Stop Teaching, So Students Can Start Learning


I have an issue with the use of the word 'teaching.' We often use 'teaching' and 'learning' synonymously. In reality, learning is distinctly different from teaching: teaching is about teachers, and learning is about students. In traditional education, teaching is like a teacher giving a student a cup of water, and learning is like a student drinking the entire cup. If this were true, however, every student would be an "A" student, as this transfer of knowledge would be full and complete. Unfortunately, learning is not an information-transfer process akin to drinking water from a cup or copying files from a high-speed USB drive.

But why am I hung up on the word 'teaching'? Why must we make this differentiation between 'teaching' and 'learning'? We often use words to convey messages and express feelings but tend to forget that we also use words to develop understanding and to control our mind. Our belief system controls our actions. If you believe your responsibility is to teach, then you focus on your presentation of the material, your lecture structure and style, your choice of videos, the design of your exam, your grading and attendance policies, and ultimately your glory as a leader in the impartation of knowledge to the next generation. Thus, student learning won't make it to your "to do" list when you prepare for your teaching. This is why we see hundreds of beautiful and attractive but absolutely useless PowerPoint presentations in our classrooms today.

So, let us admit that teaching is not learning. Acknowledging the problem is the first critical step in finding the solution to the learning dilemma, as well as realizing that learning is inherently satisfying. You know that, when you learn something new, you feel good about it, and you feel a sense of accomplishment. The truth is, learning can and does occur in the absence of teaching.

Think about children learning to walk. They make thousands of steps and dozens of falls every day. We don't lecture children on how to walk--they learn to walk on their own. Walking is perhaps one of the most important life skills children learn by themselves, by experimenting, practicing, and having fun doing so. If you are one of those skeptics who believes walking is a preinstalled skill and not a learned behavior, consider how children acquire language skills.

Unlike walking, children can't learn to speak a language on their own. They need people around them who are communicating in that language. For learning a new language is a difficult process. Children listen to their parents and learn their language without any formal instruction. I don't believe any parents set out to teach grammar to their one-year-old child. In fact, most parents are not qualified to teach grammar, and yet their children master the language without formal instruction in it. And, most of all, children enjoy the process of learning. Every time they learn a new word, we cheer for them. When they make mistakes or mispronounce words, we don't get angry. We enjoy it, find it amusing.

Ironically, many of those same children who mastered their language skills on their own so early on in their lives don't do so well on their school exams and SATs. What's going on here? The only difference is that earlier they learned the language from their parents, who were not qualified to be teachers, and now they are taught the language by qualified teachers. If you believe the above examples involving children are trivial, consider one of your skills you have obtained through your current job or favorite hobby. Now give it some serious thought, and see how exactly you obtained this skill and how long it took you to acquire it. I can honestly say that all of the skills I have today are the result of practice and reflection rather than listening to lectures. Though I did extremely well in school, real learning for me occurred when I started to practice and develop skills on my own.

Educators worry a lot about the content of their courses, lectures and presentations. They spend too much time preparing lesson plans. Don't get me wrong--content is necessary. If you don't have basic content knowledge, you should not be a teacher. Yet, for real learning to occur, we need to change our focus from content to the process of learning. When you make that mental shift, your preparation for the class will be very different. You will put yourself in your students' positions and consider whether material you want to discuss is even relevant to your students' needs. What do you want your students to have learned at the end of the course, and why?

Once you start to ask these questions, your approach to teaching will change. You will start with the end in your mind--your students learning--and will plan your course according to a student-focused backward design.

So stop teaching, so students can start learning.

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