Abstract – “What is it that I expect from my teacher?” I discuss the fact that naivety when learning can be a good thing. However, gradual guidance towards independence and criticism is essential. So that eventually – at university – educators don’t have to focus any more on teaching you how to learn something but instead show you how to actually do something useful with it. I will explain this by evaluating my view on the teacher’s role from primary school to university.

PDF Version: Why I Go To College – From an engineer’s perspective

The evolution from naivety to comprehension.

Thomas Goossens 18 May 2012, Leuven, Belgium
Engineering student computer science at University of Leuven (2nd bach)

Note to the reader:
Everything I write is my opinion.  Because of the perspective I’ve written this text in, you might think I’m trying to act like everything I say is a fact. But I cannot emphasize enough that everything you will read is how I think about it.

1. Primary Class:  Basic learning

Encourage to start learning

In primary class, during your first real educative learning steps you are still quite naïve. Which I believe is a really good thing. At such early phase in life it might be essential to be somewhat naive. It opens opportunities to learn what “grown ups” tell you at a high rate. It’s at this early stage in life children are taught how grown ups see and understand the world and what they believe to be the “truth”.
Most of the time during this period you will see your teacher as a very smart person who knows everything . Which in some way is true compared to your current knowledge about the world.

What I’m implying here is that young children, by being naive, can be encouraged to learn from someone who they believe to be very intelligent. In this phase you just absorb anything that is thrown at you. Most of the time not asking whether there is more that you are taught. Or even less, what you can actually do with it.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not mocking primary school teachers here. In contrary, I’m emphasizing how important their job is. They somehow need children to start wanting to learn and it is therefore essential that those teachers make a good example for those kids. Because in many ways it is going to determine who they’ll become. It is therefore their duty to make you believe that they know everything so that pupils are encouraged to listen to them and hence learn.

So in many ways a primary school teacher is a guide that tells you anything you need to know and you just accept that he knows what he is talking about.

2. Secondary Class:  Basic thinking and improved learning

Encourage to keep learning and start thinking
During this secondary period a lot changes, gradually. During your first two years, mostly you might still be quite naive. But as time progresses you probably will encounter situations where the teacher fails to meet your expectations.

During third grade I once got into a discussion with my teacher of biology. She told me that water was in every way essential for life to exist. And I just couldn’t agree with that. I said, ok yes, we need water here on earth, but why can’t it be different elsewhere? I was really amazed by this ignorance.

And you might start to wonder why that is. “Aren’t teachers supposed to know everything?” , “How come, that I, know something that my teacher doesn’t?”.

It’s during this phase that you might begin to develop some criticism. It’s kind of a next stage in learning. The more you ask yourself questions about what the teacher just told you, the more you will learn to think.

The major difference  here with primary school is that now, you should be gradually guided to being less and less naive. And more and more become independent. It is now the duty of the teacher to encourage criticism.

Any teacher that wants you to just accept everything he tells you, should just find another job or start a new religion.

I have to be careful with what I just said about “encouraging” criticism. I do not mean that suddenly pupils must be told that everything they hear must be criticized by them. What I do mean is that they should be trained to deduce for themselves why something can be true. And that only when they are unable to do this themselves then start questioning the credibility of the information. A good interpretation of this is the fact that people ask questions.

It’s at this school that you will hopefully find out what you really like and what you might want to become when you are a “grown up”. It is very important that you have people you can look up to. Sometimes thinking “I would like to be more like him”.

In general I had some really good teachers and most of them I respected a lot.

During my last year I had a math teacher I really admired, and I still do. He was able to make math very interesting and explain it in a profound way. Even though I now know things he doesn’t, he still makes an example to me. In fact, he is one of the main reasons I chose to become an engineer.

I also have a lot of respect for the IT teachers of our school. Even though most of them never were my teacher, they have taught me a lot during my years at school. Things that still today, I find out to be very useful.

At this point I would like to clarify that until now I’ve been pretending like there are strict barriers between the phases in learning I talked about, which of course, don’t exist.
During my last two years at secondary school me and some of my fellow classmates started asking more and more questions like “Why is this useful? Doesn’t X has to be Y?”. And started mocking courses in which we didn’t find any interest anymore.

To be honest, at the end I really started cursing at my courses French, English, Dutch and History. Not seeing the point anymore in studying it.  Nonetheless when I think about it afterwards it might not have been that useless after all.

It just means you are entering and ready for the next phase.

3. University:  Advanced learning and applying

Encourage to keep thinking and apply

At the university there is another major leap towards independence.  More specific, now it is expected that you already know how to study and the professors goal should be to encourage you to do something with what you learn.

I believe it is vital that now you are presented a lot of challenges you somehow need to surpass. And with that I don’t mean just passing your exams. I mean that you should be given examples of applications of what you learned.

There is a very important role for professors here now.

I go to college because I hope/expect the professor to – apart from explaining his textbook – actually learn me more. For me a professor should help me in becoming a broader person. And motivating why his subject is important and interesting.
Telling me where his material has its applications in society is just one way to do it. This that when someone asks you “what are you studying” you can tell about it. In many ways I expect the professor to inspire me.
Also, people that are not studying what you are, are most likely not interested in technical details, because if they would, they would study it. Therefore I experience it most-valuable that you can talk about what you are doing to anyone.

Let me illustrate this with an example:

In 2012 I had a fairly dry course on Discrete Algebraic Structures. Most of the people would just stare at me when I tell them I work with groups and rings and that you can calculate the greatest common divisor of polynomials. (Or that 1 + 1 can be 0 )

What they might be more interested at is when you tell them that using this knowledge you can have safe internet transactions and that this is necessary to get CD’s to work.

And this is exactly what my professor for algebra had done. And I can really talk enthusiastically about those topics now.  And I’ve already amazed a lot of people by telling those stories, without going into every detail.  And that’s just one example of what I hope to encounter more frequently. Because unfortunately you always have professors who just terribly fail at doing that little extra that makes all the difference. Also, sometimes I have the feeling that some professors don’t really prepare their colleges very well. Stepping away from what I believe to be one of their most important and noble tasks, passing on knowledge.  And I regret that.

Also knowing “why you are learning”, can be really helpful in motivating yourself to study it.
During your time at university I think it is essential that you find out your own answer to the question “Why do I study this?”.

I have found my answer to this question.

“I study engineering because I know that I’ll be able to seriously influence the way people live their lives and push society forwards. However, just studying your textbooks won’t make you a lifechanger. It’s your own and also your universities responsibility for making you want to do more and apply.”

Having read this far you might have realised that I really like applying stuff. But it is interesting to point out that I do not only mean “applying” in the sense of “engineering”.
My statements on knowing “why you study” and “what you can do with it “ works for every study. Physicists want to explore the world around us and explain it. Biologists want to know how animals behave and how nature is influenced by life and also our own lives. Historians want to learn about the past so that we can learn from ancient knowledge to better understand the present. Economists try to predict how the economy will evolve (something they do not always succeed at,  but that’s another story).

No matter what you study, just make sure you know what you are doing it for. Me myself am driven by the idea that one day I might have a severe impact on people’s lives and that makes me very enthusiastic.