Questions about the very nature of knowledge are related to the field of epistemology. The latter tries to formulate answers or at least, re-frame the original questions in order to tackle them cunningly. An interesting article about epistemology can be found on the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Anyhow, to avoid standing in the middle of the void, students fortunately are able to chat with their mates and build their own philosophy. Being able to gather one’s own philosophy is very important and it is why higher education is perceived as the sanctuary of the freedom of thought. Universities, colleges, “hautes écoles”, faculties, and etc: all of these institutions are the symbolic home of society’s currents of philosophy. By the way, this actually causes a big social shear between those with a higher education and those without. It is a shame that people think the only way to emancipate one’s own philosophy is through undergoing higher education. It is not even a guarantee. Nevertheless, it is true that it is a pity that everyone cannot benefit from this resourceful environment.
Anyhow, this last epistemological step brings us in the realm of adulthood. In principle, the distinction between a teacher and a learner vanishes because the concepts merge. Incidentally, in many languages, to teach and to learn are sometimes described by the same verb. Such is the case in French with the word “apprendre”. Depending on the context, a person unavoidably alternates the role of a teacher and the role of a learner, just as if they were printed on the two sides of a coin.
On the teacher’s side, any source describing what a teacher is will emphasise that there is no such teacher that would not also be a learner. Consider the essay of Leonard Kaplan : “The teacher as a Learner”(Kaplan, 1998). Or this very nice publication about how a teacher learns. A first argument is to say that nobody knows a subject down to its root. Therefore, any teacher should be continuously keeping himself informed about the subject zhe teaches. A second argument consists in saying that the process of teaching is itself a subject to learn from. A teacher indeed learns from zher experience in interacting with zher student and bringing answers to their questions. And so on,…
On the learner’s side, many sources insist that teaching does certainly not consist in pouring knowledge into a vessel but in creating an environment where knowledge can be grasped (e.g. Self-Regulated Learning). Therefore, there is no way in which a learner could not wind up being zher own teacher. Any person learns to filter knowledge on zher own and keeps in mind only what is relevant with regard to the philosophy zhe has chosen as a guideline for living. This is why Socrates declared himself to be at most practicing midwifery in his teachings. Anything that eventually was learnt had already been hiding before in the learner’s unconscious potential of thought. Those who appreciate evincing logic with linguistics will engagingly recognise that “to learn” in Slavic languages is literally speaking the reflexive of teaching : “to teach to oneself”.
As a person ages, the boundaries between learning and teaching are progressively obliterated. This has inspired theorists such as Knowles to separate andragogy from pedagogy. In other words, he emphasised that the way adults learn is much unalike the way children do. An extensive analysis of adult learning can be found in Knowles book of “The adult learner : a neglected species”. He stressed that the point of view toward knowledge is reshaped and changed due to some critical differences between a child and an adult. As opposed to a child, an adult has a background experience which acts as a point of reference for further learning. Moreover, an adult will always try to relate the subject into the context of his social role. The attitude of an adult toward a field of interest is thus problem-centred rather than content-centred in the case of children. Such salient distinctions between children and adults induced the creation of new theories for the learning process (e.g. Harrison & Reeve , 2002).
Stepping from the detailed view of the learning process, transmission of knowledge can also be approached from a systemic point of view regardless of the mechanisms involved. Such system connects three essential elements : Teacher-Learner-Subject (Knowledge). To help clarify and put order in the various situations involving the transmission of knowledge, researchers begun to construct models that relate these three essential components. By laying them out in a dominance-identification plane, various models emerge. Objectives and implementations of education derive from the structure of the model being used. The vertical dimension represents the degree of dominance-subordination of a component. The horizontal dimension displays the distance between components from an identity perspective. For instance, the Teacher’s dominance over the Subject represents how much the Teacher can select the content to be taught from the Subject. The horizontal distance between the Teacher and the Learner expresses how the latter tries to resemble to the former while learning. In primary school, pupils will try to understand the subject just like their teachers do. In contrast, during a coaching session, participants will try to grasp just what they need to know in order to outshine in the future job they are training for.
This systemic approach is able to reproduce models ranging from highly religious institutions to research institutions. In a religious community, the Subject is topmost, the Teacher is in the middle and the Learner is at the bottom of the ladder. All three are aligned on the vertical dominance axis. It is easy to understand such configuration by assuming the Subject is a sacred text, the Teacher is a voice bearer of the sacred text and the Learner is an adept. On the contrary, in a research institution, the Teacher is bottommost, the Subject is in the middle to the side, and the Learner is topmost above the Teacher. The importance of the model places the Learner above all, because as a researcher, zhe is up to specify/discover the content of the Subject. The Subject itself is seen as a mystery by both the researcher and the Teacher. The latter assumes the role of a research supervisor.
It is also interesting to focus on the connectors between the three elements. There are three different possible connectors : T-L, T-S, and L-S. These connectors can be easily and curiously bound to the three types of questions involved in education. Each link could be expressed as :
- T-S : does the Teacher know (the Subject) ?
- T-L : does the Teacher know how to explain zher knowledge (to the Learner) ?
- L-S : can the Learner ever know (the Subject) ?
The following diagram pictures out well the systemic approach to education; its three main elements and the three connectors involved :
Icons made by : http://www.freepik.com under the license of Creative Commons BY 3.0
All in all, the roles of a teacher and a learner are definitely not evident to define generically. Unicef is gathering personal definition of what a teacher is across the world. If you would like to add yours, feel free to do.
 Professor in the Education Department at Wayne State University