Archive for November 2011

Teaching vs. Learning

November 1, 2011

There is a difference between teaching and learning. Every teacher knows that, in some situations and on some days, you can teach your heart out and no learning occurs. Those who pay attention know that anyone can learn with no teacher present. This is especially true with teens and technology. In fact, an attempt to teach them is sometimes met with, “Just let me figure it out.” Of course, this does not mean that teaching and learning are mutually exclusive. Only that they are not necessarily consecutive.

So, then, if teaching and learning are not the same thing, then which one of them do we absolutely want to occur in school? This question is complicated by the clear fact that not all teaching, or, indeed, all teachers, are created alike. I’ve often heard teachers complain that they really try to teach their students the content, but they just won’t learn. So the big question is: If I’m teaching and my students are not learning, or not learning as well as I would like or expect, what am I going to do differently?

Here’s a companion question: Do I need to tweak my teaching a little, or do I need to approach the task of helping my students learn in a radically different way? I started teaching 18 years ago with the idea that I would lecture and my students would listen and take notes. Then I would assign an essay and they would write intelligibly on the topic I assigned. I look back on those assumptions and laugh.

As I learned more about my students and watched the way they learn, I began to give up my cherished notion that I would hold forth and they would meekly soak in my erudition. Didn’t happen that way. I was astonished to learn that students think lecture is boring. Really? Even when I’m talking about a subject I love, like Arthurian Legend? Yea, they don’t learn much if they are nodding off while I’m talking.

So, then, I’m teaching but nobody’s learning. How can I change that? I recently heard a teacher argue that students should listen respectfully, and they should do their worksheets, and they should want to learn. Yes, and I should have been born rich and good-looking, but I have to deal with what is, not with what should be. If my goal is to help students really learn–learn so that they retain and can make use of the knowledge, then I have to facilitate their learning in a way that kids can engage with in A.D. 2011.

Actually, although kids may have been a little more compliant in the 1950’s, I don’t think they ever have learned much differently than they do today. We just created a didactic method that favored teachers rather than students and we’ve been using it for a very long time, even though it hasn’t served us well.

So here’s how my teaching changed. I started viewing every assignment as a project, and every project as an avenue to teaching more than one knowledge or skill set. Rather than students learning one objective today, demonstrating “mastery” of that one with a worksheet or quiz, my students now work on projects that last 1-3 weeks and often have several steps. So I’m doing project-based learning in the English class. It works much the same way it does in an Ag class: I show my students the project, often using a past student’s work as an example. Then I give an assignment for the project with a rubric built in and in which steps are given that will yield a final product.

The key to this approach, of course, is designing the project so that completion, according to instructions and under my direction, will result the students developing knowledge and skills I want them to learn. I also do my best to design these projects so that they both teach the TEKS (standards for my course) and give real-world skills.

For instance, for many years, I assigned a process essay as many writing teachers do. However, when I asked myself if my students were likely to ever use this skill again, I had to honestly say that, for the overwhelming majority, the answer is “no.” However, it is likely that some or even most, may need to show someone off-site how to do something some day. So now my students create a tutorial. Each one has a different topic, and they are given a start and ending point. One might compose a tutorial on building a Prezi (check it out, another might do his on editing a video in Real Player. Check the example included here. Tutorial-Excel

They are still writing an essay, down the right side. They are learning to work with graphics in a productive way. They learn to use MS Publisher to create a truly helpful document. They devise a project of which they are justly proud. Most of these tutorials will actually be used later in the class to teach programs or websites we will use for other projects. What did I do? I just gave them the assignment and showed them how it works, then facilitated when there were questions. They actually did the learning on their own.

And here’s the kicker–they liked it. They even argued with me that this project was easier than writing an essay. It wasn’t. It was certainly more work than a process essay, and yet my students thought it was easy. Why? Because they were learning something for which they could see a future, and they were fully hands-on with every step of the process. And I can guarantee that they will remember the skills and knowledge next year and be able to teach someone else how to do it.

In other words, learning actually occurred. Not much teaching, but lots of learning.