The object of the verb “to teach”

This quote comes from Scott Thornbury’s Twitter account, and is apparently part of a new book he’s working on.  I figure it deserves a bit of unpacking.

First, “teach” has two argument structures, one where the direct object is the content:

"I used to teach maths in England, which is why I pluralize it"

and the other where the direct object is the people doing the learning:

"I used to teach younglings before Anakin killed them all"

In the former case the people learning can be an indirect object, as in

"I teach criminal law to convicts"

and in which case the indirect object can be moved up between the verb and the direct object, like

"I teach 3rd years Defence Against the Dark Arts"

Thornbury’s quote refers to direct objects, not indirect objects, so it can’t be this last one he has a problem with, although there are reasons explored below why this argument structure is a bit problematic.  Having a problem with learners as direct objects of “to teach”, on the other hand, doesn’t really make sense except when you assume unflattering things about the word “teach” itself.

The reason I say this with regard to indirect objects is that the verbs whose arguments undergo this place-switching have “giving from one person to another” as their underlying metaphor, and I think this is the aspect of “to teach” that I think Thornbury finds distasteful.

Other verbs of “giving” that can have the direct and indirect objects switch places include:

"I gave a venereal disease to my wife" / "I gave my wife a venereal disease"

"Donald told many lies to his audience" / "Donald told his audience lies"

"Tsutaya rents CDs to customers" / "Tsutaya rents you CDs"
Who else wants to see a Sistine Chapel-scale drawing of this God?

Incidentally, the presence of two objects helps distinguish one usage of “rent” from its complete opposite:

"You rent CDs (at Tsutaya)"

Steven Pinker devoted a book (his first, I think) to how kids figure out that some words of “giving” take this transformation while others (mostly Latinate words like “donate”) don’t.  Buy the book and reflect on just how much more readable Pinker has become during his bookwriting career.

So the pre-social-constructionist view of teaching is that it is a transaction similar to these, in which knowledge goes from teacher to learner like a material thing.  That view of teaching stands in obvious contrast to Thornbury’s and most other teachers’ views that students are active learners, not passive recipients of information.  The indirect object + direct object argument structure of one version of “to teach” seems to evoke a didactic and teacher-centered class style, similar to the often-derided banking metaphor of teaching.

The problem is, the learner-as-direct-object version of “to teach” has no such “giving” metaphor underlying it, as its argument structure is not limited to verbs of a particular type of meaning.  I would give examples of verbs that take direct objects to illustrate the semantic flexibility of this argument structure, but there are just too many.  Just take all the verbs in this paragraph besides “to be”.

It’s true that “I teach kids” has “kids” as the people being done to and “I” as the person doing, but this fact alone doesn’t imply passivity on the part of kids, at least outside the scope of this clause.  Other verbs that Thornbury would surely endorse as part of a healthy approach to teaching take the same argument structure:

"Teachers inspire students"

"Good teachers facilitate successful learners"

"Scott Thornbury helped me to become a better teacher"

It’s possible that Thornbury just reads the verb “teach” as meaning “to didactically present information for students to absorb”, which is an intentionally uncharitable interpretation of the word.  If that’s what “to teach” means, successful teachers don’t spend a lot of time “teaching” in the first place, and we really ought to consider renaming the profession.

I believe what he should have said instead of the tweet that started this post is, “the learner should be seen first as the subject of the verb to learn, not only as the direct or indirect object of the verb to teach”.  The issue is one of emphasis, not of eliminating “teach” from the vocabulary of modern… teachers.

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