This entry is part [part not set] of 7 in the series Question of the Week

So this is the faculty blog at EBC. That being said, let me just state the obvious, we are all teachers. So this question actually comes out our own life experience here at EBC.

Here is a little peek behind the curtain that is education (I will occasionally pull the curtain back on aspects of education, I am sure you will be intrigued with what you find): As an educator I can walk into a classroom of students and through (1) asking them a series of questions, (2) subsequently responding to their questions, and then (3) asking a different series of questions, actually have students arrive at the conclusions I was hoping for. All the while, they feel like they have actually arrived at these conclusions on their own. So here is the question:

Is that just good teaching?


Is that incredible manipulation?

Yes folks that’s it, that is all I’ve got. What is the difference between teaching and manipulation? Have at it.

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  1. I think it’s good teaching (and maybe a little manipulative at times). They understand more than just what you want them to understand, they understand how you got to that answer. When I teach (I teach a junior higher small group on Sunday mornings), I would much rather they told me what they believed in, rather than me tell them(granted, I’m telling them by asking them questions that let them come to the conclusion I am at). They’ll remember it better, and they’ll be able to explain it to others more easily. They’ll also stand behind it with more belief because they are aware of the logic behind the truth.

    This assumes I’m teaching fact, rather than opinion, though. I would never use this to teach something I believed might not be true. And in Christianity, there are things that could possibly not be true. And with those things, I would much rather just say that there are differing opinions, and let them get curious enough to do the research themselves and decide for themselves when they’re old enough to.

    Is it manipulative? Maybe the tactics could be used in such a way. But since they have the opportunity to think through the questions, and respond to them however they want, I don’t think it is. In fact, it’s a great opportunity for me to see what they are thinking and what they believe about some of what I am teaching, and it shapes how and what I teach (maybe I’ll focus on some aspects of the lesson more than others) because of their responses.

    It also gets them to ask great questions, and I love great questions.

  2. You can tell a baby how to walk. You can lecture for hours about how to shift your weight from one leg to another while maintaining perfect balance. But until you pick that baby up off the floor and support his weight, he’s never going to learn to walk. He needs someone to manipulate his environment so he can practice with his own legs under the guidance and influence of another. He knows he isn’t doing this by himself. He knows someone is keeping him from falling. But he is grateful, for otherwise he would never learn. Once he learns, he will be equipped to walk all by himself. But more than that, he will learn to run and skip and jump without anybody teaching him how. He does it on his own. It has become natural, because he wasn’t taught about walking–he was taught how to walk!

    Similarly, good teaching is not simply telling a student what to think, but teaching him how to think. In order to learn how to think, it takes a teacher who already knows how to think who can provide the support for the pupil to take his first “thinking steps”, after which he will be more apt to think on his own, without the teacher’s help and support.

    We don’t have to call this type of teaching manipulation, because manipulation is generally understood as bad, i.e., done for the self-interest of the one manipulating. However, the denotative meaning of manipulation is simply the influencing or handling of something masterfully. This can be done out of love. I can lovingly manipulate a wrestling match with my son so he can beat me, and through this experience I can teach him how to be a humble victor. Once he learns to think this way, it will spill out in his attitude after real victories in life. I’m not simply telling him to be humble, but I’m teaching him through providing the opportunity to be humble by manipulating the environment so that he thought he actually won.

    An average teacher will teach students what to think and why they should think it. They will be dependent on him for answers and the reasons behind those answers.

    A good teacher will teach students how to think for themselves. Then they will leave his classroom and be able to learn the answers and reasons to many things that the good teacher knows nothing about. They aren’t dependent on his knowledge, because they have been equipped with the proper mindset to attain knowledge and wisdom by themselves.

  3. It may be good teaching—if you carefully lead them through a cogent progression of thought or argument to a valid conclusion that adequately accounts for key objections. If you don’t, then it could be manipulation. Or laziness. Yeah, it’s harder than it sounds, isn’t it?

  4. Andy, it sure is tough to do. I would tend to agree that we do want to walk students through that progression and allow for key objections. At the end of the day however I think the primary difference between really good teaching and manipulation is as Scott stated: motive. If I have the best interest of my students in mind, and a desire to see them grasp the material (I am serving them). If I am somehow being selfish and or lazy as Andy pointed out, or by some other means self-willed, I am probably being more manipulative (trying to get my way).

    Thanks for participating with this question.

  5. Spencer,
    I love the Socratic Method of teaching, although I know few teachers that can use it effectively. When I help my nephew with a math problem I could just tell them the steps to take, but he will understand the path I take to solve the problem if I engage him with questions that lead him to the answer. Chess theory is another good example. Instead of pointing out mistakes, a good chess teacher will ask simple questions in order to open up a new facet in their student’s strategy.

    Of course, if you use Socratic Method like Socrates did, you are much more likely to ruin your student. Socrates’ writings consist of him making an argument about a paragraph long followed by a yes or no answer from his student followed by another paragraph sized argument. In my opinion, that isn’t teaching…it equates to giving a speech and pausing for applause.

  6. There is nothing wrong with that method of teaching in itself. However, teachers have to be careful. It works in some classroom environments and not others. If you, as a teacher, show that you are open to criticism and are willing to re-evaluate your thoughts, it will be less like manipulation than if you are the sort of teacher who communicates, even non-verbally, that your view is the only one that a person can possibly hold to and still be sane (or worse, still be saved).

    I use the Socratic Method a lot when I teach. Due to my present context, I generally do not let my students know my personal opinions in the class setting (though they are free to come talk to me about it one-on-one). So far, it has worked well because they know that I will gently challenge them no matter what they say, so they have the freedom to voice their thoughts and opinions. I trust that they will be honest; they trust that I will not belittle them. That relationship makes the difference between manipulation and good teaching.