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Another common theme in our conversations and work with teachers is how directive to be in your teaching when your goal is to be “learner-centered”.  In my opinion, learner-centered teaching, along with the parallel process, “patient-centered care”, are misnomers. 

While it is true – and in fact essential – to the work to meet the learner (or patient) where they are, rather than with your own agenda or program, it is also true that there is a critical role for your expertise as a teacher (or clinician) during those encounters.  What are the effective and responsible ways to use your “teacher power”?  My approach has been to think about the metaphor of a guide. 

When climbing Mt. Rainier, or fishing in a new river, or exploring a new city, what you want and need is a guide.  The best guides do not just give you a “spiel”, but rather they take time to find out what your goals are for your adventure, and assess what skills you are bringing into the situation.  The Mt. Rainier climbing guide would be irresponsible if she didn’t have intimate knowledge of the clients’ capacities.  And yet, she does not allow the new climbers to choose the route up the mountain, or reject the 2am start time (when you must start climbing to minimize crevasse risk).  The guide uses her expertise to tailor the climb to meet her clients needs, goals, and strengths, and will send people back if she assesses they are not going to be able to make it – regardless of their initial goal to get to the peak. 

In a very similar way, a teacher working with a learner finds out what the learner’s goals are in a given learning encounter, what he hopes to accomplish, where he is challenged, and also assesses his skill level to tailor the learning experience to the appropriate level.  If the learner heads off in the wrong direction, the teacher (as guide) intervenes and can redirect onto the safer path.  If the learner resists certain learning directions, the teacher (as guide) can be transparent about why we do things and hold fast to the rules and structure that are there for good reason. 

Finding this dance between exploring with the learner and guiding them toward the experiences that will best serve them takes active work and responsible use of power and direction.  The best teachers can be deeply directive (interrupt, reframe, rephrase, recommend) and are using their direction in service to the learning experience and are not driven by agenda or ego.  In what ways can you own and aim your teacher power? 

Conversational Credit: Bob Arnold, Tony Back, James Tulsky, Holly Yang and other fabulous clinician-teachers within the Vitaltalk network. Check out @vitaltalk #pallitalk for more.


Tony Back
10/04/2013 8:13am

Kelly what a terrific distillation!

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Bob Arnold
10/04/2013 8:28am

What a great article!!

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