Monday, August 18, 2008

Kugel on stages in learning how to teach

I came across this stimulating article by Peter Kugel (a computer scientist with some philosophically oriented interests as well). Kugel describes five stages that teachers go through in the development:

(Sorry I can't get the image to render any bigger, but if you click it it should open a larger version in a new browser tab.)

Kugel's account of these stages really resonated with me. My anxieties early in my teaching career were very me-centric, worries about whether I'm even qualified to teach, etc. As time has gone on, I've noticed my attention shifting from me to them — the students. Amusingly, when I become frustrated as a teacher now, I notice myself devolving from where I think I typically am (about stage four, if I'm being generous) to an earlier stage. The explanation for this, I think, is that most frustrations emanating from teaching ultimately trace back to our inability to control our students — that, unsettling as it may be, they're people with a wide range of backgrounds, talents, interests, etc., so that I can't simply will that they learn and make it so. So I devolve back to thinking about teaching largely in terms of myself: my knowledge and disciplinary expertise, etc.

What do people think? Does Kugel's stages represent your own arc of development as teachers? What can we learn from his picture of this development?


  1. It somewhat resonates.

    I do find the egoism-altruism distinction right to some degree. I started off egoistic, and became more altrusitic as time went on. However, with this in mind, I wonder whether the last stage should represent an attempt at proper balance between the two poles, or of trying to maintain a (virtuous?) healthy _relational_ structure between the teacher as person and the student as person.

    This would, I think, involve a movement back towards a concern for self, as opposed to an almost unrelenting utilitarian approach towards the good of one's students and one's role as nothing more than a causal lever that can be used to advance that good. This doesn't mean a move backward towards insecurity and desire for recognition, but still yet a more towards the recognition of the importance of one's own goods independent of the good of the student.

    Basically, I wonder whether the final stage sacrifices some of the goods of the student and some of the goods of the teacher to achieve proper balance. Although I think you surely could worm this into his last stage, that last stage could also be read as excessively altruistic, and I'm skeptical that this is the apex of what it means to be a good teacher.

  2. Chris, I definitely think that teaching can lead to an unhealthfully altruistic direction, though it's an altruistic profession to a large degree. I think Kugel would say that the language of "supporting" students as independent learners is important in the fifth stage. To support them in this way seems to require, uh, cutting them loose, I guess, giving them the help they need and then letting them try and succeed on their own for a while. In this way, I think the ideal is that supporting students as independent learners helps achieve independence for the teacher as well.

  3. Michael --

    Right, that's what I meant when I said that I suspect that you _could_ fit in what I was saying into that last stage. Though I suspect that you could also see it as further reason to be excessively other-regarding too (treating the teacher as a means to the end of fostering independence in the student).

    I suspect this is a theme that runs through many of my posts -- I doubt that effective teaching can take place if we simply see "being a good teacher" as a matter of disregarding egoism and embracing the good of the other exclusively. It seems to me that both ends are vices, even if one (the altruistic side) is preferable to the other.

  4. When I read the stages, I was jokingly thinking about Alcoholics Anonymous. But as I started to think about them, I was reminded of the "serenity" prayer popular in AA: "Grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the strength to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." And basically, that's what I see in this list. As one gets more competent at each stage, one remains frustrated that, despite one's improvement, students still don't quite "get it". So one acknowledges a lack of control, as you were pointing out, and seeks to control what little one can.

    But let me just add that there is a kind of defeatism that can take root in the stages as well if one isn't careful. So, especially at the last stage, one must figure out how to light the spark of independent thinking and learning as well as how to be a resource to the students who have it.

    Also, since each stage embodies a very different style, one must go through worries about surviving and getting through the material at each stage as well. Being a resource is really effective when students desire depth, but sometimes one needs them to have breadth as well.

  5. That observation about AA is terrific , Adam. His stages certainly track an evolving sense of the role of instructor and student. This is somewhat speculative, but I suspect that many of the best teachers have a kind of aha moment somewhere in stages 1 or 2, where they recognize that teaching isn't about the teacher. Then comes the overreaction, the conscientious teacher who wants to revolutionize the classroom. Then comes a small scale disillusionment, where the limits of your power become clear and rather than shooting for the moon you become satisfied with incremental changes. Kind of an evolution from insecurity to zeal to frustration to pragmatism?


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