Trust The Children

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

What Is Teaching? What Is Learning?

I read the quote above recently. It is attributed to a past president of the American Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker. 1 It crystalized something that has been running around in my mind for some time.

Have you read, "Jonathan Livingston Seagull"? Have you seen the movie, "Happy Feet"? There are others of a similar theme. The masses make assumptions. An individual risks his reputation because he sees life a little differently from the masses. The individual is cast out of the group for the vision in his head, but persists. In the end, whether generally accepted or not, the truth of the new vision prevails.

Don't most people make assumptions about what education is and how it should be done? All of us do. Aren't most of those assumptions based on a subjective view of our own past experience, and not an objective view of what education should or could be? I think so. Sir Kenneth Robinson in his TED lecture on creativity points this out. He says that for most people education is a topic of passion, and not just another headline in todays paper.

Take a moment, if you will, and read this statement and think about it for a while... "Teaching is telling, knowledge is facts, and learning is recall." 1 Isn't this statement the generally accepted idea about eduction? Isn't it what we did, for the most part, when in school ourselves. We were sure it was education. We were sure it was learning. Isn't this what we believe constitutes "education"? But, what if it isn't?

What if true "education" is something different entirely? What about students being able to apply knowledge instead of just build an inventory of it? What about students being able "manipulate facts within some general framework"2 instead of just possess a passing knowledge of the "facts"? What if "teaching is enabling, knowledge is understanding and learning is the active construction of subject matter"3?

Organizing information, presenting it well, answering the questions of an enquiring mind and testing for ability to recall information, is what teaching is about. OK, I get that. But what is learning about? You mean teaching and learning might be two completely separate things? Yes!

Research is bringing to the fore, more about what a learner is doing when actual learning is taking place. While this may be an over simplification, 1) learners are extending and revising prior knowledge, 2) learners are connecting meaning from something they already know, to this new thing they are considering and 3) learners are making their learning concrete when they apply it to actual problem solving situations. 4

Notice that learning is something that takes place inside the learner and NOT in the chasm between the mouth of the teacher and ears of the learner. It happens inside our children. If this is true, it has profound implications about what it means to educate our children.

One is summarized by Pat Montgomery, educator and founder of Clonlara Schools, "The work of a child is play." Play, from 0 to 12 or so, allows our children the time they need to draw conclusions, make connections and practice applying what they are learning, all the while preserving natural curiosity. Needless busy work in the lives of our children, often precludes this, as they are so totally engaged in the "Teaching is telling, knowledge is facts, and learning is recall" process. (I think this is why I have shied away from home schooling curriculum for the most part, especially in the younger years. They seem so much to me a replication of the busy work in the system, making the home no different than the school when it comes to having time for "learning".)

One of my favorites is taught by the Arbinger Institute, "Children learn more from watching other people learn, than from watching other people teach." 5This again, supports the idea that we are well served when we assume that learning takes place inside a learner, and quite often independent of the direct "teaching" of the teacher. As a father of eleven, my children have each earned a "doctorate in Life Lessons" observing the mistakes and successes of their Dad. This is been a lively classroom for them, in real time, living technicolor and often surround sound.

When active learning is taking place, it is often the result of a "teacher" creating an environment where personal discovery can take place. Our children may need facilitators and enablers more than "teachers" in much of what they do as they learn. Even more encouraging for average parents like most of us, is that people who know a lot, don't necessarily make the best facilitators or enablers.

If we as parents can empty our bowls of the cold, old soup of our past, we make room for a new hot delicious soup to warm us on a winter day. Pouring the inviting warm new soup over the old, only gives us luke warm, diluted soup. However, an all new bowl of soup consists of the assumption that learning and teaching are independent of one another, that teaching may not be telling and that learning may not be lecturing, something I feel we really knew all along, but were afraid to taste.


1- Education for Judgment, C. Roland Christensen, xii
2- (David Cohen, "Teaching Practice: Plus ca Change" Ibid, p xii)
3- Ibid, p. xii
4- Ibid, p. xiv
5- Arbinger Institute, The Choice in Teaching and Education, p. 8,

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  • I want to add this comment to this post. I have been studying teaching case studies as a method, and one of the former Chairman of the Business Department as Harvard said, "How we teach is what we teach." I hope my children get this when it comes to raising their own children.

    By Blogger Mark Weiss, at 11:17 PM, May 20, 2008  

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