Trust The Children

Thursday, January 10, 2008

When My Lectures Don't Equal Your Learning

I was in the US Post Office yesterday. I had an experience I suppose many of you have had. There were two stations open and a line of about 15 people. The line was moving slowly and people were patiently aggravated. You know, the kind of smile where the lips are tight and there is little, if any, light in their eyes. Suddenly, from behind the desk a third person came out. "Good", I thought, three lines now. Yet, as soon as she set up shop, one of the original two closed down her station. Over the next 45 minutes as I stood in line, it happened again, only now the line was 20+ long. Another came out, only to have another shut their station down. The bottom line was that these people were committed to 2 stations open, no matter how many people were waiting in line. This is not customer focus.

Customer focus is when you are in a store, the lines are getting long and you hear over the PA system, "Checkers needed up front. Checkers needed up front!" The next thing you see is two new stations open up, people in line moving to the new stations and you are through the lines and on your way pretty darn quick! Doesn't that always feel good when you are the object of someone being customer focused instead of "train and plane schedule" focused?

This same thing can happen in education, at home or at school. It is called by C. Roland Christensen of Harvard, teacher focus instead of student focus. He said in the book, "Education for Judgment" that some teachers become so focused on the excellent presentation of their material, what happens to the student is of little or no concern.(Those are his words, not mine.) "I presented the material, it's their job to get something from it" is the attitude. In other words, a focus on the instructor and not on the student. Or as in the example at the post office, a focus on the needs and schedule of the Post Office staff, irrespective of needs, desires or preferences of the customers.

I believe there may be at least two questionable assumptions going on here. The first is that transfer of information is the same as learning and the second is that learning takes place between the teachers mouth and the learners ears.

The boys and I decided we wanted to build a workshop. They were resourceful and with the help of a kind neighbor who was tearing down some outbuildings, we obtained a large majority of the material we needed. This material still needed to be fabricated into trusses and perlins and other parts of the building. Saturday morning, we would sit down after breakfast and make a list of what needed to be done today. Part of making the list would be my drawing out for them in pictures, how certain things needed to be done so that the building would be built right. Often, they would nod as if they understood. I learned later, that each Saturday I observed that nod, it really meant, I have the information, but I still don't understand. We went to work. They would build the components as we pictured and discussed. However, at some point during these Saturdays, I would hear one of them say, "Oh, I get it now. I see why we needed to do it this way." After weeks of this experience, we all agreed, we had discovered the difference between "transfer of information" and "learning".

Which brings me to the second point. Where does true learning take place? Arbinger Institute in their book, "The Choice - in Teaching and Education" says it about as well as I have ever read it. "Students learn best by watching others learn, not watching others teach". Learning takes place inside the student, between their mind and their heart. Learning takes place within.

If students have information transfered to them, and are tested in their ability to recall that information we think that "learning" has taken place, when all we have tested is their ability to "recall" the inventory of facts. Learning is when the facts come alive for them and become useful and meaningful to them, usually by applying them. Learning is when something lights up inside of the student. The teacher who can do this, is a student centered teacher. The teacher who can create an environment where students not only acquire information, either from an instructor or preferably through their own efforts and apply it and/or use it, does more than teach. He enables learning where learning always happens, between the mind and heart of the learner.

I see this in the teaching of youth all the time. Adults who are focused on their teaching, and thump their chest with the wonderful job they have done talking or expounding or explaining or running a youth program. Such adult advisors give little or no thought as to what has happened or not happened in the minds and hearts of the youth themselves. What conclusions have the youth actually drawn for themselves because of the experience? They rarely think to ask learners at the end of a class what has been learned or what the possible "take-aways" are. Absent such feedback how can teachers "evaluate" whether or not the learning experience they just created was "edifying" or not. And week after week goes on, until the youth need to be congratulated more for the stubborn faithfulness and obedience for attending, than for the increased resolve they now have, to move themselves to new and higher plateaus of living. The youth of the future are often fettered to the past through teacher centered instructors.

Centering instruction on students and what they experience is harder teaching, but I have found it to be more effective. We have freedom in the home, without "administrative" shackles and the benefit of smaller teacher to student ratios, to effect real learning in the lives of those we love most. How? Stay tuned?


  • Mark, this seems like a simple, obvious truth. But somehow, this intuitive knowledge gets lost when we are impatient or have specific expectations in learning and teaching.

    The fact that we, as a culture, are in such a rush for our children to learn, and we have such scrutinizing expectations of them, how can we allow them to learn with experience? It takes too long and they won't learn what they are supposed to. Now, we can't have that, can we?

    By Anonymous Tammy Takahashi, at 10:39 AM, January 11, 2008  

  • This is great. You have clearly explained how to be the greatest teacher which in fact, is not through teaching! Many thanks. I think the above comment is a true reality within current beuracratic and mainstream schooling but it doesn't need to apply to home schooling or where one takes responsibility for their children's learning because at home learning isn't anchored to a clock or someone else's agenda.

    By Blogger Ruth, at 10:34 PM, January 28, 2008  

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