Itís Not What We Teach; Itís What They Learn
“I taught a good lesson even though the students didn’t learn it,” makes no more sense than “I had a big dinner even though I didn’t eat anything.”
|by Alfie Kohn
Regular contributor to the Gazette
Reprinted from Education Week, September 10, 2008 with the author's permission.
January 1, 2009
I never understood all the fuss about that old riddle – “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear, does it still make a sound?” Isn’t it just a question of how we choose to define the word sound? If we mean “vibrations of a certain frequency transmitted through the air,” then the answer is yes. If we mean “vibrations that stimulate an organism’s auditory system,” then the answer is no.
More challenging, perhaps, is the following conundrum sometimes attributed to defiant educators: “I taught a good lesson even though the students didn’t learn it.” Again, everything turns on definition. If teaching is conceived as an interactive activity, a process of facilitating learning, then the sentence is incoherent. It makes no more sense than “I had a big dinner even though I didn’t eat anything.” But what if teaching is defined solely in terms of what the teacher says and does? In that case, the statement isn’t oxymoronic – it’s just moronic. Wouldn’t an unsuccessful lesson lead whoever taught it to ask, “So what could I have done that might have been more successful?”
That question would indeed occur to educators who regard learning – as opposed to just teaching -- as the point of what they do for a living. More generally, they’re apt to realize that what we do doesn’t matter nearly as much as how kids experience what we do.
Consider what happens between children and parents. When each is asked to describe some aspect of their life together, the responses are strikingly divergent. For example, a large Michigan study that focused on the extent to which children were included in family decision making turned up different results depending on whether the parents or the children were asked. (Interestingly, three other studies found that when there is some objective way to get at the truth, children’s perceptions of their parents’ behaviors are no less accurate than the parents’ reports of their own behaviors.)
But the important question isn’t who’s right; it’s whose perspective predicts various outcomes. It doesn’t matter what lesson a parent intended to teach by, say, giving a child a “time out” (or some other punishment). If the child experiences this as a form of love withdrawal, then that’s what will determine the effect. Similarly, parents may offer praise in the hope of providing encouragement, but children may resent the judgment implicit in being informed they did a “good job,” or they may grow increasingly dependent on pleasing the people in positions of authority.