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It Is Time to Stop Teaching and Focus on Facilitating Learning

Todd Zakrajsek, Director, Lilly Conferences and

Associate Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Key Statement: As higher education faculty, our role is to facilitate learning, not merely teach.

Keywords: Facilitating Learning, Self-Efficacy, Student Success


Teaching without learning is just talking (Angelo, 1993, p. 3).


From Teaching to Learning

I recently had an email exchange with an outstanding faculty/educational developer, David Sacks, University of Kentucky. He mentioned that he was working to change the lexicon of our profession from teaching to facilitating learning, as the determination of our success as educators is not how we teach, but rather the extent to which students learn. That exchange with David reminded me of the article that Barr and Tagg (1995) wrote a long time ago, From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education. They pointed out in their highly acclaimed article that there was a paradigm shift taking hold in undergraduate education. They rightly posited that the shift taking place was to stop thinking of colleges as places that had a responsibility to provide instruction and instead think of them as having a goal of producing learning. My friend David has a very good point. Nearly 30 years later we are talking more and more about focusing on teaching being student-centered and learning-centered, but we are still talking about teaching.

Teaching a Dog to Read Is Easy:

A Dog Learning to Read Is Not

The discussion of a focus on teaching made me think of the years my family spent raising leader dogs for the blind. During the 13 months we had each dog, our responsibility was to work with a puppy to teach them a set of basic commands, such as sit, stay, and down. For the last dog we raised, Sam, I thought it would also be helpful to teach him to read. Sam and I met each evening for about 30 minutes. I started with letters and basic sounds. I then proceeded to root word structure and a little bit of grammar. I also made a set of flashcards and asked him to practice those on his own every day for at least 30 minutes.

I did what I thought was an outstanding job teaching Sam. I developed solid lesson plans and delivered a well-thought-out curriculum. I even differentiated the lessons to better meet his canine needs. I assigned homework—that he never did—which I shortly began to attribute to laziness, indifference, or just a lack of caring about his education.

OK, I made up the story about trying to teach Sam to read, but my family really did raise leader dogs. But suppose I did really try to teach a dog to read. The problem with an educational experience such as what I described is that the focus is on teaching: the lesson plans I developed, the way I delivered content, and how I differentiated instruction. Maybe, since Sam didn’t respond to my initial plan, I could have had Sam work in a small group, and then I could have taught well-structured mini-lectures, combined with a variety of active learning strategies. Even with a variety of strategies, the focus is still on my teaching, rather than Sam’s learning. When focusing on teaching and Sam is successful, too often it is attributed to excellent teaching skills. If it happens enough, I might even get a “teaching” award. However, if Sam is not successful, I could attribute his failure to his lack of motivation, his indifference toward the course material and his unwillingness to do the work I assigned, because I “have done a good job teaching.” Again, all about teaching, teaching, and teaching.

Let’s try this same scenario with a focus on facilitating learning, starting with backward design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). The first step of backward design is to identify the desired outcome for the learner. What should the learner know or be able to do after a learning experience? As soon as we determine a desired outcome, we then ask how it will be assessed. A proper assessment will allow us to determine whether the learner was successful in reaching the desired outcome. The final step of backward design is to select the teaching strategy (learning experience) that will most likely bring about the desired outcomes as measured by the selected assessment tool. This is where David’s comment comes in. With the focus on learning, let’s not bring it back to teaching. Let’s not talk about what I will do – but rather what the students are able to do. For this final step we should be talking about how, as the educator in the room, I could facilitate the student in the learning process.

Image courtesy of Devin Avery, Unsplash

Looking Forward

When I first became an educator, my focus was on teaching. I worked diligently at it, and it was the focus of what I did. When individuals asked about my occupation, I proudly said I was a college teacher. In my defense, those early days were well before the mid-1990s, so higher education had not yet seriously begun the paradigm shift to learning. As my early years as an educator became decades, I admit that for too long I remained focused on teaching, even when I was professing to be a learning-centered educator.

My focus has shifted in recent years. The greatest joy I now experience as an educator is when one of my students can be successful at something that I knew they would be able to do, long before they knew they could do it. In the best scenario, the student does not even realize it was me helping them to learn. This is important, because if they are to live a life of learning, they must be confident they can do it without me. In those times, I am a learning facilitator. To say I was teaching would place the emphasis where it does not belong. It isn’t about me; it is about them. To be clear, I am not saying that our role as educators is unimportant. I am saying just the opposite. We are critical in the process of facilitating learning and in helping students to realize what they can accomplish.

Discussion Questions:

  1. When you think of the occupation of teacher, what comes to mind? At that moment is your primary focus on the educator or the learners?

  2. Explain why Tom Angelo suggests that a person is not teaching if no learning takes place. Would it be possible to win a teaching award if students were not learning? Why or why not?

  3. What do you see as a peak moment when you are facilitating learning? That is, what brings you the greatest joy as an educator?


Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques. Jossey-Bass.

Barr, R. B., & Tagg, J. (1995) From teaching to learning — A new paradigm for

undergraduate education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 27(6),


Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Association for

Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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