Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Teaching versus Learning versus Doing

Much ink has been spilled for decades over the concepts of teaching, learning, and doing, producing such commonplaces as “learning by doing is the best way to learn” and “let’s focus on learning, not teaching.” A couple of clarifications, however, need to be made about both of these remarks.

Consider the first one. Learning and doing, epistemologically and psychologically, are two different mental processes. They never occur precisely at the same time. Learning is the acquisition of knowledge, doing is application. Acquisition is generalization, application is deduction from the general to employ the deduction in a specific concrete situation. A child learns the generalization of balance, of shifting one’s weight, when riding a bicycle. The child applies that knowledge in practice to perfect the skill. Learning comes before doing, perhaps from a parent or older sibling who is teaching the concept of balance or through trial-and-error learning. Sometimes it might occur a split second before the doing but it still comes before.

Trial-and-error learning proceeds in this manner. Try one thing. It doesn’t work. Try something else. It doesn’t work. But there may be similarities in the two actions that did not work sufficient to make a primitive generalization. Deduction from the generalization then follows to try a new action. It doesn’t work perfectly, but it works better than the previous failures. More trial, error, generalization, deduction, and further trial then ensue. Some learners are quick to pick up through observation what has to be done to execute a new skill; others are not. The point, however, is that ideas—no matter how primitive or unformed, or even how unaware the actor may be of the ideas—precede action. Add to this that ingrained mental and/or physical habits may have to be challenged and changed before the skill can be developed.

The significance of teaching before doing is to save the time that can be wasted when going through repeated efforts of trial and error. It also may prevent injury that can result from uninformed trial and error, such as, without instruction, learning to ride a bicycle or operate a complicated piece of machinery. “Learn-by-doing”—when understood to mean practice—is essential to perfecting a skill, mental or physical, but mental understanding, even of a mental skill like logical thinking, comes first.

This takes us to the comment about focusing on learning, not teaching. To teach, however, means to effect learning, to see to it that the students understand and can apply what has been taught. Even the standard definition of teaching—the transfer of knowledge from one person to another—indicates that teaching is not achieved until learning has been accomplished.

Some of the desire, no doubt, to emphasize learning over teaching comes from distrust of the lecture as a legitimate teaching method, but a well crafted lecture framed in essentials and delivered with conviction can effect a great deal of learning in its listeners. More generally, the comment most likely stems from the tired indifference to teaching and learning, not to mention overt rudeness, exhibited by many tenured teachers and professors. The state-run school and university systems do not cater to the needs and wants of their customers. Yet that is precisely what the focus on learning means.

In marketing—and teachers, as I have written before, are sales reps—a notion called the “marketing concept” says that everyone in the company, from the president to the stock boy, should not make any decision or take any action without first considering its effects on the customer. “We are no longer in the business of selling what we make,” General Electric said many years ago, “but making only what we can sell.” This means, quite simply, whether one is a writer, a teacher, or a sales rep: “know thy audience.” Know where the students are now in the learning process, then challenge them by stretching. But the stretching cannot go too far because that produces discouragement and it cannot be too elementary because that creates boredom. Finding the middle ground is what teaching to effect learning is all about. It is not an easy task. It requires constant observation of the students and adaptation to the their needs.

Focusing on learning is what every good teacher should routinely do. Teaching and learning are separate activities, performed by different people. The teacher teaches, the learner learns. But the teacher knows what and how to teach by first tuning into the learner. Anything else is whistling in the wind.


David said...

"......At Sudbury Valley, a class is an arrangement between two parties. It starts with someone, or several persons, who decide they want to learn something specific -- say, algebra, or French, or physics, or spelling, or pottery. A lot of times, they figure out how to do it on their own. They find a book, or a computer program, or they watch someone else. When that happens, it isn't a class. It's just plain learning.

Then there are the times they can't do it alone. They look for someone to help them, someone who will agree to give them exactly what they want to make the learning happen. When they find that someone, they strike a deal: "We'll do this and that, and you'll do this and that -- OK?" If it's OK with all the parties, they have just formed a class.

Those who initiate the deal are called "students." If they don't start it up, there is no class. Most of the time, kids at school figure out what they want to learn and how to learn it all on their own. They don't use classes all that much.

The someone who strikes the deal with the students is called a "teacher." Teachers can be other students at the school. Usually, they are people hired to do the job...."

[Excerpt, "Classes," Free at last - The Sudbury Valley School, by Daniel Greenberg. ]

David said...

“let’s focus on learning, not teaching.”

".....Then there was Bob.

One day, Bob came to me and said, "Will you teach me physics?" There was no reason for me to be skeptical. Bob had already done so many things so well that we all knew how he could see things through to the end. He had run the school press. He had written a thoroughly researched (published) book on the school's judicial system. He had devoted untold hours to studying the piano.

So I readily agreed. Our deal was simple.

I gave him a college textbook, thick and heavy, on introductory physics. I had taught from it often in the past, even used an earlier version when I was a beginner. I knew the pitfalls. "Go through the book page by page, exercise by exercise," I told Bob, "and come to me as soon as you have the slightest problem. Better to catch them early than to let them grow into major blocks." I thought I knew exactly where Bob would stumble first.

Weeks passed. Months.

No Bob.

It wasn't like him to drop something before -- or after -- he had gotten into it. I wondered whether he had lost interest. I kept my mouth shut and waited.

Five months after he had started, Bob asked to see me. "I have a problem on page 252," he said. I tried not to look surprised. It took five minutes to clear up what turned out to be a minor difficulty.

I never saw Bob again about physics. He finished the whole book by himself. He did algebra and calculus without even asking if I would help him. I guess he knew I would.

Bob is a mathematician today."

[Excerpt, "Persistence," Free at last - The Sudbury Valley School, by Daniel Greenberg. - from, Three Chapters from Free At Last : The Sudbury Valley School.]

David said...

“learning by doing is the best way to learn”

"When Luke went to work for the hospital pathologist, he became Sudbury Valley's first official outside apprentice.

There was no way we could arrange for Luke to do autopsies on campus. No matter how elaborate the lab facilities on campus, they could not have handled human cadavers. (see: Persistence: "...Luke wanted to be a mortician...")

At age fifteen Luke could have taken one of two turns. Either he could wait six or seven years until he was old enough and through with college, and then go on to his chosen field; or he could move ahead when he was ready, which was right away.

We saw no reason he should wait. We went to local doctors and pleaded our case, until we found one who saw things our way. We made an agreement wit him, much like the teaching deals struck at school: You get Luke as an assistant, free of charge because it is part of his education; in return, you give Luke this and that specific training. The training was spelled out in detail. Everyone involved approved the terms, and the school's first apprenticeship program was on its way.

The idea caught on......"

[Excerpt, "The Sorcerers' Apprentice," Free at last - The Sudbury Valley School, by Daniel Greenberg.]

David said...

Concentrated attention and independent judgment in education are best acquired by means of freedom, and are necessarily required for the full realization of the individual in any society. But not any society will permit the individual to enjoy freedom.

See Jerry Kirkpatrick's book, "Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism: Educational Theory for a Free Market in Education."

Book overview:

Synthesizing ideas from such disparate thinkers as educator Maria Montessori, philosophers John Dewey and Ayn Rand, and Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism presents a philosophy of education-the theory of concentrated attention and independent judgment-that requires laissez-faire capitalism for its full realization. It is not an argument, except indirectly, for the separation of education and state nor is it a critique of present and past state-run schooling. It is an argument for the abolition of coercion in all areas of life. What is the ideal education system? asks the author. One that rejects the premise of obedience to authority. Not just in teaching, but also in parenting and in all social relations. Just as an ideal social system would allow citizens to pursue their values without interruption or control from an outside authority, namely the state, so also the ideal education system should allow children and students to concentrate without interruption on the learning tasks that interest them. The adult guides and nurtures the young, neither coercing nor neglecting them, to develop the confidence and independence required for an adult life in a capitalist society.