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Differences Between Teaching and Counseling – And Why It Matters

The activities and responsibilities of teaching and counseling are central parts of the healthcare professional’s role, but they are very different.
Remember that old song? “Love and marriage … go together like a horse and carriage.” You might have heard “teaching and counseling” in the same sentence, too. We tend to clump words or activities or events together as if they were the same or at least similar.

You might say, “Marie! Don’t you think this distinction is a little too academic?” No, I don’t. Unless we are clear on which approach to use, we might end up using the wrong one.

Where you start, how the information is given, who is in charge, your role, and the setting are major differences between teaching and counseling.

What is the goal?

Teaching is about establishing a goal, then giving information and possibly advice about a course of action. Ideally, the teacher conducts a needs assessment and identifies a specific learning gap, or problem, and establishes a clear learning goal that bridges the learning gap.

Counseling is goal-oriented, but in a different way. Neither the counselor nor the client has an exact agenda or agreed-upon goal. In some or many cases, the “goal” of the conversation is not identified until after the client reaches it.

Differences between teaching and counseling are especially notable as related to the goal.

Where is the starting point?

The teacher begins at one mostly-obvious starting point. Together, client and teacher move to a pre-determined destination. Ideally, the starting point is at the place of the learning gap.

The counselor, however, often helps the client to go from a nebulous starting point to a more comfortable, more functional place. The client may come to the session confused, frustrated, or overwhelmed. The counselor may be unaware of the client’s unspoken need.

Often, the client is aware of a problem but is unable to articulate the crux of the issue or need. The goal of the counseling is to get a client to come to their own decision.

Differences between teaching and counseling can be noted from the starting line to the finish line.

Differences between teaching and counseling affect format

Teaching follows a relatively clear structure. Using the identified starting point, the teacher offers information to help the client get from Point A to Point B. The teacher develops content to support the learning goal, and uses content that is similar from one person or group to another person or group with the same learning need. The teacher tends to emphasize the “best” information. Supporting materials (visual aids, etc.) have been located ahead of time.

Counseling usually includes presenting fairly unstructured information to help the client see the benefits, the risks, and the alternatives through a more precise lens. Materials to support content may or may not be used, but these are usually not pre-planned. Content differs a little or a lot from one person or group to another.

Differences between teaching and counseling can be noted in the structure — or lack thereof — as well as the format and the presentation in general.

Role of the client

A teacher leads the interaction. As an expert, she gives information, or recommends a course of action. The teacher tries to help the client to achieve a skill (for example, how to change a diaper) or tries to persuade the client to do or avoid a particular action (for example, eat a healthy diet.)

The counselor encourages the client to do most of the talking while the counselor listens. The counselor does not make a decision for the client. Sometimes, the client changes her mind on the course of action, and a counselor’s responsibility is to support and assist through this process.

The roles are very different between teaching and counseling. A teacher’s main job is to talk and instruct while a client listens. A counselor’s main job is to listen, guide and empower the client..

In short, differences between teaching and counseling focus on the words direction or facilitation. Teaching focuses on giving directing an action; counseling focuses on facilitating decisions or next actions.

Setting is frequently different

Teaching is done in a group or on a one-on-one basis. Counseling is done on a one-to-one basis, or perhaps between a counselor and a couple.

The activities and responsibilities of teaching and counseling are central parts of the healthcare professional’s role, but they are very different.

Do you find it difficult to identify differences between teaching and counseling?  Do you find yourself doing one when you should be doing the other? 

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  1. Roberta

    This article was very helpful! It definitely brought clarity to me; and I think having the questions at the end will challenge me as well as help me to stay focused. Thank you!

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      Roberta, thank you for your feedback. I really struggled to write this post. Although I knew they were different, I found it hard to articulate the differences between teaching and counseling. Teaching has always come easily to me. Counseling? Uh, not so much! Nowadays, however, I find myself teaching people how to counsel! Yikes! I think the key here is, as you say, having clarity; being able to stop ourselves when we are doing one, when we should be doing the other. Thanks again.

  2. Gayathri

    Well said, thank you Marie for putting things in perspective! I think teaching as a teacher/lecturer versus counselor as a listener/facilitator.

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