What Robin Williams Taught Us About Teaching

Is a teacher someone with all the answers or someone who helps us find them?

Amid all the remembrances today of Robin Williams and the tributes to his many famous roles, among the most commonly invoked are not one, but two memorable portrayals of great teaching.

The phrase "Oh Captain, my Captain" is echoing across Twitter, a line from 1989's Dead Poets Society. In this role, Williams turns the stuffy conformity of a 1950s boarding school inside out. As a young, handsome, floppy-haired English teacher with the highly apropos name of John Keating, Williams makes the classroom a stage, pulling out all the stops to get his students excited about the wonders of poetry, and by extension, life.

He whispers in the students' ears, rips pages out of the textbook and leaps onto the desk to hail the vital necessity of great literature: "In my class you will learn to think for yourselves again--you will learn to savor words and language!"

We would all be lucky to have at least one teacher like this: a truly great lecturer whose passion for his subject is infectious. In the climactic scene his students pay homage to a master who has changed their lives.

But this is not the only paradigm for great teaching.

In 1997's Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon is an autodidact — a primarily self-taught genius. He finds an academic mentor, an acclaimed mathematician played by Stellan Skarsgard. But his relationship with Robin Williams is at the emotional core of the film.

Williams plays a therapist, not a teacher per se. But it's clear that he's there to teach Will Hunting what he really needs to know: how to get out of his own way, to grow past his abusive and lonely childhood and to put aside his guilt at moving beyond his rough background in South Boston. He does this by meeting Will on his turf, by opening up, and by listening as much as he talks.

Back in 1993, California State University Professor Alison King wrote an article for the journal College Teaching that became hugely influential. The title: "From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side."

"In most college classrooms, the professor lectures and the students listen and take notes," she begins. She advocated updating this model with one of "active learning," where understanding is constructed in the mind of the student. The teacher is there not to captivate his or her audience, but to get them talking, processing information and reformulating it in "new and personally meaningful ways." This is the "guide on the side" model, with the student placed at the center.

In his blazing, virtuosic performances, Williams embodied the sage on the stage — a manic, wisecracking sage, sure, but one who always held the audience spellbound. As Good Will Hunting's Sean Maguire, a character who overcame his own rough upbringing and struggles with the loss of his wife, he risked vulnerability. This quieter, generous performance won him an Oscar. He was playing a guide on the side, the kind we would all hope to have in our lives.

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