What is Teaching?

by Don Berg, Founder
Attitutor Services

I take the literal core of teaching to be facilitating someone else's learning process.

The literal core of a concept, if there is one, is the unquestioned aspect that everyone normally agrees is true about an idea.

Most of the time a literal core is merely a conceptual skeleton that requires metaphoric flesh to be useful in thinking about the complexities of the phenomena we are trying to understand in the world.

Our metaphors guide how we can, should, and do act on a concept within a particular learning context.


Beyond the skeletal literal core I believe the most apt metaphor for teaching is catalyzing a particular community's perspective of the world, their culture, in the learner.

If you teach biology then you are responsible for helping students become proficient at seeing the world as an expression of biological principles.

There is a whole range of phenomena that are considered 'biological' and a whole other range that are not.

If you do animal experiments then you would pay attention to their mating behaviors, but you would not be taking a properly biological perspective by gossiping about who in the department is mating with whom (unless, of course, you established observation protocols, collected data and made suitable comparisons to other mating activities.)

There is a large set of biological ideas and concepts that have idiosyncratic means of expression within that culture.

A biology teacher is responsible for ensuring that the student learn to become 'literate' in that culture.


My primary concern is elementary teaching.

Teaching elementary-age kids is slightly different, but only because we do not think of children as learning a special aspect of our culture, but learning the overarching culture within which subjects and fields of study like biology are embedded.

For example, think about a fish.

A fish does not have any concept of the water in which it swims.

A fish will have concepts of other fish and plants and the mud at the bottom.

But, it cannot have much of an idea of water because it has always existed in it.

Our culture is the water in which we swim, except under certain circumstances, we don't have a way to relate to it as a distinct aspect of our world because from an intuitive subjective perspective it IS our world.


The challenge at the elementary level is to understand the culture that you are going to catalyze in your students.

The essential elements are the ways that we govern our own and other people’s behavior for the common good (a.k.a. power), what and how we exchange with each other to get our needs met, and the consciousness that results from being embedded within those power structures and exchange processes.

(Based on the work of Sharif Abdullah and Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne with Sardovaya, an NGO in Sri Lanka.)

In this way of looking at passing on our culture and society to children what is most essential is not the delivery of knowledge, skills and information.

Knowledge, skills, and information are an important aspect of the exchange that happens, but more important that these elements of exchange is the power structure that shapes the behaviors of everyone involved and the resulting consciousness.


The problems of the typical power structures in traditional classrooms have been well known since the early 20th century with the publication of John Dewey's Democracy and Education in 1916 and reiterated periodically through the works of John Taylor Gatto, John Holt, Lev Vygotsky, Raymond & Dorothy Moore, George Leonard, Howard Gardner, Alfie Kohn, Lisa Delpit, Ivan Illich, Niel Postman, Parker Palmer, and many others.

David Elkind in his books has shown that by about the third grade most children have symptoms of stress and burnout that prompt adults to seek medical and psychiatric attention.

This indicates that the consciousness resulting from the immersion in a traditional system of classroom power that dictates the delivery of knowledge, skills and information from teacher to student is often negative.


I think the primary problem for teachers and parents is the fact that they are like fish in water when they think about trying to improve classroom schooling.

They do not have a concept of the power structures, exchange processes and resulting consciousness because they have been swimming in the same water all their lives and unconsciously accept that a constant struggle not to drown is perfectly normal and maybe necessary.

They have no idea that something else is possible and even if it is possible it is unknown.

As the folk wisdom of abuse survival goes, the evil you know is preferable to good you don't.


Taking the meaning of teaching I presented above this explains the resistance to change that is characteristic of most schools and communities.

There is a perfectly normal and acceptable definition of teaching as the delivery of knowledge, skill and information in a classroom.

It is partly right and very well known, it is safe.

Then people like me come along and try to point out that there is an even better possibility.

But it doesn't matter what I say because it is unknown, unfamiliar and understanding it may involve reflecting unfavorably on past and present situations.

Most people are not interested.

They have more pressing issues in their lives and don’t have the time or energy to put into questioning everything.


It's a good objection and I counter it only with the simple question of whether the status quo is really acceptable.

Is it really acceptable to induce stress and burnout in children who are only 9 or 10 years old?

Is it really acceptable to immerse children who are developing the very foundations of their social identity in a dictatorial system when they are going to be expected to function within a democratic system as an adult?

Is it really acceptable to neglect half of the learning process?

Obviously, I do not accept the status quo in the majority of schools.

I only encourage you to consider my perspective.

I have also written about what it takes to be a good teacher.


P.S. If you would like to explore further alternative perspectives on teaching I recommend you look at the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO).

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