Nov 28, 2022 5 min read

Carl Rogers On Why Teaching is Overrated

Carl Rogers On Why Teaching is Overrated

Carl Rogers, one of the most pre-eminent psychologists of the twentieth century, delivered a speech at Harvard in 1952 that created quite a ruckus at the time.

Many of the controversial points he made about teaching are equally applicable to leaders and managers in how they instruct and influence.

a. My experience has been that I cannot teach another person how to teach. To attempt it is for me, in the long run, futile.

b. It seems to me that anything that can be taught to another is relatively inconsequential, and has little or no significant influence on behavior. That sounds so ridiculous I can’t help but question it at the same time that I present it.

c. I realize increasingly that I can only be interested in learnings which significantly influence behavior. Quite possibly this is simply a personal idiosyncrasy.

d. I have come to feel that the only learning which significantly influences behavior is self-discovered, self-appropriated learning.

e. Such self-discovered learning, truth that has been personally appropriated and assimilated in experience, cannot be directly communicated to another. As soon as an individual tries to communicate such experience directly, often with a quite natural enthusiasm, it becomes teaching, and its results are inconsequential.

f. As a consequence of the above, I realize that I have lost interest in being a teacher.

g. When I try to teach, as I do sometimes, I am appalled by the results, which seem a little more than inconsequential, because sometimes the teaching appears to succeed. When this happens I find that the results are damaging. It seems to cause the individual to distrust his own experience, and to stifle significant learning. Hence I have come to feel that the outcomes of teaching are either unimportant or hurtful.

h. When I look back at the results of my past teaching, the real results seem the same—either damage was done, or nothing significant occurred. This is frankly troubling.

i. As a consequence, I realize that I am only interested in being a learner, preferably learning things that matter, that have some significant influence on my own behavior.

j. I find it very rewarding to learn, in groups, in relationships with one person as in therapy, or by myself.

k. I find that one of the best, but most difficult ways for me to learn is to drop my own defensiveness, at least temporarily, and to try to understand the way in which his experience seems and feels to the other person.

l. I find that another way of learning for me is to state my own uncertainties, to try to clarify my puzzlements, and thus get closer to the meaning that my experience actually seems to have.

m. This whole train of experiencing, and the meanings that I have thus far discovered in it, seem to have launched me on a process which is both fascinating and at times a little frightening. It seems to mean letting my experience carry me on, in a direction which appears to be forward, toward goals that I can but dimly define, as I try to understand at least the current meaning of that experience. The sensation is that of floating with a complex stream of experience, with the fascinating possibility of trying to comprehend its ever changing complexity.

...by themselves these interpretations of my own experience may sound queer and aberrant, but not particularly shocking. It is when I realize the implications that I shudder a bit at the distance I have come from the commonsense world that everyone knows is right.

I can best illustrate that by saying that if the experiences of others had been the same as mine, and if they had discovered similar meanings in it, many consequences would be implied.

a. Such experience would imply that we would do away with teaching. People would get together if they wished to learn.

b. We would do away with examinations. They measure only the inconsequential type of learning.

c. The implication would be that we would do away with grades and credits for the same reason.

d. We would do away with degrees as a measure of competence partly for the same reason. Another reason is that a degree marks an end or a conclusion of something, and a learner is only interested in the continuing process of learning.

e. It would imply doing away with the exposition of conclusions, for we would realize that no one learns significantly from conclusions.

— Carl Rogers in On Becoming a Person

Writing almost two decades later in 1969 he further clarified his position:

Teaching, in my estimation, is a vastly over-rated function. Having made such a statement, I scurry to the dictionary to see if I really mean what I say.

Teaching means “to instruct.” Personally I am not much interested in instructing another in what he should know or think.
"To impart knowledge or skill.” My reaction is, why not be more efficient, using a book or programmed learning?
“To make to know.” Here my hackles rise. I have no wish to make anyone know something.
“To show, guide, direct.” As I see it, too many people have been shown, guided, directed.

So I come to the conclusion that I do mean what I said. Teaching is, for me, a relatively unimportant and vastly overvalued activity.

- Carl Rogers in Freedom to Learn

All of us carry this tension between wanting to learn and not wanting to be taught. Winston Churchill said it best:

I am always ready to learn, although I do not always like to be taught.

Leaders have to constantly straddle this thin line between teaching and impeding learning. Donald Schon citing Rogers captured this dynamic:

Like Socrates in the Meno, Rogers believes that the most important things cannot be taught but must be discovered and appropriated for oneself. Like Socrates, he attributes to himself and others a capacity for self-discovery and functions as a paradoxical teacher who does not teach but serves as gadfly and midwife to others’ self-discovery—provoking in his interlocutors, like Socrates, a storm of anger and confusion.

— Donald Schon in Educating the Reflective Practitioner

True learning is confusing and disorienting by definition and can trigger defensive reactions. How many managers are willing to put up with this both in themselves and others?

Questions to ponder

  • Are you preaching and teaching? Or are you leading and enabling learning?
  • Are you pushing or pulling?
  • Does your team understand the context and background? Don't assume they have the same context.
  • Do you come to the table already decided about something, or are you actually open to opposing opinions and inputs? Are you willing to challenge your own assumptions and being ok with the discomfort this causes?
  • Are you talking or listening?
  • Do you manage by decree or by influence?
  • In your leadership development program how much is it teaching and how much is real learning?
This knowledge will not come from teaching but from questioning. He will recover it for himself.

— Socrates

We think of leadership ability as a positive, additive notion. But the English poet John Keats in 1817 coined the paradoxical term of Negative Capability, that's applicable to leaders now more than ever.


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Sheril Mathews
I am an executive/leadership coach. Before LS, I worked for 20 years in corporate America in various technical & leadership roles. Have feedback? You can reach me at sheril@leadingsapiens.com.
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