Lifetime Professor Shares Message From Beyond The Grave: Maybe Teaching is a Bad Idea

About a month ago I submitted a proposal for a book titled Autonomy Supportive Teaching in Theory and Practice to Stylus Publishers. It is a book about all of the promises motivation psychology has for teaching and learning. 

A few days later the editor at Stylus wrote back and explained that he had just published a book about the promises motivation psychology has for teaching and learning, and didn't want to publish another.

So I sent along a query for another book I am writing titled Forgetting How to Teach, which is about why and how college faculty might give up on ordinary teaching practices. Later that day the same editor wrote back and explained that he had just published this other book about why and how college faculty might give up on ordinary teaching practices.

(The editor and I were beginning to have fun.) I told him about this third book I was only just beginning, but that I wouldn't let him see it. He said that he didn't mind, because he didn't want to see it. And so on.

I read the description of the new book about why and how to give up ordinary teaching practices, which was appropriately titled Maybe Teaching is a Bad Idea. It was almost exactly what I had proposed--right down to chapter headings. I asked the editor for a review copy and he sent one. The editor also explained that the author, Larry Spence, had tragically died before the book could be finished. Friend and education author Maryellen Weimer (author of Learner-Centered Teaching) did the final manuscript editing.

What a story!

Spence taught political science at Penn State University for 50 years. He was also the founding director of their excellence in teaching institute. In 2001 he published an essay titled "The Case Against Teaching," which is the intellectual predecessor of his posthumous book.

Spence's new book

Here are some of the things Spence finds to be a waste of time: disciplining, lecturing, memorizing information. These practices will be familiar to most college professors as the only tools in the professorial tool belt. Spence says you should stop doing them. I agree, so I will continue to repeat versions of his thesis throughout what follows.

In the book, Spence shares 80 years' worth of stories from his childhood in the elementary school classroom to his years as an aging mentor of other professors. The stories demonstrate why he thinks the way that he thinks, which is that teaching is counterproductive, and that college professors should stop doing it.

One example that stood out to me was Dr. Spence's experience in a high school chemistry classroom. This would have been a decade or so before Dr. Spence became Dr. Spence. Unlike other academic disciplines, chemistry came easily to Spence. By intuition, it seemed, Spence knew what to do in the laboratory. He also had no trouble balancing chemical equations, or any of the other sorts of things chemists do. On the national test (precursor to AP Chemistry Test?) Spence earned the highest score in the school's history.

Here was how Spence's chemistry teacher acted after learning of his student's unprecedented success: He acted as though he had just eaten a handful of fennel seeds. In the chemistry teacher's opinion, Spence never had to try at anything in his life. He believed that Spence had been spoiled with a photographic memory--that he could show up on test day and the information would fall out. Spence wasn't like the other students who actually worked hard at their disciplines. And so on. The teacher was a framed movie poster of bitter resentment.

Spence did not have a photographic memory, of course. What he had was a keen interest in chemistry. Growing up, he had built fireworks from raw materials purchased at the hardware store. In other words, he had learned by doing, which is what Spence posthumously advocates professors do for their students in the college classroom instead of teaching. But Spence wasn't able to make this connection in the chemistry classroom.

The chemistry lesson comes in the first few chapters of the book, which is only as far as I was able to read. While the recommendation that teachers and college professors stop teaching is one that I support with my whole heart, the book itself is a difficult read. It was written by Spence, but put together by Weimer. Consequently there is no consistent voice. And the copy-editor went on holiday while the book was in production. It just feels like the book was published before it was ready. 

Therefore I cannot recommend that you read Maybe Teaching is a Bad Idea, except for a sparkling example of why it is so important to cut words and paragraphs and entire sections if they distract from the purpose of the book, or if they bore the reader.