June 13, 2014—I’ve been in the field of education, from elementary education to higher education, long enough to see fads come and go and dominant philosophies rise and fall. Along the way several unfortunate notions about teaching and learning persist, seemingly immune to any correctives. Here are some ideas about teaching and learning that persist. See if you can discern what they all have in common:
What do these all have in common? To one extent or the other, they are all wrong. If you believe everything that’s on that list, then everything you know about teaching and learning is probably wrong.
Teaching by telling doesn’t work
Lecture is not instruction. At worst, it’s a form of attempting to teach-by-telling. Teaching-by-telling doesn’t work because it does other people’s thinking for them (thereby bypassing the learning process). It is not secret to any teacher—whether college professor or Sunday school teacher—that on any given day, he or she is the one who has learned the most at the end of the class teaching-learning experience. That’s because the teacher is the one who has gone through the process of learning, from study to application. It’s ironic that in so much of what we do that passes for “teaching” we deny our students the very learning process that gave us so much meaningful learning. Knowledge discovered is more meaningful because it builds on prior knowledge (it connects with what the learner already knows) and it is constructed by the learner (and therefore “owned”).
Anticipatory learning doesn’t work
A lot of what we do, it seems to me, consists of “anticipatory learning.” This often happens when we try to teach important things the student “will need in the future,” but is not currently ready for. We teach lessons on grief to those who have not suffered a loss. We teach about divorce to happily married couples (the ones who are interested in learning about divorce are the divorced). We try to teach about marriage to young singles, who are not really as interested as we imagine they would be (the ones interested in learning about marriage are the married). You can’t plant insight into the unmotivated, and unless you are currently feeling the need for the topic under discussion, you tend to not be motivated to learn about it. Most things are learned in their time and not before (or, put another way, you learn what you need to learn at the time you need to learn it, and not before).
People everywhere learn the same
I continue to come across many misunderstandings and over emphases about individual “learning styles.” The fact is that until the organic human brain makes another evolutionary leap, and the structures of our cognition change, people will learn the same everywhere. Yes, individuals may have a predilection or two about modalities and styles, and yes, there are organic brain syndromes outside the norm that require attention to extra-ordinary issues related to learning (and yes, men are from Mars and women from Venus in rather enigmatic ways), but those factors do not negate the fact that people everywhere learn the same way. One example: language, one of the most complex processes and skill any of us will ever master, is learned the same way and by the same cognitive processes by every child regardless of culture, race, ethnicity, epoch, or context.
Motivation is an unrealized need
Creating “interest” and getting a student’s attention through novelty will help students focus, but that focus has a short shelf life and should not be confused with “motivation.” An unmet need, real or imagined, is what creates motivation. Instead of merely trying to make your lesson interesting, identify and bring to the surface the learner’s unrealized need that will be met by learning what you have to teach. Students have an innate ability to discern between something that is merely interesting and something that they need—and they will pay attention accordingly.
Cognition is a form of activity
Providing a variety of stimuli during learning is beneficial, but there isn’t a real need to always have students “do” something externally. Not every lesson needs some kinesthetic “activity” to facilitate learning. The reason for this is that cognition is a form of activity. But because it happens inside the student’s head, we often do not appreciate, or miss, that some very powerful learning may be happening. In many instances, application of knowledge can happen as effectively inside the students’ heads as outside.
Doing is not equivalent to learning
Learning activities are important to the learning process. One common misunderstanding, however, is confusing a learning activity with a learning outcome. It is necessary to distinguish between an activity that a student will DO from what a student will LEARN as a result of, or by doing, that activity. If there is a single most common error in written learning objectives, it is related to not being able to distinguish doing from learning. Learning activities fall under two main categories: (1) those learning activities that will help a student actually learn what you want them to learn (learning by doing), and (2) those learning activities that demonstrate what the student has learned (application of learning), and how well the student has learned it. The first is related to a modality of learning, the second is a modality for assessment. It is important to not confuse doing with understanding.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.
His books on Christian education include The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists (S&H).
Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans.