Nobody is the same person they were five years ago. This is certainly true for students. If graduates are not very different to how they were when they started as first years, something has gone wrong. In discussions about teaching, the difference between first years and third years, or between bachelor and master students, are often the subject of discussion.
Teachers are not the same person they were five years ago either. Let alone after 15 years or more. That too makes a difference in the classroom. But we do not talk about this as much. Educational advice often seems to assume that didactic choices are independent of who the teacher is at that point.
I recently looked back at old recordings of when I was a student and did an elective in didactics and supervised first year students as part of an internship. Now, with more than a decade of teaching experience, I see all sorts of things happening in those conversations that I was unaware of at the time. I see myself wrestling with situations that I would now see coming from a mile away.
On the other hand, some things I did a lot better than I do now. Precisely because everything was new to me then, I was much more aware of how I carried out a conversation. This meant that as a youngster I came across as much more relaxed than I do now. I want to try to do this again. But I have also changed in ways that cannot be changed anymore.
When I started teaching, every student was a new and interesting problem to me. Partly because of this I took more time to ask questions and look at their work than I do now. Each and every time, I really had to analyse what a particular student was struggling with. Now I often recognise the type of question or problem that a student has within a couple of seconds and I have to do my best not to be impatient and start issueing instructions straightaway.
What I also noticed in those videos from 2005 is that I was barely older than the students with whom I sat at the table. At the time, very few students even thought about saying ‘u’ to me (the formal form of address for ‘you’, Eds.). Now they don’t even ask me anymore if they should say ‘u’ or ‘jij’ (the informal form of address for ‘you’, Eds.). At the time, I had to try hard to build up a minimal bit of authority. Now I have to do everything I can to make sure that students don’t take everything I say as the absolute truth.
In Experience and Education, John Dewey describes how learning arises in the interaction between specific students and specific teachers. Each student bring their own knowledge and questions, and their own character, body, life and worries into the classroom. Teachers do, too. ‘There is no such thing’, he writes, ‘as educational value in the abstract’.
The longer I teach, the more I am convinced that education is something fundamentally personal. And the less I believe in standardised methods and generic educational advice. Because with every year of experience, teachers do not only get better – hopefully – but they also differ more and more from other teachers.
Bob van Vliet is a lecturer at the 3mE Faculty and is specialised in design education. Reactions are welcome via B.vanVliet@tudelft.nl.