Are Teaching and Learning Really That Different?

2011Symposium_1_2Often when reading educational theories, I find the phrase “teaching and learning.” Typing the phrase into a popular search engine yielded 113,000,000 results. In general, understanding is seen as the goal, and teaching is seen as the actions leading to that goal. In their seminal work “Understanding by Design,” Wiggins & McTighe explained a concept called “teaching for understanding” in which behaviors for the teacher and behaviors for the students (called “learners”) are listed and differentiated. The teacher informs, hooks, facilitates, promotes, questions, and checks. The student describes, explains, engages, demonstrates, and self-assesses. This seems well and good, and even intuitive. Teachers teach and students learn sounds familiar, right and even cliché. But aside from best laid plans, are teaching and learning really such independent things? I will explore why they in fact may not.

I have found that there is a great deal to be learned from the meaning of individual words. For example, in some African languages, the same word is used for music and for dance. If we didn’t already know from observation and experience, most people move or dance to music whenever they hear it. Now, researchers have found that music activates our brains where physical movement is initiated so that the body is either physically or virtually moving every art-of-teachingtime music is perceived. This knowledge and wisdom was evident in traditional African languages before it was evident to researchers. A similar situation exists pertaining to the English words teach and learn. In German, there is one word that means both to teach and to learn. Readers will immediately see the similarity to the English word “learner.” The German word is “lehren.” In French, there is also one word that can mean both to learn and to teach. That word is “apprendre” from which the English word “apprehend” is derived. It is interesting that both the German “lehren” and the French “apprendre,” which are the English words learner and apprehend, respectively, are words that in English have regrettably come to be solely associated with learning.

When you think about it, when a person is learning, they are also teaching themselves and/or others. When a person is teaching, they are also learning from the learners. As learners explain describe, demonstrate, and question, they bring original and creative perspectives, experience, knowledge, and viewpoints to bear on a subject which not only demonstrates their learning, but also initiates learning for others, and is then teaching. The importance of a bi-directional model for education is a critical one. If we expect that only students learn, and that only teachers teach, then we have designed the classroom with a uni-directional design that discourages independent learning and thinking, intrinsic motivation, creativity, and authenticity, which are all attributes that have been identified as desirable and necessary for high performing classrooms.

A classroom where both teacher and students are both learning and teaching is conducive to fostering relationships characterized by respect and trust where students and teacher are intellectual colleagues while maintaining social differentiation of roles. Teachers must design lessons that engage students in the learning process through academic and practical learning activities that provide experience learning about, learning how to, and learning by doing. When these three types of knowledge are flowing both ways between everyone in a classroom, the best possible educational outcomes will result.

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