There is scarcely a facet of life that is untouched by COVID19.  Suddenly educators have to be rethinking and retooling to counter the challenges that have been magnified by this novel virus as they grapple with new ways of being and doing. Given this scenario it is pertinent to consider the relevance of three classic metaphors of teaching as inspired by one of my favourite teachers for the modern learner in this environment. In this article I will examine the empty vessel metaphor of teaching. I will review the other two metaphors, namely, the transformer and the gardener metaphors at a later date.

Empty Vessel Metaphor

The teacher who embodies the empty vessel metaphor would approach education with the perspective that his or her role is one of transmitting knowledge through instruction. This teacher would regard him/herself as the primary custodian of knowledge and view education as a teacher-driven process. Students largely would be regarded as the recipients of instruction rather than as active partners in the process of their education. Classroom activities would be highly structured, and the teacher would set the pace of instruction. The teaching style would, of necessity, be authoritarian. In the short run, students may derive benefit from such an approach. Where the subject is highly structured, and a large body of knowledge must be covered in a limited time the empty vessel approach would facilitate syllabus coverage. This method may have its place in some tertiary courses where students require guidance as to areas of focus and on the timing of movement through the syllabus. In addition, some students need external motivation and respond well to the discipline imposed by an ‘empty vessel teacher’.

It must be noted that the slower student may suffer from the teacher-imposed pace of instruction if the teacher is not sensitive to his/her needs. Further, creative students may rebel against the extremely structured approach adopted by the ‘empty vessel teacher’ and may not perform. Students may not make connections between the various subjects and may be unable to transfer skills learned. Conversely, one long-run benefit is that such a structured approach may facilitate ‘late bloomers”. These students may not have been sufficiently mature or self-motivated to respond to any other method. Teachers representing this metaphor would ensure that these students have the academic platform for later study and development.

A significant problem is that the ‘empty vessel’s’ assumption of student passivity may create this same condition. Students taught by representatives of this metaphor may never take charge of their own learning and instead be extremely dependent upon the teacher, requiring notes to be dictated and being unwilling to do any work unless it will be graded. The close adherence to the prescribed knowledge and methods of conveying that knowledge may also close the students’ mind to new ways of thinking. Such a student may find it difficult to adapt to the independence required for study at the post-secondary level and may not have the skills for independent research. Also, the empty vessel teacher may not have facilitated the student in the development of the negotiation skills necessary for group work.

These negative effects may be reinforced if students are exposed to empty-vessel teachers in early childhood. The emphasis on the cognitive domain may be to the exclusion of the affective domain and the students’ failure to develop an enquiring and independent attitude to education may be almost impossible to remedy.

Given the challenges inherent in the empty vessel approach, it is worth exploring alternative strategies for empowering students in the classroom together with creating a more supportive environment for student learning through exploration. The teacher who is serious about transforming the classroom would do well to employ active learning and give students a sense of control over their learning. Learning objectives or outcomes should be clearly stated in a manner that will allow the student to know what is expected of him or her. Teachers can employ a, reciprocal questioning approach to engage students in open dialogue, giving them the opportunity to create and initiate questions about a particular lesson. To stimulate this thinking, the teacher may present the stem of a question to students and then student can contemplate questions in pairs and then share with a larger group. This discussion of questions in the larger group has been said to increase students’ retention of knowledge to at least 70%. Compare this with the scenario in which the teacher does all the talking in which case students’ retention of knowledge can range from a mere 5 to 20%.

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