Letting the Student become the Teacher

Prof. Marta Adair Some people just shouldn't be teachers. Then there is Marta Adair.

Professor Adair is a biology professor, chair of science education, and Director for Education in the Bean Life Science Museum at BYU. She truly understands what it means to be a teacher and what her role is in the classroom. I witnessed something in her Intro to Biology class that illustrates what a wonderful teacher she is.

She began a discussion on the topic of carbon dioxide emissions and global warming, a controversial subject wherever it takes place. A couple of students raised some questions that Professor Adair answered as best she could. Another student, however, raised his hand to share a few additional comments on the matter. It turns out that he had spent around 300 hours researching energy, carbon emissions, and nuclear power as a member of a debate team a year ago. His comments sparked additional questions from his peers. Realizing she was unprepared to answer such questions, she half-jokingly said – as many professors do – "Why don't you just come up here and answer these questions?" to the student who knew a little more about the subject. Then a somewhat astonishing thing happened. The student stood from his seat, and Marta Adair took his place.

For the next 20–30 minutes, the class discussed the topics answering each others questions with help from two teachers assistants, the student now at the front of the room, and a few interjected comments from Professor Adair seated among the students.

As I sat there observing these interactions I was amazed at how naturally the conversation moved from one relevant topic to the next. The students, mostly freshman and sophomores, asked intelligent questions and offered information they found helpful. I could sense a curiosity that was fueled by the open and candid atmosphere. There was an organic and harmonious progression of thought. Minds were enlightened, misconceptions corrected, consciousness raised.

This experience contrasts those I have had on countless occasions in classrooms where the professor incessantly lectures on a pre-established set of "learning objectives".

Marta doesn't have a set agenda for her class, a list of topics that she must cover during the semester, or an established list of facts that her students must memorized. Yet, never before in my time as a student have I had such a desire to investigate, inquire, learn, and share what I know about a subject.

I once heard, in a meeting full of educators, that the Latin root educare means "to lead out." Why, then, does the general approach to teaching seem so very opposite to that image? Instead, I see teachers who effectively push or pull their students into a narrow and specific group of concepts that have (questionably) been determined to be more important than any other, forcing them to memorize facts without understanding their meaning. How restrictive and boring!

Attempts to understand the broader picture and explore connecting facts are most often received with a look of contempt and the instruction to not "worry about that," usually because "it won't be on the test." How narrow minded and empty of purpose!

The atmosphere in Professor Adair's class is very different. She encourages her students to ask questions and rejoices when a student connects personal experiences with the topics discussed in class. Real, practical learning takes place and it is exciting!

I am reminded of the call by Jay H. Lehr regarding conference presenters:

"Let there be an end to incredibly boring [teachers]! They are not sophisticated, erudite, [experts] speaking above our intellectual capability; they are arrogant, thoughtless individuals who insult our very presence by their lack of concern for our desire to benefit from a [class] which we chose to attend."

Sir Ken Robinson, a passionate educator himself, illustrates the great flaw in the ubiquitous prescription of content.

"It is education that is meant to take us into [a] future that we can't grasp. Children starting school [in 2006] will be retiring in 2065. Nobody has a clue [...] what the world will look like in five years' time. And yet we're meant to be educating them for it."

In a world that progresses as fast as ours, how can we be sure that the content we prescribe for the younger generations will be relevant in an unpredictable future?

Marta Adair is a leader. She cares for her students. Evidence to this fact can be found in the 60 students who she mentors, the effort she puts into the education program at the museum, and her family life. For me, her concern for the education of her students was manifest the moment she humbly became the student and allowed a student to become the teacher.