A difficult task – explaining why I teach

Why I teach

I agree with Gardner Campbell – trying to explain why I teach feels like an impossible task. Not only is there the underlying assumption that we all know what we mean by ‘teaching’, but my many years of teaching experience seems to make the task harder. There are so many ways in which the question could be answered.

Also, like Gardner Campbell, I can remember clearly the exact point at which I realized I wanted to be a teacher. I was at University in my first year studying physiology. Those were the days of chalk and talk. Hundreds of students in lectures looked at the back of the lecturer as he wrote in chalk on a blackboard and we frantically tried to copy everything down. But for physiology we also had a seminar group and we were tasked with giving an individual presentation (no such thing as group work in those days) on a topic of our choice to the rest of the seminar group. We were not given any advice on how to do a presentation. My topic was ‘pain’, i.e. the physical process of experiencing pain. I not only loved researching and preparing this short presentation, but I loved giving it too, and it was a revelation to me that the rest of the group listened, seemed to find it interesting and know what I was talking about. That was the start.

Since then I have taught across all the age sectors, and also been a teacher trainer in Higher Education. My ideas about how to give presentations, how to teach and more importantly how I learn, have of course significantly changed over the years, as you would expect. As others have noted, teaching is about learning.

I wasn’t sure how to approach this task, or even whether to approach it at all. I ended up quickly ‘brainstorming’ the ideas that matter to me, just jotting down words as I reflected over my past experience. I then had to think about how to present these. I wanted to avoid a list (difficult as I am naturally a list person!) which would suggest some sort of hierarchy, but equally I didn’t want a map.

I have been thinking about Mondrian since I went to see an exhibition of his work at the Tate in Liverpool last month.

The exhibition was wonderful and whilst I was already familiar with Mondrian’s work, I had not thought before about the possible significance of the horizontal and vertical lines in his later work for my thinking about teaching and learning. For Mondrian these horizontal and vertical lines related to the elements of masculine and feminine in the world around him. He was looking for balance, equilibrium and harmony, but not symmetry. He was also concerned with space and in particular ‘empty’ space and the duality of opposing elements. For me all these ideas relate to breadth and depth in teaching and learning and the work of the right and left brain (see Iain McGilchrists work on the divided brain). They also make me think about open spaces and multiple paths for learning.

So Mondrian’s painting – Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red 1937-42 – seemed like an appropriate fit for some of my thoughts about why I teach.

This question has been posed in Unit 1 of the Connected Courses. Active Co-Learning in Higher Ed open course. There have been lots of interesting responses to the question. See the Googledoc created by Helen Keegan.