Weekly Teaching Note
Nov 16 2010
Do No Harm: A Dose of SoTL


Primum non nocere (“First, do no harm.”)

The medical and medical ethics dictum of “do no harm” is based on the concern that sometimes an action or intervention may be more likely to cause harm than good, in which case it would be better to do nothing at all. This caution is not usually connected with teaching, but could it be? 

Teaching students has been called a great act of optimism and is a pivot and catalyst for the continuation of human culture and society. College professors are part of that great chain of learning that begins in the womb and can continue to the tomb. But are we sure we are primarily doing good, even if (as I believe) most faculty want their students to learn and benefit in their courses and programs? Are there some approaches to teaching that, in the long run of curiosity and learning, may cause more harm to the students than good? If children are naturally inquisitive, does formal education (including higher education) help or hinder their motivation to learn?

How could teaching cause harm? If learning, understanding, critical and creating thinking, imaginative reflection, problem solving, insightful and effective communication, etc. are some of the goals that college faculty seek for their students, not guiding students to higher order thinking skills and capabilities could be seen as “harm,” especially when students, professors, administrators, parents, employers, and society expect that such learning outcomes will occur over the course of a college education.

And what if some approaches to teaching actually diminish, rather than stimulate, students’ curiosity to learn and their imaginative, intellectual development? Wouldn’t that be a great harm done?   

These are complex issues, but teaching has often been assumed to be something fairly simple to do. You learn a lot about something and then you tell others (students) about what you learned. But whereas you may have had a passion for learning in general, or for learning a particular discipline, simply telling students about it may actually (with exceptions) demotivate students to learn the subject, and to learn in general. 

To learn more about how to not only do no harm, but to do good for students’ learning is a generative sign of life. As John Newman said, “The only real sign of life is growth.” One way to take the pulse of life in one’s work with students today is called the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, or SoTL.SoTL calls for faculty to realize that good teaching is serious intellectual work that deserves the same kind of investigative inquiry and seeking of evidence as does traditional disciplinary research. Whether one learns from the SoTL work of others, or engages in SoTL research oneself, SoTL can serve as an antidote to habitual, unfounded assumptions that learning has taken place. 

SoTL is not an antidote to all pedagogical shortcomings in higher education, but rather a dose of inquiry into what students are actually learning (and not learning), how that is happening, and why. Since the main purpose of SoTL is improving student learning, a dose of it can stoke one’s passion for teaching and refresh the learning experiences of one’s students. SoTL doesn’t take the art and mystery out of teaching, simply promotes the goal of real learning.

It could even be said that a dose of SoTL can change the perception of and attitudes toward teaching by changing the focus from the work of the teacher to the work of the students. Across all disciplines, many methods of teaching, and sizes and classifications of institutions, SoTL can model and epitomize the integration of teaching, learning, and scholarship. By drawing students into the learning process, it is not only content that is transmitted, but also understanding and a desire to learn that are fostered.


To follow up on these ideas, please contact me at  fglazer@nyit.edu. This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium sponsored by Western Kentucky University.


Alan Altany, Ph.D.
Director, Center for Excellence in Teaching
Georgia Southern University
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