Teaching and learning: a shared responsibility

Teaching and training adults should not be like trying to force a horse to drink

Does your teaching feel like this?

As we all know, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. I am by no means the first to relate this proverb to teaching – to the extent I’ve seen it niftily transformed into “You can lead a human to knowledge but you can’t make him think” – but it’s a useful metaphor through which to explore the balance of responsibility between teachers/trainers and their adult students/trainees. This is an area worth exploring, both because sometimes one or other party is unfairly blamed and punished for the failure of the teaching-and-learning process and, crucially, because unless both parties understand and take on their share of responsibility, the process is doomed to fail (or at least only partially succeed).

Since this website is about supporting teachers, rather than students, let’s look at the issue from the point of view of the trainer, rather than the horse. What is and what isn’t the teacher’s responsibility? It’s a delicate balance. Although I agree that, for adults, learning is ultimately the individual’s responsibility, I also feel strongly that someone keen to learn should not have to achieve it in spite of lousy teaching, that anyone offering teaching/training services owes it to their clients/students/trainees not only to know about the subject but also to be a good teacher.

Bad teachers often overwhelm their students with too much information. Just as holding a horse’s mouth to a fire hydrant is not the way to provide that animal with a healthy water intake, pouring an endless stream of facts and ideas into your trainees without giving them a chance to swallow easily will result in most of it running off them and being wasted. Slow down, give them time to think, let them put what they’re learning into practice before you present the next bucketful.

Another common error is to spray a hose in the general direction of the horse and assume the horse will take what he needs from it. Standing at the front of the room and spouting information is not what teaching is about. Even if your job is specifically to lecture, in order to be successful you must communicate with the students, not simply speak into the space.

If you’re working with a large group of horses, it is sometimes challenging to ensure they are all getting fair and adequate access to the water. Trainees who don’t participate will not learn as well as those who do, so encourage everyone to join in as much as possible. You’ll find some useful suggestions in this article about inclusive teaching to help you adjust your approach and support reticent students.

Leading a horse to water is quite different from letting the horse lie down while you walk miles to fetch bucketsful, and ultimately you’re not doing the horse any favours this way. When I taught at a language school, we had the occasion student who took the attitude that they were paying us to make them know whatever language they were here to acquire and that somehow we teachers ought to be able to make that happen without them making the slightest effort – the equivalent of putting your horse on a drip. Apart from the fact that, even if we’d wanted to, no teacher can provide that service, it’s much more useful for students to acquire the skills to think for themselves, to understand what they’re learning rather than simply accept it, to question, to explore.

As the trainer, you are responsible for checking out water sources in advance and clearing paths to them, along which your horses can follow you without getting lost. It’s no good giving your horses detailed directions and pointing to the horizon; your job is to lead them. You need to know exactly where you’re going and support your equine companions on the journey. It’s your responsibility to make water enticing, so that even those who don’t feel thirsty are inspired to drink, and to empower those who are not sure if they’re standing on firm enough ground to be safe leaning into the fountain. Over a longer course, you can teach your horses how to distinguish good water from bad and how to identify where fresh, clean water is likely to be, so they can begin to seek it out without your guidance. This is where the horses who are determined to make the most of their education and training will come into their own. The role of the learner should not be passive recipient but active participant, and those who embrace that will flourish.

When you’re teaching adults, it’s not your job to make them do anything, but leading them to knowledge takes a lot more skill than the proverb suggests.