesn’t mean teachers should disengage from teaching. It just means they need to focus on what’s important: giving students the tools to succeed.

I think it’s clear that we aren’t at a global maximum in education. To figure out what’s better, we need to know what our goal is. What are we trying to do when we teach students?

My money is on “learning how to learn”. I don’t care if you’re interested in art, science, mathematics, writing, video games, sports, journalism, business, or any other of a billion pursuits. What I care about is that you leave school with the ability to learn new topics. That’s what will serve you in your life. As long as you can learn new topics when something strikes your fancy, you will be prepared to thrive.

I think the key idea that should be in the mind of any teacher is, “How can I get this student to understand this idea on their own?”

Teachers are invaluable to our world, but I think we might have let the most important part of education fall by the wayside. We want to develop students who are prepared to learn anything, not just what will be on the exam (and then forgotten).

Invest in getting better at learning

This brings us to the steps I’ve taken during my own education to align myself with this vision. Instead of trying to rely on the teacher to provide me with a stellar education, I’ve taken it upon myself to strive for this goal. I don’t let myself off the hook and offload the responsibility to my professors. I make sure to put as much effort as I can into learning on my own.

This isn’t easy. I’ve been trying to do this for years, and I’ve had mixed results. The simple truth is that learning on your own is difficult. You need to have a lot of motivation, a persistence to continue past the inevitable roadblocks, and often a reason for learning this material. As a result, I’ve failed many times, but I keep on trying because I know it’s important.

If I had to say where I learned the most, the answer would not be in class. Instead, it would be when I’m at my desk, tackling homework problems. The difference between doing problems and attending a lecture is that the former is so much more active. Often, I might think I understand an idea, but the truth becomes apparent once I sit down and attempt a problem on my own.

This is why I work at getting better at learning on my own. I don’t want to rely on having a great teacher at every step in my journey. if I have a great teacher than that’s fantastic, but I want to make sure I can still learn on my own if I need to.

When you’re comfortable with learning on your own, no topic can make you nervous. Instead, you approach your education with the confidence of someone who knows that they can understand if they put in the effort. That’s a wonderful feeling, and it’s one I want to encourage every student to strive for.

If you want to invest in yourself, please invest in becoming good at learning on your own. This doesn’t mean you aren’t supposed to consult outside resources and figure everything out by yourself. Instead, it means that you are the one who is in charge of your education. Don’t rely on teachers, because ultimately it’s you who has to learn the material.