by Bill Page
An intriguing analysis of the teaching-learning process, wherein the reciprocal process is neither "teaching" nor "learning," especially in the way many educators might define either of the terms.
My favorite web site, Teachers.Net, recently asked site visitors to respond to the open-ended stimulus, "Teaching is..." When I reviewed others' responses, they ranged from the inevitable, "Teaching is love" to "Teaching is why I have two part time jobs" to "Teaching is my passion." My own contribution was:
"Teaching is taking credit for some one else's learning. If a kid learned something, and I caused that learning, I would say, "I taught him. Teaching is relationship between teacher and learner. The learner gets the benefit of the learning, while the teacher gets credit for the teaching."
I had never attempted previously to define teaching. Why should I concern myself with the definition, after all, everybody knows what teaching is? But, somehow it bothered me that I had not previously attempted to define teaching. As I reflected on my beliefs about teaching; as I analyzed, considered, examined, and pondered, I came up with the following, "Teaching is...." comments. And, since I could not separate teaching from learning, I have also came up with "Learning is...." thoughts.
Teaching is I. Teaching is what I am. What we learn is what we experience. I cannot say, "Now I am teaching; now I am not." Whatever I am doing or not doing is teaching; kids are experiencing me. If I roll my eyes and sigh, give a disgusted look, or if I smile as a response, that is what my students are learning. If I say, "I will not begin until everyone is ready." or I write on the board, that is what they are learning.
My students learn just as much from me when I walk out in the middle of their class as they would learn if I stayed. Of course, what they will learn is something quite different. What they learn is that I would rather be out than in, or if they post a sentry at the door, they won't get caught out of their seats when I return. They are learning how the class behaves when I am out of the room. They are learning who the "snitches" and "goody, goodies" are. On my return, they will learn how I act, when I am upset; or what I do about misbehavior that occurs in my absence. So long as I am in their presence or so long as I am responsible for them, they are "experiencing me." What I do or fail to do is what they are learning.
Teaching is introducing, providing and mediating experiences. Teaching is helping students make sense out of their experiences and helping them to harmonize, analyze, synthesize, discuss, compare, contrast, and discover personal meaning in the experiences. If the experiences I provide are not meaningful; if they do not make sense; or if they are not age, interest or time appropriate, no "learning" will take place. (Except that he/she might learn that he/she is confused or bored, and perhaps how he/she behaves when feeling confused or bored.)
Teaching is a communication procedure. It is my responsibility to communicate history to my history students. If they fail to learn history, it is I who have failed, not they. If half of the class fails, then I have failed to adequately communicate with that half. As a professional teacher, I have provided experiences by which they learn the material. If those experiences are not helpful, it is my obligation to find new, more appropriate experiences. If I go to the doctor with the flu and he gives me penicillin and it doesn't work, either he mis-diagnosed or he mis-prescribed, and he certainly would not label me a "bad patient." or tell my Mother on me.
If a TV commercial fails to sell the advertised product, sponsors don't say, "It's a great commercial. It's just stupid people who watch the program, we will have to upgrade our listeners." Or "It's a clever commercial, it is just over their heads, so we'll have to do six commercials for 'readiness.'" What they do is fire the commercial writers. You don't fire (or flunk) the audience! It is the writers who have the obligation of the communication.
Teaching is taking responsibility for kids' learning. Our job is to teach the kids we have; not those we used to have; not those we would like to have; not those who are like us when we were in school; not the kids who have parental support; the kids we have now--all of them. Our job is not to tell that they won't learn, or haven't learned. It's not to tell why they didn't learn or what their problems are. It is to teach them. It is teachers who pass or fail not the kids.
Teaching is the act of being one's self. It is one's state of being, of existing as a total human being, one who becomes a part of the lives and experiences of students. It is being an authentic person whose holistic, identifying, knowable and observable characteristics are in interaction with other peoples lives. Teaching is modeling, behaving, imitating, following, and living as perceived or acted upon by all those in mutual, reciprocal relationships. Conversely:
Teaching is not something anyone does to someone else. It is not a matter of subject knowledge, teaching strategies, pedagogy, lesson plans or presenting. By my definition, a person with teaching qualification and certification, who knows and uses such practices, walks and talks as a teacher, is not a teacher, unless or until his or her "students" perceive worthiness, importance, or personal meaning in the experiences resulting as part of the encounter and interaction with that person.
Learning is progressing from inability to ability do or comprehend something. If I used to not know how to subtract; if I used to not know how to spell a word; if I used to not know what was in the chapter; and now I do -- I have learned.
Learning is a personal, individual experience. I cannot learn for my students. No matter how well I know my times tables, the student will not know his or hers unless and until he or she learns them for him/her self. The only thing any teacher can do is provide experiences by which the kid can learn. The teacher can offer the experiences of explaining it, breaking into parts, offering a song or making a game of it, etc. If the experiences, do not help, the teacher must offer more experiences; reading it into a tape recorder, choosing a partner or making flash cards.
Doctors do not heal people. The body heals itself. Doctors can cut away infected tissue, provide medicine, give advice, and provide conditions for healing; but they cannot heal. Teachers can provide for learning; but they cannot do the learning.
Learning is the meaning that is constructed from experiences.
If you live on a farm, you learn to live on a farm. If you come from a home where you interact with people who speak a black dialect, you speak a black dialect. Every kid I have ever known who spoke Chinese came from a home where they spoke Chinese. I have observed that Catholics come from Catholic homes, Baptists come from Baptist homes; and kids who speak correct grammar come from homes and communities where the people speak correct grammar.
Learning is action. Before they ever go to school, kids learn to walk and talk and eat. They master an entire language, unless they come from a home where two languages are spoken, then they master two languages. They talk because they have something to say and walk because they want to get some where. They do what other family members do. And, they do it without needs assessments, certified personnel, curriculum guides, standardized tests and national standards.
Learning is the result of interaction with other people, books and things... Imagine a seven year old using profanity. The only thing I can do is respond, (remembering that failure to respond is a form of response.) I could respond with a look of horror, surprise, disgust, curiosity, interest or dozens of other "looks." Or, I could respond with comments, laughter, questions, gestures, or physical action. One or more of these responses followed by a series of responses to his responses (interaction) may cause him to have a concern for that behavior, and perhaps to change his behavior.
Learning is primarily a social act. Kids learn from the company they keep. They learn to talk, act, think, and even perceive like the people close to them. Kids do not talk like the people they watch by the hour on TV. They talk and act like their parents, friends and anyone with whom they interact, identify, respect, want to be like, and that they can be like.
Learning is cultural. What we eat, when we eat, what we eat with, even where we eat and how we sit while we eat, is a matter of culture. What we wear, how we dress and what we value is learned as part of a natural, continuous, effortless process of being a part of a community. The brain is an organ, but the mind is cultural. Culture is learned.
Learning is the personal invention or construction of knowledge. The job of education is to create a learning environment, a community of learners where kids can collect, generate and frame their own inquiries. When a toddler says, "I dood it," or "I go-ed there," he or she learned that on his or her own. The kid discovered language, learned the rule and applied it. All he or she needs is purpose and opportunity for modeling, practice, interaction and reflection. With appropriate feedback he/she will further learn that "irregular" verbs have different rules.
Learning is doing. If kids come to us lacking study skills, manners, good hygiene or interpersonal skills, appropriate behavior, etc., it is our job to provide the experiences they need to learn whatever it is they lack. We cannot blame the kid, his parents or his background. Neither the kids nor their parents are required to sign contracts prohibiting or guaranteeing certain behaviors. They do not have to agree to follow rules or do what they are told. They have no part in choosing their lessons or their teachers. All they do is show up, as required by law.
And, unless or until schools require entrance examinations, screening procedures, imposed preschool standards or pre-requisite knowledge, or make requirements for becoming parents a whole lot more restrictive, the job of education is to take students as they are, where they are and interact with them in ways that help them to become literate, productive, upstanding members of society.
Learning is emotional. We cannot separate the affective dimension from the cognitive component. There is no affective domain -- all learning is affective. Learning of every kind has meaning or value only to the extent that it affects the emotions of the learner. If the learner feels strongly, he learns. If he has no feelings about it, it is meaningless. Emotions created by imposed or extrinsic forces can, at best, have only temporary success, perhaps lasting until the test.
Learning is living. Living is doing, being, acting, interacting!