Teachers: Know Your Limits!


Teachers are no more superhuman than are their pupils.

Discussion of education focuses most often, naturally enough, on the pupils: their strengths, capacities and weaknesses. Based on a Romantic philosophy of the inherent goodness and the sanctity of the child, progressive education tends to emphasise pupils’ strengths and ignore their weaknesses. The traditional view is that children are unformed and must be trained. They need knowledge to enlighten their ignorance, and discipline to strengthen their will. Or, to put things in more twenty-first century terms, progressives will admire mystical, nebulous mental attributes such as creativity, while traditionalists will point to the severe limitations of the human mind as described by cognitive science.

But what is less often discussed are the strengths and weaknesses of teachers, who do, after all, belong to the same human race as the young people in their charge. Every debate about pupils finds its parallel in questions about teachers: who they are and how they function.

If pupils are inherently good and should trust their instincts rather than subjecting them to the cold light of reason, then so should teachers. Therefore, if teachers have a ‘hunch’ that something ‘just works’, they should go with it, because it ‘feels right’. If some pesky person comes along and makes a logical argument, or points to some research, which undermines their precious hunch, they are at liberty to dismiss this, because after all, it is the dead hand of science, and they fly on the ‘viewless wings of poesy’, which is much more fun.

If pupils do not need knowledge, but only thinking skills, so that they can exercise their inherent creativity, then teachers do not need knowledge either. They can teach anything, because they have an abstract skill called ‘pedagogy’ which is entirely divorced from the dull weight of facts, and soars free into the realm of . . . something or other. This is handy, too, for managers, who are at liberty to exercise judgement on any teacher, regardless of their ignorance of the subject they are teaching.

If the limits of working memory can safely be ignored in pupils, and their minds crowded with extraneous information and distractions, then these limits can be ignored in teachers too. Teachers can be told to think about ten different things at once and there will be no discernible impact in their effectiveness. Why listen to the gloomy voice of the cognitive scientists who tell you multitasking is impossible? Why let reality cast its cold shadow over your interactive, busy classroom? You’re a capable professional; why let these naysayers tell you what you can and can’t do?

But most of all, if the will of pupils does not require discipline, if the surest way to happiness is to follow the whim of the moment and to spend one’s life in pursuit of amusement, if duty is a dirty word, if the first question asked of a child after any activity is ‘Did you have fun?’ then teachers too should reject steady, quiet work in favour of glitzy fads and fashions. Because the worst possible situation is to be in a job that no longer amuses you.


6 thoughts on “Teachers: Know Your Limits!

  1. Hi, an amusing piece of parody and I assume whimsy but are you suggesting that we should treat children as mini-adults or adults as big children is there not a developmental difference?


    • I’m not suggesting either one. I’m pointing out that adults have the same cognitive limits that children have. They may have more knowledge, but their working memory is just as limited, for example. And they are just as likely to be the slaves of habit rather than reflecting rationally on their choices.


      • I would have to disagree about the comment, “same cognitive limits” Cognitive function develops with age to adulthood in similar ways to other functions (physiological, psychological, emotional etc..) and this includes working memory see (for example) ; Gathercole, S. E.; Pickering, S. J.; Ambridge, B.; Wearing, H. (2004). “The structure of working memory from 4 to 15 years of age”. Developmental Psychology 40 (2): 177–190. Also in terms of “slaves of habit” though I am not sure what you mean by this term but if you are talking about they ways in which they respond to emotional or psychological pressures then again this ability develops with age.


Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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