Andrew Pass is the founder of A Pass Educational Group, LLC., an educational content development firm that partners with organizations to develop customized content. The firm believes that all learning should start with the student and has a goal of engaging 100 million learners in content that it has developed or helped to develop in the next ten years.
An Educator’s Perspective on His Past
In my first job, as a middle school teacher, the principal explained to me that the primary difference between middle school teachers and high school teachers is that while middle school teachers teach students, high school teachers teach content. He would certainly have argued that college instructors should also teach content. Of course, all teachers should teach content to students. However, if you had to pick one as being more important, would you choose content or student?
The Content Supporters
Rabbi Doctor Aaron Cohen, from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, was one of my teachers who put the content above all else. Cohen was a teacher of ancient Jewish law. He correctly insisted that his students, future rabbis, must have the ability to deliver short sermons at any moment and that these talks should always focus on Jewish heritage. He required that his students memorize the structure of ancient texts so they would have a foundation from which to pull these sermonettes. His teaching method worked. I left Jewish education many years ago. But, I still remember the structure of the texts. Cohen would be thrilled that I remembered this text. He might say, “If only you were still teaching it.”
At the tertiary level of education, many instructors, like Cohen was, are scholars with deep disciplinary knowledge. This is particularly true in the liberal arts and sciences. In his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn explains that every discipline has two sets of structures – substantive and syntactic. The substantive structure contains the content that fits within the discipline. The syntactic structure contains the rules for determining whether or not content should be included. Experts within any discipline understand these two sets of structures. They research them on an ongoing basis. Often, they see teaching as the opportunity to share this knowledge with their students. Like Cohen, these instructors put content before students.
These scholars, and instructors of most career and technical fields, certainly see the content as important for both themselves and their students. They likely believe that through study and mastery of this content, students will develop important knowledge and skills that will help them throughout their lives. It is as if content is king. Learn it well and prosper. Dr. Cohen certainly believed this about his content.
Educators who put content first know far more about it than they do the students. In extreme cases these instructors might not even make an effort to learn their students’ names. Though brilliant, Cohen was not always a kind man. He would call students out, in front of the class, for making mistakes and sometimes even suggest that they think about different career fields. These scholars do believe that they are helping their students because they are transmitting important information. I have always been proud to have deep knowledge of Jewish text.
The Student Supporters
One of my favorite teachers at Columbia University, where I earned my bachelor’s degree, was professor Dennis Dalton. A political theorist, he was a master at transmitting knowledge. He brought the theorists of history alive through story. Professor Dalton had the largest classes on campus. Though he was a tenured professor at one of the finest institutions in the United States, Dalton put his students before his discipline.
Dalton taught hundreds of students each semester. He could not possibly know each student. But, he could know the typical student profiles. He knew what kinds of things were important to Columbia students: career choices, relationship issues, political perspectives, and more. This professor actually began classes by reading from letters of both current and past students offering their perspectives on relevant topics. He encouraged students to come to his office hours. He wanted to get to know us. More than thirty years later I still remember him.
I also remember the political theorists that we studied in his class. The ancients including Plato and Aristotle came the first semester. More recent theorists including Marx and Smith came the second. I remember a specific lecture in which Dalton nearly cried discussing Ghandi and the terrible treatment that the Indians received at the hands of the British. I learned how to analyze political philosophies in his courses. I learned how to think. This professor cared about the content. He cared about his students more.
Though I never asked Dr. Dalton what made him such a great teacher, I suspect that he would have agreed with the master educators to whom I have asked this question. Every one of these teachers has explained that they love their students. Dalton loved us too.
Educators who choose students recognize that the best way to teach content is to start with the students. They care about how students think and process complicated ideas. They think about how students most effectively ingest information. They present their content in ways that students will find easier to learn. It is all about the student.
I spoke to Dr. Dalton in his office on several occasions. On one of these occasions, I asked to speak with him because I wanted his advice after a graduate school rejection. I remember his compassion and care. Though Dalton taught many students I felt comfortable enough to approach him with a serious issue. This man was a teacher of students first and then of content.
I learned just as much from Dr. Dalton as I did from Dr. Cohen. However, my memories of Dr. Dalton are far warmer, as I experienced in writing the second part of this article. Dr. Dalton provided a warm, safe environment for his students to explore important ideas. My peers and I flocked to him because we knew that he cared about us. We therefore cared about him and perhaps more importantly to him, his content. I choose to start with the student. Nothing is more important.