Teaching Whom?
© 13 Feb 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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A collection of small observations about audiences in teaching.


I love to teach, and I find opportunities to do it fairly often. My earliest teaching experiences were all small-group instructions, tutoring and teaching people in their homes. Later I had chances to give lectures to a hundred students at a time and to teach Sunday School classes of forty or more students. One of the lessons that continues to surprise me is how very different each teaching situation is from the others I’ve experienced.

Teaching individuals and small groups is the most rewarding. Listening, there, is as simple as listening ever is, I think. Written on every face is a reaction, and you can stop and interrogate those having trouble without undue difficulty. When students are confused enough they don’t know how to phrase a question you can back them up until you find the problem.

In a large class listening is much harder. Facial expressions of those you don’t know well are best read by watching the face change, not by glancing at the face periodically, and watching individual students’ faces in a large classroom is difficult. Students also become embarrassed if you single out confusion they can’t articulate. Critical mass also means it is likely someone is distracted in a large room, and one student yielding to distractions distracts others.

Drivers can mitigate the problems of a mid-sized class, giving the teacher a few faces to watch; but in a large class most would-be drivers become self-conscious of their relative contribution level; somewhere around the 80–100 student range you start getting more drivers that are socially unaware, reducing their value. In large lecture halls it is sometimes wise to limit individual interaction as more derailing than helpful.

Sunday school is great fun to teach. The students there typically care about the subject matter and pay attention to the portion of the subject matter they care about instead of getting distracted by the portion they don’t. In that sense it is harder to control a Sunday School class than a school class, but the greater freedom of the students yields greater involvement in the classroom. It is often possible to lead a wonderful lesson wherein you present no material at all, relying on the students to suggest everything followed and merely winnowing the field and facilitating the exchange of ideas.

Every instance of a class is different from the previous offerings. Partly this is due to the personalities of the most active students; partly it results from the changing attitudes of the instructor; but there is also a difference in the mood and feel of even the more passive students that makes each instance palpably different. This can be controlled, even repressed, by a skilled instructor and I often find that experienced instructors lead class so as to minimize the likely variations the students can easily interject. Partly this is communicating expectations and concepts clearly; partly it is asking leading questions and squashing creativity. I have not observed evidence that most of them are even aware they are doing this.

There is a large difference between what I term teaching people and teaching students. Students, even interested students, are directed by the instructor; their questions are most often clarifying in nature. People, on the other hand, direct the instructor, asking questions that indicate what they find worth learning. As a student, the difference is manifest in how you think of the teacher: is the teacher the boss, or is the teacher an employee of the students?

It is often said “‍there are no stupid questions.‍” This is, unfortunately, false; anyone who’s ragged on their professor knows this. But there are many more questions that are phrased poorly, unskilled attempts at indicating a valid underlying confusion; and there are sadly many premature “‍answers‍” to these questions. The most valuable person in any classroom is the one who can understand both the question and the answer and is willing to act as proxy for the questioner until the question is resolved. Few of these blessed souls are also vocal enough to drive. As an instructor, watch out for the students who turn to quietly help a neighbor who raised a question after you “‍answer‍” it. Those students are invaluable.

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