Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Translation and Teaching

by Roger A. Golde - 1974

This article is an examination of one particularly crucial and generally overlooked aspect of teaching: what the author calls "translation."

Roger A. Golde is an education and management consultant based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He received his B.A. and M.B.A. degrees from Harvard and has taught graduate courses at Northeastern University and Babson Institute.

. . . after all I don't just follow a blind routine. I have lots of discretion about how I do what is prescribed. And even though each person is unique, it's just an impossibility to treat each individually. You simply have to rely on the capacity of each person to assimilate what is important.

Look here, I'm well regarded; people clamor to talk with me; I'm praised for my ability to communicate. It's just damn frustrating: half the people never do seem to get what I'm talking about; some others appear to understand it, but it doesn't seem to make much difference. Hell, even those few who really do get what I'm driving at, always do something different with it from what I expected or wanted.

Sure, I know how negatively most people react to being taught something. And I know the research shows it doesn't seem to matter much how you go about teaching; the same learning (or lack of it) occurs no matter what. It's just that I still feel how I go about transmitting my ideas does make a difference...

I think these ramblings convey something of the mood within which my ideas for this article began to shape themselves. Perhaps they convey the mood within which many of my thoughts about teaching were congealing. Now by teaching I do not mean only formal classroom settings. I mean to deal as well with the informal kinds of teaching I found myself doing as an analyst of business deals, a corporate manager, a reorganizer of government structures, a choral director, a producer of video cassettes, a writer, and a management consultant. In all these roles I often communicated with others in order to affect them in some way by imparting knowledge, i.e., transmitting facts, procedures, philosophies or perspectives. Did this not involve a lot of teaching—perhaps more than I realized at the time?

Do not many other careers also involve heavy doses of teaching: a doctor with his patient, a salesman with his customer, a lawyer with his client? In fact, the dictionary definition of the verb teach is:

to show or demonstrate; give instruction to; provide with knowledge or insight; cause to know or understand.

Now if we are all teachers some of the time, I would also argue that we are all learners much of the time as well. Primarily I will take the point of view of the teacher—in the broad sense I have defined it. But inevitably much of what I say will involve the nature of learning—again in the wider meaning of the term. What follows is not an attempt to create an overall framework for teaching and learning. Rather it is an examination of one particularly crucial and, I believe, generally overlooked aspect of teaching: something I call "translation."


Knowing has been parsed in many ways over the centuries, but I will confine myself to just one rather ancient distinction between two kinds of knowing. The distinction is best captured by the two French verbs connaitre and savoir which both mean roughly "to know." It is perhaps significant that the English language contains no direct way to express the difference between these two French verbs.

Connaitre means knowing in the sense of being acquainted with; having an idea or notion about; an ability to recognize or distinguish. The phrase, "Do you know Harvey Broadwhistle from Detroit?" would use the verb connaitre.

Savoir expresses more the idea of comprehension or understanding; knowing how to. "How much do you know?" or "Do you know how to pole vault?" are phrases that would use the verb savoir. In fact, English has borrowed the expression savoir faire, which means a ready knowledge of what to do or say and when and how to do or say it. We also have the word sage which connotes wisdom or good judgment.

As a teacher I want to feel that what I do ultimately results in some different kind of behavior on the part of the learner—in essence some savoir kind of knowing. By different behavior I do not mean only externally visible actions or differences. I am fond of pointing out that we could ask a six-year old whether or not the United States should expand trade with Russia. The yes (or no) answer of the child might be identical with that given by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. But we are not therefore entitled to infer that both of them were manifesting the same behavior. In other words, different behavior includes what goes on before we act, and perhaps even while we act; the consideration of new possibilities; differences in the way we feel about a particular action (even though we still decide to take it).


I use the term translation to represent an important process which I believe is fundamental to the achievement of the savoir kind of learning and the different behavior which is integral to it. In particular, translation refers to the process of integrating a new piece of knowledge into the complicated mechanical, chemical, and electric system which is the learner. I visualize integration in terms of making connections, hooking in, or linking up.

I find the more orthodox connotations of translation extremely appropriate to my special usage of the term. Translation literally means "to change from one place, position, or condition to another; to transfer." (Apparently, the original theological meaning of translation involved the notion of conveying to heaven without death—a fascinating metaphor to apply to the transfer of knowledge involved in education.)

I imagine a piece of knowledge not as a neat packet, but rather as a fuzzy, amoeba-like glob. Around the nucleus of the glob are a great number of flowing projections, like many arms reaching out (although scientifically I am told they would be called pseudopods). Translation includes the transfer and transplantation of the whole amoeba-like glob, not just the nucleus.

The process might be diagrammed in an oversimplified way as in Figure 1. The shape of the glob ends up varying with the environment into which the knowledge is incorporated (indicated in the diagram by the different shapes of the knowledge glob). Those free flowing arms of the glob are in various stages of development, and they have evolved to fit in with an environment which is never quite like that of the learner. In the process of translation, inappropriate arms of the glob must be stripped away and other arms developed to link the glob into its new environment. Changes may also have to be made among the learner's already existing connections in order to accommodate the new piece of knowledge (indicated in the diagram by the different contours in the Learner Before and the Learner After).

(At this point you may be nodding your head in agreement, while feeling that this concept of translation is far from earthshaking. This would not be surprising, since all of us have been learning things for years and have no doubt gone through the process of translation countless times. I do suggest, however, that it can be useful to do some highly explicit thinking about this process of translation.)

To summarize briefly, I believe the real problem of learning is that things do not look like they feel Watching somebody else do something or listening to him talk about it is not the same as doing it yourself—and that holds all the way from playing tennis to meeting a payroll or solving a problem in algebra. What translation is all about is bridging that gap between what knowledge looks like and what it feels like; and I believe this kind of translation is necessary to all learning.

Now I have used the term environment several times in describing what I mean by translation. Let me amplify. The notion of environment and the usefulness of viewing any environment in terms of two different segments which both must be considered in the process of translation will now be developed.



Notwithstanding the merit of such cosmic viewpoints as "No man is an island" or "we are all brothers," I still find it practical to make some distinctions between ourselves and the world around us. I think in terms of a continuum running from negligible involvement to almost total and exclusively personal involvement. For instance, we have negligible involvement with the hundreds of people admitted daily to hospitals for treatment of cancer. We have increasingly more involvement with the cancer of an acquaintance down the block; the cancer of a good friend; that of a close relative; and finally the discovery of our own cancer.

Now suppose we sit down to read a book about cancer. I suggest that we may translate the knowledge in that book quite differently if we are concerned about the cancer of an acquaintance down the block rather than the cancer of a parent or spouse, and differently again if we have been told that we ourselves are fighting a cancer.

Let me resort to a graphic analogy which may clarify some of the distinctions I want to make:

Imagine that the small shaded disc in Figure 2 represents the individual. The large circles are domains in the world around the individual. For instance, the solidly outlined circle is a domain that includes a substantial portion of the shaded disc symbolizing the individual. The circle of dashes includes much less of the individual. The circle of Xs represents a part of the world in which the individual is, for all practical purposes, not involved.

By environment(s) I mean only those domains (circles) where at least a portion of the individual himself (shaded disc) is included. In one sense then, translation consists of moving a part of the world from a domain that lies beyond the individual into a domain that includes at least a part of the individual, i.e., one of his environments.



Now consider the area of any one of the circles I am calling an environment. Part of the area is taken up by the individual himself (the shaded disc). This segment is what I call the "inside" environment—what is going on inside the skin of the individual. The remaining part of the environment is the "outside" environment— the immediate phenomena around the learner but outside his skin, e.g., machines, money, other people, buildings.

I admit that pinning down exactly what is inside and what is outside the skin of an individual is not always easy or even feasible. But in some rough ways it is possible to distinguish between these two parts of an individual's environment. The distinction is worth making because I believe an individual handles things quite differently in the inside and outside parts of his environment. Broadly categorized, these differences are:

1. Size: I suspect you did not quibble with the relative size of the shaded disc in Figure 2. Normally we feel we are but a small part of that enormous expanse (in a spatial sense) of happenings around us. This spatial reaction, however, overlooks the variable of density. Researchers tell us that the operating elements of our brain and nervous system are very tiny and packed with a rather phenomenal density. It well may be that the bits and pieces we have to string together inside us far exceed what we have to deal with outside.

2. Complexity: I suppose by complexity I mean variety and interrelatedness— both of which are intimately affected by the number of elements in a system. I would argue that the complexity of the inside part of an environment often exceeds that of the outside part of the same environment. Our inside environments contain not only a vast array of so-called facts, but multiple processes, attitudes, and emotions as well. Nor can we overlook the mysteries of the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious (or subconscious) levels at which we can operate—all of which certainly adds considerable complexity.

3. Logical and Nonlogical Approaches: Logical generally implies a set of premises and rules for proceeding from the premises. Consistency, precision, and symbolic manipulation characterize this approach along with the related notions of cause and effect, pattern, and ordered sequence. The nonlogical approach includes what is often referred to as intuition, creative insight, muddling, inspiration, and so forth. The nonlogical approach is more emotional and often characterized by ambiguity, wandering, or other forms of imprecision. Recent research even indicates that logical and nonlogical abilities are each centered in a different hemisphere of the brain.

I suggest that we can operate in the outside part of our environments much more logically than is possible in the inside part. Civilization and language provide some of the reason for this capacity. After all, civilization is basically an attempt to impose an orderly (logical) aspect on our existence through relatively precise rules and regulations for individual conduct. In addition, we have come to depend heavily on language in our dealings with the outside. And language is rooted in logic and order—rules of grammar or syntax and the consistency of semantic patterns or meanings.

Further, I believe that externally visible actions have in general a more precise, logical character than internal thought or reflection. "Doing" tends to involve one thing at a time in some sort of sequence. Doing two things at once is an uncommon phenomenon and usually commented upon as such. Studies of the brain, however, have led many researchers to conclude that parallel and multiple processing is quite common. Moreover, acting or doing (which perforce involves the outside environment) tends to minimize ambiguity. We typically must do one thing or another. We either promote Throckmorton or we do not. Mentally, however, we do not face the same restrictions. We can assume the advantages of both options or any combination thereof.

Incidentally, I suspect that the size and complexity of the inside environment also play a role in making it difficult to apply logical processes. For one thing, logical processes are probably most effective in those situations where boundaries can be drawn that reduce the size of the problem and limit the number of interrelationships to be considered. Often such boundaries are more easily drawn in the outside part of our environment.

4. Control: By control I mean primarily the predictability of something in an environment plus the related matter of how precisely we can influence that something, i.e., affect the prediction.

The development of the hard sciences, such as physics and chemistry, have given all of us significant control over much of our inanimate outside environment. In passing, note how much of the hard sciences is associated with the logical processes.

People in our outside environment are not quite as much under our control. But the relative order of our civilization does provide us with some degree of control. Actually, it is our more intimate relationships which are less predictable (controllable), and it is precisely those relationships which fall more outside the logical, ordered bounds of societal customs.

What about the inside part of our environment? Do you remember the old trick of betting someone he cannot spend the next minute without thinking of a pink elephant? It is hard to ignore a particular thought or to dismiss an emotion (even harder when the thought or emotion is unconscious). So ironically it may be that we have much less control over ourselves (the inside part of our environment) than we have over other people, and certainly much less control than we have over inanimate objects (which appear only in the outside part of our environment).

5. Observability: In discussing the differences between the inside and outside parts of an environment, I have been talking as an outsider looking down at both parts. Of course that is not quite accurate when we are dealing with our own environments, which leads to another distinction.

In essence it is more difficult (or at least quite different) to observe ourselves dealing with ourselves than it is to observe ourselves dealing with things outside ourselves. Looked at another way, we can keep track of our actions a lot easier than we can keep track of our thoughts. I have used the term observability to describe this factor primarily in order to avoid the more common term objectivity. Neither the way an individual deals with the inside part of his environment nor the way he deals with the outside part can be called objective in the usual sense of the word. Both the outside and inside parts of the environment, as I have defined them, are subjective, i.e., involve the individual. Also I fear the term objective is assumed to represent a desirable quality, something to strive for. I want to avoid this implication in noting a difference in the observability of inside and outside parts of an environment.

I hope I have provided some specific bases for my hypothesis that the inside and outside parts of a person's environment are quite different—different in content as well as processes. When we connect up things in our inside environment, they do not necessarily become linked up with what is going on in the outside part of our environment and vice versa. In other words translating to one part of our environment (inside or outside) does not imply simultaneous translation to the other part of our environment. In education, each of the two kinds of translation may require separate attention and perhaps even a different approach. The key point is that effective translation of new knowledge usually requires making connections with both the inside and outside parts of our environment.


Does formal teaching deal with translation? After all, the formal type of teaching does typically manifest some explicit concern about its own effectiveness. So presumably formal teaching might give more thought to translation than we might in more informal teaching situations. Furthermore, I feel that the contexts and approaches of formal teaching exert enormous influence on the way we all approach our roles as informal teachers. It is difficult for us to do more than select from among the teaching models provided us during our formal schooling experiences. Looking at formal education can also provide additional insights into the very concept of translation itself.


My observations refer primarily to college and graduate school training, although much of the analysis may well apply to elementary and high school settings with which I am less familiar.

A striking aspect of the university context is its almost total inattention to the outside part of the learner's environment—almost as if the learner were assumed to live in a temporary vacuum. Apparently, the subject matter being taught is supposed to sit in readiness for that time later on in the learner's "real" existence when it may be needed. At best, some fuzzy sort of contingent future environment is conjured up into which the student is supposed to project himself.

But the learner does not live in a vacuum. The university itself provides a complex and fascinating outside environment: competition with fellow students, participation in extracurricular activities, and dealing with teachers or administrative personnel. And the university itself is usually lodged within a broader urban or rural community. Moreover, the learner is continuously dealing with his family and his friends of both sexes. Are these elements really so different from the later postgraduation, outside environment of the learner? Is inattention to the student's environment perhaps what lies at the core of campus debates about the "relevance" of the curriculum? Could it be that the radical activism on college campuses in the 60s was fundamentally an attempt by students to demonstrate that they actually did have some sort of "real" outside environment in which they functioned?

This denial of the learner's outside environment is paralleled by a similar neglect of the learner's inside environment, or "point of view" as I used to call it. What does the teacher of English literature, or history, or calculus assume about the point of view of his students? I suppose that a teacher's occasional attempts to inject humor belie a token awareness of the student's environment ("where he is at" is the colloquial expression, I believe). By and large, I contend that most teachers feel a point of view is what the learner is supposed to be getting from the course, not something he brings to it. I shudder to realize it was quite some years after my prestigious formal schooling that I really came to understand what it was for me to have my own point of view in reading or writing something.

Actually, a perverse kind of translation often does creep in as the learner attempts to translate into the teacher's environment (both the inside and outside parts). The name of the game is to learn the teacher's point of view and how to relate to it; discover the links and connections of the teacher rather than build one's own. Exams, grades, and other procedures of academia serve as strong reinforcers for this kind of translation, i.e., doping out what "they" want. In fact, "doping out what somebody else wants" may be the primary skill being taught throughout most of prework schooling.

I don't cite this as a startling revelation, since similar observations have been made by many contemporary critics of the school scene. Nor do I condemn this kind of translation out of hand. It probably has an important place in formal teaching. Doping out someone else's point of view (environment) can come in handy in many later career situations. I would point out, however, that "learning someone else's point of view" may be the most difficult of all types of translation, as experts in psychology and human behavior will attest. In particular, such a skill may be very difficult for someone who has not become truly aware of his own inside and outside environment.

What troubles me more is the insidious way that translating to the teacher's environment tends to decrease the learner's awareness of his own environments; it clouds the realization that ultimately the learner must make his own connections if the new knowledge is to have any enduring effect. By constantly translating into the teacher's environment, what the learner develops is a kind of pseudo-environment—a part of his own inside and outside environment that resembles the teacher's. But this small bit of pseudo-environment is off to one side and usually does not get connected up with the rest of the learner's own environment. So the new facts or ways of thinking are often not available later when needed because they were never really assimilated in the first place-never actually translated to the learner's own environment. Deprived of these more fundamental connections, the new knowledge withers away—sometimes as quickly as the day after the exam.

General education or liberal arts courses are not the only ones to fall prey to this syndrome. It also happens quite regularly in the more professionally oriented courses, such as science, business, or political administration. I recall, for instance, the way many of my business school classmates and I went about recruiting for our first jobs during the last year of graduate school. The financial analysis we made of our potential employers would have received a flunking grade in the basic first-year finance course—a course which naturally all of us had passed.

Is this lack of translation why so much of our formal schooling seems a waste; why so much more real learning seems to come out of extracurricular activities or the time spent with parents, wives, and children (all of which represent parts of a "real" outside environment)?


A similar neglect of translation is not unknown in the rapidly growing field of continuing adult education. Often the adult is subtly coerced into an educational program, even required to take it by an organization he works for. He needs assistance in translation as much as any younger student.

On the other hand, adult enrollment in a course is quite frequently a conscious well-considered decision by someone with a fair idea of what he hopes to learn. Thus the orientation and motivation of some adult learners do assist translation to the outside environment. Incidentally, on-the-job training is perhaps the one form of teaching which generally does concern itself explicitly with translation, at least to the outside part of the learner's environment. Perhaps this is why most organizations rank on-the-job training as the most effective (and most widely used) type of education.

Translation to the inside part of the adult's environment typically fares less well. I would argue that the inside part of the adult's environment is to some degree more complicated and less flexible than that of the younger learner, i.e., new connections may be harder to make than before. Yet I find no indication that any more attention is paid to this aspect of translation in continuing education (or on-the-job training) than it is in college or graduate school. Few teachers modify their approach substantially when dealing with adults instead of college students. If anything, the teacher of adults is more likely to comment that making the necessary translation is really up to the learner. The rub is that as a younger learner the adult never did get much practice in translating to his inside environment. He may not even have become explicitly aware of the necessity for this process to occur.


In recent decades the lecture approach has faced severe criticism. New techniques have gained considerable stature—techniques emphasizing participation, discussion, discovery, and most recently affective learning. To the best of my knowledge these newer techniques do not explicitly use the term translation nor consciously focus on translation as a goal. Nonetheless, are these newer techniques not more conducive to translation? In an attempt to answer this question, I have chosen two of these newer techniques for a closer look: the case method and sensitivity or encounter group learning.


This technique was pioneered in the area of management education but has since spread to many other fields. Typically the case is used to extract important principles and knowledge. Or sometimes the case is used as a specific context in which the learner attempts to apply new knowledge. Both approaches would seem to provide a form of translation. The idea is that if the case process is repeated using many "cases," then the student will have learned to make the proper translation into any situation.

The point, however, is that not one of those case situations is a part of the learner's real environment, outside or inside. In fact, this characteristic of the case method is one of its touted virtues. The argument is that a case puts a certain "distance" between the learner and his own outside environment. In this way the learner can supposedly look at new ideas more objectively, free from the politics, emotional commitments, or biases he may have in his own situation.

And the distancing mechanism of the case method does work; it effectively opens up the learner to new ideas as well as providing a more specific, common context for group discussion. But the very concept of distancing is a move away from the crucial problem of translation. The case situation simply does not portray the actual environment of the university student, although it is fascinating to contemplate developing cases that would do so. Similarly for the working adult, few cases accurately reflect his own situation; even when they do, the adult learner may not realize it.

Moreover, the learner is not really a character in the case, he only pretends to be. He tries to decide what he would do if he were the decision-making character, if he were in the case situation. So the learner can often easily avoid coping seriously with his own inside environment as he discusses the case. As many hard-nosed executives are fond of pointing out, there is an enormous difference between the steps you take to meet a payroll in real life and what you contemplate doing in a case; between firing a real person and firing someone in a case.

Less well known is the use of cases as a kind of projective medium, i.e., the case becomes a loose context into which the learner projects his own inside or outside environment. When used this way, cases do sometimes lead the learner to do some effective translating—but not for long. This projective approach seems to work precisely because the learner is not aware of what he is doing (how he is exposing himself). Usually the learner soon realizes what is going on and tends to back off. For instance, one case used in a well-known business school involves a young business graduate dealing with the problems of his first job. Note that at least this case does try to deal with the problem of translation itself, i.e., translating the business training into a setting where perhaps not everyone else has had the same training. But the class discussion on this case is usually dull or at best hostile. Most students conclude that either they will not encounter such problems, or the problems seem so real and troubling they do not feel up to coping with them.

In short, the case method is normally not much more than another method for creating the acquaintanceship kind of knowing, albeit a rather effective method. When used in a projective way, the case method may be able to induce translation. But I contend that explicitly using cases in this way should lead to developing quite different kinds of cases as well as using very different tactics in conducting case discussions.


This type of teaching approach has developed out of the humanistic psychology field, (sometimes referred to as the human potential movement). The general goal of the approach is to help an individual get more in touch with his own feelings, emotions, or behavior so that he may better realize his own inherent potentialities (sometimes called self-actualization).

In these sessions a small group of participants work together in large part using their own feelings, attitudes, and reactions as the material for discussion. In other words, the participants' own experiences, including those occurring in the session, become the subject material of the session. The flow of the session tends to be relatively unstructured. The atmosphere is permissive in order to encourage experimentation with new types of behavior.

From this brief description, it should be apparent that sensitivity or encounter sessions do consciously address themselves to the inside part of the learner's environment. Sometimes very effective translation can occur, but just as often the translation process is thwarted because of an unapparent double bind which develops.

One part of the bind occurs because the innovative approaches of the humanistic psychologists are not devoid of value judgments or preferences for one type of behavior over another. Carl Rogers, one of the movement's leaders, admits there is a profound rationale, a philosophy of life and of education, underlying each new set of techniques. In fact, near cults have grown up around key psychologists and their work: Fritz Perls and gestalt psychotherapy; Eric Beirne and transactional analysis; Alexander Lowen and bioenergetics, to name a few.

The double bind occurs when the group leader does not explicitly admit to the learners that the group sessions do represent a specific philosophy. On the one hand, the learner is encouraged to be free and express himself or try out new styles of behavior, while unofficially the leader may be rewarding or penalizing rather specific forms of behavior. There may be great pressure to "get with it" and "see the light" but the ground rules prohibit examination of this pressure itself.

In the worst case a learner experiences such tremendous pressure from the group and leader that his own system of connections may break down without anything yet sufficiently developed to replace it. More often the learner temporarily flips into the new system of connections and develops a piece of pseudo-environment—a part of his environment which is not really plugged in and tends to wither and fade away once removed from the pressure of the encounter session or the charisma of the leader.

The point is that in most sensitivity sessions new knowledge is being transmitted, but with little recognition of the learner's need to adapt what is being proffered. The situation is particularly tricky because the new knowledge is often about the learner's own environment. Most of us have simply never given much explicit attention to the process for translating such kinds of behavioral insights. Translation becomes even more difficult when the new sets of values that are floating around are not specifically labelled as such by the leader. Often the tendency is to accept or reject totally the new ideas. Perhaps this is just what tends to give such a cult-like quality to the devotees of various forms of affective learning.

I also find most sensitivity sessions very weak in dealing with translation to the learner's outside environment, sometimes to the extent of not even admitting this is a problem. True, some sessions do deal with small group dynamics, the use of power and control, or other topics related to the learner's outside environment. But the application of this material to the everyday world of the learner outside the session is slighted. In other words, an individual may e-merge from an encounter session with rather startling new insights about himself, more sensitive to the feelings and behavior of others. But he has had little chance to work through how he will incorporate these new insights into his normal, everyday interactions.

The individual may assume no translation to his outside environment is necessary because nobody told him it was. Thus he plunges blindly ahead, subjecting those around him to his "new self." Unfortunately, those other "unenlightened" people may not understand. They may find his new behavior inappropriate—even upsetting. The result may create the kind of "horror stories" frequently cited about returning sensitivity session participants: the employee who begins yelling at or publicly insulting his boss; or the college student who starts staring at everyone he meets, looking them straight in the eyeball (an important part of some encounter sessions). Perhaps the resultant upheavals (and even dismissals) are for the better. In many cases, however, the results apparently are not those desired by either the individual or the organization sponsoring the sensitivity session.

More often, the enraptured, total acceptance by the learner during the session does not lead to any enduring translation. The effects of the session quickly wither away under the more compelling pressures of the individual's existing inside and outside environments.


This survey of teaching suggests then that translation is not exactly flourishing. More precisely, the existing contexts and techniques of teaching are not in themselves forcing attention to translation. At the same time, I do not find anything truly incompatible between translation and the existing approaches to teaching. In other words, I believe that greater attention to translation can be incorporated into almost any style of teaching (on campus or off). I even dare to wonder whether the rather ubiquitous, minimal attention to translation does not account for why the amount of learning seems to vary so little with the particular style of teaching used.

Most formal and informal teachers with whom I have discussed my notions have little disagreement about the importance of translation. Yet I do not get the feeling they are planning to do much about it. Without their saying so exactly, they seem to feel they cannot do much about it, or they may really not want to do much about it. Evidently translation is something of a Pandora's box, or at least a box of some sort. I propose taking the risk of at least a little peek inside that box.


A vital part of teaching is the transmission of ideas that are new to the learner. The dictionary defines new in these terms: never existing before, thought of for the first time, strange, unfamiliar. In my terms I take new to mean unrelated to the learner's environment, i.e., difficult to connect up with what the learner already knows, like the old example of describing the taste of an avocado to someone who has never tasted an avocado.

I do make a distinction between newness and awareness. Some knowledge may be out of awareness but not very new because it can be easily related to other knowledge already in awareness, i.e., translation is easy because an appropriate set of connections is ready and waiting. Incidentally, the processes of logic are often used to make such a translation. My point is that if the new knowledge can be connected up in a completely logical fashion, then it is not really very new. Nowadays we seem to be finding that more and more of what we want to transmit to others does not fit together in nice logical fashion with what they already know.

In short, the problem is that we really excel in teaching people what they already know.


It is hard enough to translate something new to an individual learner's environment. But even as informal teachers we must typically deal with many individuals, if not all at once, at least over the course of time. The odds are that each of these individuals lives in somewhat differing environments, and so the connections to be made with something new will probably vary also.

The tendency is to throw up our hands as we simply throw up the knowledge for grabs. We tend to take the pragmatic position of placing responsibility for translation heavily on the learner. We assume most individuals have this capability, but if they don't, there is not much that can be done. Attending individually to each person's translation appears to take just too much time.

Some of the most effective teaching I know involves a class of millions of learners and a teacher who isn't even present to answer questions. I am talking about radio and TV advertising. Good advertising pays more attention to (and achieves more effective) translation than most academic teaching I have encountered.


Effective translation means the learner has altered the knowledge glob and/or his environment. These alterations are usually not the same ones you as the teacher have made. Moreover, the results of successful translation may manifest themselves quite differently for each learner. The standard exams or tests of today would not seem to indicate much about the new connections individually developed by the learner. In fact, I would suggest that a uniform response by a variety of individuals to any sort of common test would be indicative of a rather low level of translation.

Thus if you believe that translation is an important part of effective teaching, you face the problem of no ready-made way to find out whether or not the teaching has really been assimilated.


Whether or not we control our own destinies has been a subject of philosophical debate for centuries. Whether or not we would like to control our fate seems to be less controversial. At least in the United States we seem to have come down strongly on the side of individual freedom. We worry a good deal about the control one individual can exert over another and stoutly defend the right to privacy, free speech, and free assembly. Currently there is heated debate about the limits of governmental control—all the way from competition and pricing in business to the more private spheres of sexual behavior or drug taking. New scientific technologies pose serious questions in this area, e.g., the recent outcry against the use of surgical or chemical means for altering a patient's brain even in presumably pathological cases. And there are developments in the behavioral sciences which imply the ability to manipulate (control) another individual. Look at the violent reaction to Skinner's behavioristic approach on the part of those who interpret it as uncomfortably deterministic.

The activity of teaching plops us smack in the middle of this age old concern for individual freedom. Isn't education the original mind-bender; isn't the central purpose of teaching to alter someone—perhaps irreversibly? We try to affect (control) the learner through our teaching, but by ignoring the translation problem we ensure that we will not necessarily be that effective. To put it another way, suppose we had a magical way to accomplish translation, a way absolutely guaranteed to make another individual learn what we desired. Would we not criticize such absolute control as a form of undesirable brainwashing? Leaving translation up to the learner re-introduces that element of freedom we all deem so precious. Is it possible that secretly we all fear being truly effective teachers?


Well, a peep in Pandora's box provides plenty of problems. The "new" which most requires teaching turns out to be the hardest to translate. Even if we succeed with one person, how can we possibly deal with so many differing individuals. When we succeed, we are likely not to know it. And to top it all off we may not really want to succeed in the first place.

As usual, however, there is at least one other way to view each of the problems. Within the confines of this article I can do no more than titillate your own sense of adventure by briefly indicating some possible directions for exploration.

Take the problem of "newness." Why not start from the premise that "there is really nothing new under the sun." Everything can be related in some way to everything else. The "new" can be taught if enough attention is paid to ferreting out the proper relationships to what is already known. In this context I believe the use of modeling could be considerably extended as a means of assisting translation. After all, the core of model building is making explicit certain relationships which exist within a rather complicated set of experiences, whether or not a person uses himself as the model or constructs a model outside himself to which he can point. For instance, consider these possibilities for extending the use of modeling:

—Typically modeling focuses on a piece of knowledge or skill. Could not modeling also deal with the way a piece of knowledge or a skill fits into the learner's environment?

—Most models deal with the learner's outside environment. Would it not be possible to use modeling to transmit something about a person's inside environment (the way some yoga gurus or even singing teachers do)?

—Perhaps even the learner himself could become a fruitful source of modeling. Who is better acquainted with the problems of a particular translation than a learner himself?

—Modeling generally relies on tight, literal analogies and relationships. Perhaps looser, less literal modeling will turn out to be more effective in helping a learner make the new connections required for effective translation.

Take the matter of individuality. If we increase the degree to which the education is guided by the learner rather than the teacher, would this not resolve some of the problems of individuality? Here are a few alternatives:

—The learner could be given control over the sequence of instruction, so that connections would be made in the order most appropriate to him. Experiments along this line indicate that learning time can be significantly reduced as well as the total time demands on the teacher. Notably the student generated sequences differ substantially from what is logical for the teacher. What kinds of obstacles must the student face when the instructor controls the sequence?

—Might it not even be possible to extend learner control to the content as well as the sequencing of a given curriculum? Perhaps what I am talking about is modifying certain concepts and techniques of the "open classroom" approach now being tried in some elementary education.

—Without the opportunity to try something new or different, the learner is highly unlikely to make a complete translation. Creating a safe, experimental setting may be a key ingredient for achieving ultimate translation. Note that such a setting might also ameliorate some of the problems of coping with individual differences in the translation process.

If some of these approaches are more fully explored, they might suggest new ways to deal with the problem of measuring translation. Primarily I suspect we might discover how to let the learner himself tell us whether we had succeeded instead of the reverse. Moreover, if the same piece of knowledge is translated differently by each person, would that not tend to mitigate some of the concern about teachers having absolute control?

Perhaps these rough ideas suggest to you different, more intriguing avenues for exploration. Perhaps my brief probes have convinced you only the more firmly that the Pandora's box of translation should remain firmly shut. I fear, however, I have let the cat out of the box, so to speak. There are implications for teaching regardless of your point of view. For example, if you feel nothing really new can be taught (translated), that will certainly affect what you try to teach. At the very least it should influence the order in which you try to teach things. Or, for instance, if you feel translation must be (or ought to be) left to the learner, then you should logically exhibit some concern for getting the learner to realize the necessity of doing such translation. That is to say, while I have been arguing the importance of translation in teaching, you may conclude that what is really important is to teach translation. At a minimum you may want to help acquaint the learner with the existence and substance of his own environments.

Translation does indeed pose some difficult problems—problems for living with because they will not disappear by the application of some magic formula. But once you admit to the existence of translation, I contend your teaching cannot remain unaffected.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 76 Number 1, 1974, p. 101-118
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1340, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 5:26:19 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue