36 comments on “Why do we need teachers at all?

  1. These are some of the reasons why we need teachers; I think they more we talk and think about the questions, the more reasons we will be adding to the list. My addition: We need teachers to remind us that the road to learning is paved with questions.

  2. I think he’s totally right. Further having a teacher makes it human, fun and social. xxlanguage teacher and guitar student. regards from mexico.

  3. Quick suggestion: When thinking why we need teachers we need to first think why we need schools. What you say here reduces the teacher’s job to teaching a single subject, and ignores the fact that teachers in schools are working with classes, not individual guitar players. If we can agree that good neighbourhood schools are an essential part of the education of the young, then perhaps we can give a fuller answer to the question of why we need teachers.

    • Hi Tom,

      thank for your comments.

      Actually I didn’t say it! Iy was Gary Marcus in his book. I thought it was interesting to hear someone talk about why we need teachers from a different perspectives.

      I am completely and utterly in favour of whole education in neighbourhood schools – and then the role of the teacher becomes much more all-encompassing. Burt which of Gary Marcus’ reasons do you agree with I wonder? I think he’s on to something when he talks about practice and HOW to practise?

      Jeremy

  4. I’ve a daughter, Amanda, she’s 1y3m old, and, she came in a very special moment for me, because I’m the Director of the Teddy Bear – English for Kids and Teens, in Jundiaí/SP/BRA since 2009, what brought to me a lot of information regarding the human learning process(es). These two facts together make me conclude that we need teachers in our lives because we are human beings, and we learn faster and more efficiently with (or through) full human examples, including smiles, happiness, knowledge, eye contact, ecc.

    • Hi Ricardo,

      thanks a lot for your thoughts.

      So you see the role of the teacher as a kind of walking example? A ‘humaniser’? I like that. What do you think of Marcus’ ideas that without teachers we wouldn’t do any ‘practice’?

      Jeremy

  5. Hi Jeremy,

    I’ve been missing your posts…

    The first commenter – what an honour!

    I think what concerns me is not so much the role of the teacher, but rather whether people will even need to learn foreign languages in the relatively near future. We already have Google translate for smartphones… and it does a pretty good job of asynchronously translating voice input between a multitude of languages (Afrikaans to Yiddish). So what happens when this becomes synchronous, as it most certainly will fairly soon?

    I imagine there will always be a subset of people who decide to learn a foreign language themselves for whatever reason, but will the majority decide to simply leave it to Google Translate? We’ll have to wait and see. But when one considers that tech like that presented in Sight (www.vimeo.com46304267) is not really that far-fetched any more (see: Google Glass for the current lo-fi iteration), the future for language teachers becomes a scary place indeed! When people are able to wander around with cloud-connected smartphones or ear/eyepieces that provide bi-directional real-time language translation, will they choose to make the effort to learn just one or two foreign languages, or perhaps direct their intellectual energies to other things and let machines do the linguistic heavy-lifting for any language that exists?

    Nick

  6. Hi Nick,

    yes, sorry I’ve been away! I had a long hot summer travelling around the place. Got near your part of the world (in Jujuy), but never made it to Bogota!

    Oh dear. No more language learning? We’ll all carry translators around in our heads or something? It’s possible. But what about the SOUND of the language, the sheer pleasure of speaking another language(s)? Don’t you think people will still want that?

    There will be no future for language teachers if people don’t like the idea of being in a group in a room withother human beings, sharing, communicating etc. That day hasn’t come yet.

    Has it?

    Jeremy

    (Sorry you weren’t really the first!! Just hadn’t got around to approving things!)

    • Hi Jeremy,

      At a personal level I most certainly hope people will still want to experience the sheer joy of learning and perfecting a foreign language, and then using it to sit with groups of other people sharing experiences, doing business, falling in love, or whatever else one is able to do with the wonderfully enhanced intellectual ability of communicating outside one’s own birth language.

      At a professional level, and as a long time university-level educator of young people who study English as an obligatory part of their (non-English language) degrees, I’ve seen that sadly few really want to learn a foreign language; they do it because they have to. They’d far rather focus on their chosen area of study and if alternative means were available that enabled them to communicate effectively in a foreign language without putting in the effort required to learn it, many (the majority..?) would jump at them.

      Most students I’ve taught understand the importance of speaking a foreign language (English being the dominant one, of course), especially as they are studying degrees that require some level of international interaction. But if an easier alternative were available, they’d take it. Some of them already do this with homework: running readings that are available online through Google Translate before reading them in Spanish and then sometimes even writing their responses in Spanish before running them through Google translate again to produce answers in English, for example. (Is this a reflection on my teaching, or on their view of the need to learn the foreign language vs. finding ways to interact with it without actually putting in the effort required to learn?!)

      As I said above, I’m sure there will always be people who choose to learn a foreign language because it’s actually very cool once you get past a certain level. And even when real-time machine-assisted translation becomes a reality, skilled linguists will still be needed to program the machines, for a while at least. We also, sadly, need to consider the fact that the “have-nots” may still need to learn foreign languages themselves as they do not have the means to access the tech that does it for them. But at the end of the day, if the choice comes down to deciding between investing significant amounts of time and money to attend language courses that take years to achieve the desired effect, or investing less money and no more time than that needed to learn how to use the device/app that does it for you, I know what most of my students would choose.

      So yes, when it comes to near-to-medium-term future real-time translation solutions that involve no more effort than downloading an app and syncing it with an earpiece, I think it’s pretty much a done deal. But no, I’m happy to say that that day hasn’t come yet, although it’s not far off.

      Nick

      P.S. None of this means that people won’t continue to sit together… Just that they won’t be sharing a common language in the way we know it today. They’ll be speaking and listening to their own language, as will everyone else in the room – a bit like the UN, but without the human interpreters!

      • It has taken me time (again) to get back to you!! I THINK people will want to get together to learn languages, though as someone who teaches online quite a lot that may sound strange – though the discussion boards there feel very much like classrooms. But with all the stuff about flipped classrooms and the Khan academy etc, physical presence is looking less certain. I enjoyed this article (not language learning specifically but relevant, I think) http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/nov/11/online-free-learning-end-of-university
        I don’t think translaters will do it yet!
        Jeremy

  7. Hi Jeremy
    I think learning is an intrinsic need of human being and so is teaching. Who will guide the new-born, introduce him/her to the world?, Give examples of how to speak, to walk to smile, to love, as Ricardo says? Teaching is part of life. Learning is a never ending process which always needs guidance. Teachers are the road in which the learners are dropped in. Teachers should provide fuel for the drivers/learners, helping them reading/interpreting the signs they come across along the way and try to make the road the least bumpy. When Marcus says the student is willing to catch up for the coming lesson, it means the teacher is playing his role of providing fuel, keeping the learning process going on. That’s what teachers are for.

    best

    • Hi Claudia,

      I am sorry it has taken me some time to reply!

      I think you are probably right, though in the modern world, where students can get so much information, and where mobile learning is becoming more and more real for so many, rge role of the teacher – what we are for – may have to change a lot. But I agree with Gary Marcus that the teacher may well be an important motivator for those students who need that kind of ‘stimulation’.

      Jeremy

  8. Hi Jeremy,

    Until almost the end of the passage, my thoughts were that the answer Marcus gave to the question was frankly becoming just a bit of patter. Toward the end of the passage his remarks took a turn to the more ponderous and seemed to be appealing to our sense of what intuitively may be the truth of the matter. I think I agree with what he was attempting to say there, although the analogy he was drawing didn’t actually lead me to an image of the teacher that I felt all that satisfied with. How about you? The image that grew in my mind, from his musical analogy, was one of the teacher as a kind of benevolent guardian angel to the student.

    Yet, as I said, I think I agree with what he was attempting to say there. The self-taught learner may imply questions concerning the necessity of having teachers, but even by doing so does not void the existence of the role of the teacher. An autodidact is not a learner minus a teacher, but a learner who has subsumed, by the powers of his or her own selfhood, the responsibilities of managing his or her own education, being what a teacher would or could otherwise do. It may be that what Marcus was really driving at was that the necessity, or, perhaps it can be better said, the potential value of having teachers is that they are useful to the extent that they can serve to free learners from the responsibilities of having to manage certain aspects of their own education. In other words, teachers are valuable because they can potentially act to free learners to learn. The student of music, or a second language for that matter, with the aid of a teacher can work on just that, as while that happens the teacher works on the student. Caleb Gattegno once said something similar I recall.

    Best Regards. Dan.

    • Sorry, I meant to say at the end of my post: “The student of music, or of a second language for that matter, with the aid of a teacher can, to a potentially much greater extent than without the aid of one, work on just that (i.e. the music or the language), while, as that happens, the teacher is disposed to work on the student”. Regards again. Daniel.

      • Hi Dan, Daniel,

        sorry for the late reply.

        Very impressed with what you said/have said. Speaking as an amateur musician myself, my sense of responsibility to myself-as-a-musician is that I am pretty hopeless. I practise when I have to. When I had lessons I practised because I had lessons. When auditions come up (for an orchestra I play in – we have to audition every so often) I practise like crazy. But then I don’t because I am learner-lazy!

        I wonder how many students are like that. I wonder whether one of the teacher’s main roles is to get students to focus. To be ‘on task’ etc.

        Maybe I’m the only lazy one around!

        Jeremy

  9. Hi sir,

    I do believe we need teachers. However, I think a person can learn a million things without a formal teacher, because I have done so (we all have), but teachers are very special people. As teachers we sometimes need our learners more than they need us (who knows). I feel alive and I feel like I was born again in somebody else when I teach, when I touch somebody’s life, I try to make people’s life better, at least a little bit, a laugh is enough for me. Teaching is addictive, because you learn infinite quantities of things, the more you learn, the more you want. It is a drug. Somebody may say we don’t need teachers, but what I firmly believe is that we NEED to teach, that’s for sure. (Or maybe this is all my dreamland)

    Blessings,

    Annie.

    • Hi Annie,

      so sorry i didn’t reply before.

      ‘We need to teach’! Wow. Yes, for some people teaching is like a need and it feeds into a teaching-learning cycle that sustains and motivates us. That sounds like you!

      There is something special about the human space where learning takes place, and perhaps it’s the creation and nurturing of that space that really good teachers are good at?

      Jeremy

    • Hi Alireza,

      a lantern? I wonder what other metaphors people have for teachers? That we (teachers) have for ourselves?

      It’s easy to talk about teaching in the abstract, more difficult to say what we think we are??!

      Jeremy

  10. Hi Jeremy

    In sum, most of the argument the author presented was to say: ‘I’m used to being told what and how to do and I’m lazy and have no motivation to find answers myself’.
    For that reason, of course, he’d be better off with a teacher. But I’m just being shallow here, let me elaborate:

    He says,
    “teachers know things that the students don’t”
    I say,
    – Many people know many things that I don’t. If that is the argument, you don’t need a ‘teacher’ per se, you need to know people that know about the things you’re interested in. Also, books ‘know’ things that I don’t; therefore, I can read about what I’m studying.

    “…be it the most efficient fingering for a sequence of notes in Beethoven’s ninth or the difference between a diminished chord and an augmented chord.”
    – I can find that on YouTube.

    “teachers can serve as motivators, either through carrots… or sticks”
    – I would read this as: ‘I lack intrinsic motivation’
    Also as, ‘schooling made me see the value of things to the extent they please others, and I can only know if I’m doing it well if I am rewarded or punished by others’. ‘I don’t know what self-actualization and self-fulfillment is’

    “For an adult learner teachers also likely provide incentive: most of us probably practice less than we should, and then race to catch up when our next lesson is coming up.”
    – read: I haven’t developed self-discipline. It’s like when you eat less fat the week you’re going for a cholesterol check-up, it’s silly.

    “a good teacher says what to practice and how…”
    – This is alright.

    “the most important role of the teacher may be to help the students pinpoint the errors and target their weaknesses”
    – Also alright. I especially agree with this now that I am trying to develop my Spanish in an immersion environment, but one in which nobody corrects me. Hence, I decided to enroll on a course.

    But still limited. I would add to the last two points that a good teacher will help you develop a good notion of self-assessment and learning to learn, which if well attended to will make the same two points above redundant.

    So, my short answer to the question “Why we need teachers?” is that, ideally, we would need them at some point in order not to need them forever.

    After all:
    ‘One repays a teacher poorly if one always remains only a student’, thus spoke Zarathustra.

    • Hi Willy,

      unpardonable of me not to reply before. I am so sorry.

      But I have been thinking of your points, turning them around in my head. They feed into some of my preoccupations right now – I mean thinking about learning etc.

      The self-discipline thing? I commented above about that. In the sense that as a learner myself I am pretty bad at self discipline. I need some kind of external carrots and sticks it seems to me. Or rather; for some things I work and work and work (right now, recording some songs for no obvious reason, but I’ve expended hours and hours and hours on it….some internal drive, I guess). But in most learning situations, most work situations, I need some pressure, some deadlines etc etc. Yes, a psychological weakness in me I am sure.But I don’t think I am alone. Am I?

      Your point about being able to find the stuff we need (that we can in effect become ‘experts’ for ourselves by going to e.g. YouTube ) is absolutely true. After a talk last night by Gavin Dudeney about m-learning conversation turned to what the role of the teacher is. You can become an expert at anything I might be an expert at if you are my student? But I can guide you and direct you where an how to find the things you need? = a different kind of expertise?

      Teachers help students to pinpoint errors? Yet some say that correction doesn’t really work. Reformulation is the key (even though it may not work!) I have heard ‘authorities’ (yes I know that term is highly questionable!) say that learners, language learners, do not need to be corrected, they can learn themselves. Yet how would we know if/when we were getting things wrong if someone didn’t tell us?

      A good teacher – back to music here – understands where we are and what may help us to go from there to where we want to go? But their extra experience, expertise? is what they need to enable them to do that?

      So much to think about in a never-ending conversation about how learners and teachers interact, and why….

      Jeremy

    • Hi Willy,
      Your comments indicate that you’re probably in the tiny minority of students (not just language ones) that would learn anything, anywhere, any time, without the need of ever having to go into a classroom. However, the problem I can see, or rather a question, is what do we do with the vast majority?
      Let me elaborate. Students who do extra HW, find language buddies, and jump at every opportunity to use and practise the language outside the class are unfortunately in a minority. My teaching experience tells me that most language students don’t really know HOW to learn, or WHAT there’s still to be learned. They also need to be motivated and given incentives to continue studying. So teachers can come in here to do precisely what Gary talks about in his book.
      Of course, with what the technology offers us now, we can look up all the information we ever want on the Internet in an instant. And perhaps with some disciplines (e.g. history) you could learn it all by yourself without a teacher. Having said that, a good teacher will make the dry facts far more interesting and memorable than google ever can.
      Perhaps what Gary said about knowing more than the students do was a bit simplistic. The way I see it is that a good teacher will not only transmit the knowledge, but rather show you how to use, interpret and criticise it.
      Regarding language learning specifically, a good teacher will teach you the skills that you can use to learn languages in the future: the HOW of learning. They’ll serve as a guide, also pinpointing the areas you should still work on.
      A friend asked me recently if I’d still sign up for a language class if I wanted to learn a new language. The answer is probably not (I’m learning Portuguese at the moment myself), because I already have the necessary know-how both from the teacher’s and the student’s perspective of how to effectively and efficiently learn languages. But this is because I’ve already learned 5.
      However, if I was trying to learn how to play the guitar (or any other musical instrument for that matter), I’d definitely look for a teacher, either on youtube or face to face, because I haven’t got the faintest idea where and how to start. I’ve never even attempted to learn a musical instrument so would need a lot of training in terms of HOW to learn and WHAT there is to learn.
      What you say towards the end nicely summarises I think what I was trying to say above. And I’d say we need teachers to:
      a) show us HOW to learn
      b) motivate the demotivated and push the already motivated beyond their comfort zone
      c) pinpoint errors and lacks and show WHAT there still is to be learned
      d) impose a structure on our learning which will facilitate the process
      Any thoughts?

  11. Hello, Jeremy! It so happens that we, as humans, can benefit from the presence of various teachers; yet only some of them really manage to touch our inner chord which opens the door towards knowledge and spirit. The result of the sound may not be immediately heard, but I am sure that both parties need to practice the same song, equally tuned in order to hear the applause in the end. Teachers are thus both conductors and members of the audience. Or, at least, they ought to be.

    • Hi Copruta,

      sorry I am so late in replying. Very careless of me!

      You say that ‘only some of them manage to touch our inner chord….’

      I wonder what it is that ‘only some of them’ have? Is it technique, personality, style? Does it have to be something about them and us, as individuals?

      Jeremy

  12. Hello,Jeremy!

    I’m glad you brought this up.

    They say that “he who understands music understands the cosmos.” Whatever meaning of the cosmos we might choose, it so happens that we, as human beings, can benefit throughout our lives from the presence of various teachers. What I believe is that both parties, students and teachers alike, should play the same tune, even if the rhythms may often differ, aiming at creating – not merely reproducing- a unique piece of music.
    Thus, highly trained or not, teachers are both conductors and members of the audience, striving to ensure the appropriate closure of every educational stage. The applause at the end of this concert might prove, among other things, a wise monitoring of “the results of the sound”.
    So, wake up, teachers, and join the band! Yet remember that” the stars make no noise”.

    • Hi Codruta,

      the stars make no noise! I’ll have to let that one sink in a bit.

      But the conductor analogy is a bit of a strange one, isn’t it. As an orchestral player (not very good) myself, there are times when I really need a conductor – to know when to start and finish, to check the beat and the timing, and, when he or she is good to lift the performance, set the tone and the mood. But at other times I/we rely on my section leader, the noise of all the other players around me, my own ears etc. Some orchestras like to do it without a conductor. They feel better that way.

      Lots to think about there!

      Jeremy

  13. Dear Jeremy,
    Teachers… ahhh, we need teachers to make of this a better world to live in.
    We share time and space with people who expect to be better at something. And what we do is make the most of this time to discover and release potentials, to learn to live together. In sum, to become better human beings.

    • Thank you happylogue for that reminder that teachers can change the world.

      We have to keep believing that.

      Of course we should have some idea about what we need to change the world to and for. That’s more difficult!!

      Jeremy

  14. Hi Jeremy, recently I read an article that basically claims you suggested six common reasons why people learn foreign languages:

    The writer says:
    According to Jeremy Harmer (1983, p.1, p.2) there are six common reasons why do people learn foreign languages:
    1. Target language community.
    2. ESP-English for specific purposes.
    3. School curriculum.
    4. Culture.
    5. Miscellaneuos.
    6. Advancement.

    Could you please tell me the book where you stated the abve reasons?
    (Btw, I had the privilege to meet you in person in Colombia).

    I would appreciate it very much.

    Regards,

    Elkin Alonso López Valderrama

    • Hi Elkin,

      sorry it has taken me so much time to reply.

      The list you refer to is from a book called The practice of English Language Teaching, published by Pearson in 1983. However, the 4th edition of the same title, published in 2007 would be better to look at now – especially chapters 1 & 7.

      I hope that’s helpful.

      Jeremy

  15. Pingback: Why do we need teachers? | efl-resource.com

  16. jeremyharmer :
    Hi Dan, Daniel,
    sorry for the late reply.
    Very impressed with what you said/have said. Speaking as an amateur musician myself, my sense of responsibility to myself-as-a-musician is that I am pretty hopeless. I practise when I have to. When I had lessons I practised because I had lessons. When auditions come up (for an orchestra I play in – we have to audition every so often) I practise like crazy. But then I don’t because I am learner-lazy!
    I wonder how many students are like that. I wonder whether one of the teacher’s main roles is to get students to focus. To be ‘on task’ etc.
    Maybe I’m the only lazy one around!
    Jeremy

  17. Your blog post and question gave me an idea for a class discussion topic with my teacher trainees in Rotterdam. I’ll let you know what THEY say about why we need teachers!
    In addition to what Marcus and the posters above have said: teachers ideally don’t just teach us stuff, but teach us how to learn – and how to stick with the learning process. You’re not the only lazy one around; far from it, and most of us are not highly intrinsically motivated all the time! Now I should go practice that tricky spiccato passage… but a friend sent me some really interesting links to check out…
    (btw, why isn’t Essential Teacher Knowledge on the list of books on your website? ;-))
    Jenny

  18. Nick Perkins :
    Hi Jeremy,
    At a personal level I most certainly hope people will still want to experience the sheer joy of learning and perfecting a foreign language, and then using it to sit with groups of other people sharing experiences, doing business, falling in love, or whatever else one is able to do with the wonderfully enhanced intellectual ability of communicating outside one’s own birth language.
    At a professional level, and as a long time university-level educator of young people who study English as an obligatory part of their (non-English language) degrees, I’ve seen that sadly few really want to learn a foreign language; they do it because they have to. They’d far rather focus on their chosen area of study and if alternative means were available that enabled them to communicate effectively in a foreign language without putting in the effort required to learn it, many (the majority..?) would jump at them.
    Most students I’ve taught understand the importance of speaking a foreign language (English being the dominant one, of course), especially as they are studying degrees that require some level of international interaction. But if an easier alternative were available, they’d take it. Some of them already do this with homework: running readings that are available online through Google Translate before reading them in Spanish and then sometimes even writing their responses in Spanish before running them through Google translate again to produce answers in English, for example. (Is this a reflection on my teaching, or on their view of the need to learn the foreign language vs. finding ways to interact with it without actually putting in the effort required to learn?!)
    As I said above, I’m sure there will always be people who choose to learn a foreign language because it’s actually very cool once you get past a certain level. And even when real-time machine-assisted translation becomes a reality, skilled linguists will still be needed to program the machines, for a while at least. We also, sadly, need to consider the fact that the “have-nots” may still need to learn foreign languages themselves as they do not have the means to access the tech that does it for them. But at the end of the day, if the choice comes down to deciding between investing significant amounts of time and money to attend language courses that take years to achieve the desired effect, or investing less money and no more time than that needed to learn how to use the device/app that does it for you, I know what most of my students would choose.
    So yes, when it comes to near-to-medium-term future real-time translation solutions that involve no more effort than downloading an app and syncing it with an earpiece, I think it’s pretty much a done deal. But no, I’m happy to say that that day hasn’t come yet, although it’s not far off.
    Nick
    P.S. None of this means that people won’t continue to sit together… Just that they won’t be sharing a common language in the way we know it today. They’ll be speaking and listening to their own language, as will everyone else in the room – a bit like the UN, but without the human interpreters!

  19. Hi Jeremy!

    This is my firts visit to your blog, therefore, first of all I´d really like to thank you for sharing your knowledge and thoughts with us, that´s very generous of you. Your books have accompanied me during all my learning process as a teacher and so will do, as I consider teachers as eternal learners.

    Nick´s comments on Google´s translators made me think, for a short moment, on the possibility of empty classrooms, but it´s impossible for me to picture my classroom without children. I think it´s similar to the thought of living without books or paper around which was considered many years ago with the development of new technologies.

    I have recently heard of a school in Britain, where the only tool used by students is an Ipad (fortunately teachers are still there) and it produced a strange feeling on me, like sadness. I saw those students as machines inside machines. Of course I try not to keep behind and I make use of technology in my classroom, but I like books and paper aroud.

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