dark-haired woman in uniform smiles at the man (off-camera) playing trombone nearby

Trek Through Teaching

This post is part of an ongoing series that looks at Star Trek episodes from a pedagogical perspective. These posts show what lessons teachers can learn from a major science-fiction franchise. Designed to get you thinking, these posts consider how and why characters and actions in Star Trek episodes reflect the way learning could, should, and sometimes does work—as well as how teachers and education are portrayed in popular culture. Join this ongoing mission by checking out the entire series.

Teachers work hard. Too hard, in many cases. A teacher’s job is to help students grow as thinkers, learners, and individuals, and that takes a lot of effort. I’m going to argue for a little restraint. Restraint from planning, structure, and scripting. I’ve said before that teachers really shouldn’t teach. Instead, we need to hold guide and support. We need to look differently at the work of teaching.

Yes, helping students requires attention, care, compassion, and understanding, and that’s hard work. But one good teaching thing it doesn’t require? Control.

In the classes I had to take for my K-12 certification back in the Stone Age, a behaviorism and discipline got a lot of attention. New teachers were expected to train students to act in certain ways so that teaching could be efficient. We wanted compliance—and so did the school systems. Administration wanted predictable teachers. Teachers wanted predictable students. Students wanted predictable tests. Tests administrators wanted predictable results so they could report scores to the relevant stakeholders.

But predictable people are boring. (I’m reminded of the saying, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”) If we want students to think for themselves, solve problems creatively, and form critical perspectives, we need them to be less predictable, not more. We need to stay out of their way as they  grow into their potential. In other words, we need to work less.

Teaching in Fictional Drama

Most teachers portrayed in fiction represent the worst of the profession. (Can anyone think of a quick example? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?) To make relatable, familiar characters, screenwriters rely on stereotypes and common experiences. Few experiences are more common than enduring an awful teacher during childhood. By reminding us of those frustrations, the screenwriters rely on our understanding of what bad teachers wanted when they annoyed us: control.

The distinction between control-seeking, ineffective teaching and control-relinquishing teaching that encourages student agency and growth shows clearly in “Thine Own Self,” episode 16 from Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s seventh season. The teacher/student pairings aren’t what we’d expect: Riker serves as Troi’s teacher, and Data acts as student to a person from a society similar to what we imagine when we think of the Renaissance.

Because the teacher/student pairings go against our expectations, we pay extra attention to how the relational dynamics work. In brief, for the non-über-fans: How could Riker be a fair teacher of a woman he’s romantically bonded to? How could a woman from an unenlightened society have a hope of teaching an android with superhuman mental abilities? Those questions make the episode’s dynamics fun. They should also give teachers something to consider.

Restraint in Expression

Early in the episode, in a scene that at first seems silly, Troi walks in on Riker while he’s practicing his trombone. Rather than respond to her with words, he uses the horn to express his reactions to Troi’s spoken conversational contributions. Eventually Troi teases Riker: “You know, this is a much better way of communicating for you. It’s far less confusing than the way you usually speak!”

Like I said, the scene is silly in the moment. But it serves a useful function in the episode by making viewers consider how people get ideas across to one another. In television dramas, we’re so accustomed to dialogue and possibly facial expressions doing the work of communication that we forget other options exist. By teasing Riker about the clarity of his honking, tooting, and sliding responses, Troi establishes the central lesson of this episode’s secondary story: Less can be more.

By showing us how we, too, can understand Riker’s unusual expression just as clearly as if he used alphabetic language, Troi demonstrates the work that listeners can do to understand speakers—and the benefits those efforts generate.

Restraint in Instruction

The same less-is-more approach returns when Riker assesses Troi’s attempts at the Bridge Officer’s Exam. He tells her right up front that he won’t go easy on her, but we quickly see that the frustration he creates isn’t the kind Troi anticipated. After one of her exam attempts ends in failure—the holodeck-simulated ship explodes, leaving her alone and stunned—she asks for help.

Star Trek character stands alone on the yellow grid of an empty holodeck
Failure hits hard after the ship explodes

But rather than answer her questions and provide reassurance, Riker responds to one question with, “I can’t tell you that,” and the next with, “I can’t tell you that, either.”

Troi feels abandoned and helpless. “How am I supposed to study if you won’t tell me what I did wrong?”

Any teacher who’s ever been asked for an exam study guide knows that question. Any teacher who understands how learning really works understands why Riker evaded a direct answer. Troi would only learn through, or because of, her frustration. Struggle and learning cannot be separated.

Guidance, Not Answers

When we give students direct answers to specific questions, we teach them to come to us for solutions. But if we give students guidance in understanding how to think through their questions and find an answer for themselves, we help them learn. We also show them respect and help them develop a sense of dignity.

See, when we respond to a question without providing an answer, we indicate that our knowledge isn’t what the student should value. Then, when we help them think through their approach to finding an answer, we show them the importance of clear, careful thinking. And when we let them reach their own conclusions, we validate their experience and reasoning, supporting their efforts to be independent learners.

Teaching the Students, Not the Content

When we teach students, our focus must be on the people in our classes, not the material they’re supposed to learn. Teaching the content is backward; the content will be there regardless of whether we teach it. But the students? They’ll leave if unless we support them. We are in the business of caring for people.

That, incidentally, is what Troi had to learn for her exam, too: Trying to command a ship can lead to disaster. But commanding the people aboard that ship keeps the commander’s attention, priorities, and values in check. It wasn’t until she stopped thinking of the technical details of the test and examined the way she handled her personnel that she succeeded.

Because it’s an episodic sci-fi drama for mass consumption, Star Trek scripts tend toward blatancy. When Troi was at her most frustrated, and when she was wasting her time studying the wrong material, Riker conversationally offered her corrective direction twice. First, he explained that “there’s more to being a bridge officer than studying technical manuals.” When she didn’t take the hint, he tried again: “You can study the technical manual all you want, and you’re still not going to pass the test.”

Notice what he didn’t say? How she would pass. He trusted her to get there on her own. And because it’s a television series, of course she succeeds. (Oh, shoot. SPOILER ALERT. Sorry.) We need to help show students that they’re more likely to succeed when they discover the answers themselves.