September 12th, 2012

Advice to New Teachers and New Students: Learning is a Quest



Three new teachers at the front end of academic careers, about to face their first classes as teachers, want to know from somebody at the back end, “What’s most important for new teachers to know?” I don’t hear myself saying anything very coherent. I don’t want to give what new teachers frequently get: pat answers and banal suggestions that seem to be helpful without actually being so.

I’m spending the day with a wonderful group of faculty (most of them not new teachers) who teach a two-semester Focused Inquiry course required of all first-year students at their institution. It sounds like a fantastic course with content that grows out of a theme-based set of readings. The faculty’s clear focus on learning and students is so refreshing.

But it’s the query from the new faculty that has followed me home. After thinking more, I’ve come up with an answer.

Recognize that learning is more important than teaching. It’s very easy for students and teachers to get focused on the teaching. Students ask each other: “Do you like your teachers?” “Do you have any good ones?” Teachers ask, mostly themselves, “Is my teaching any good?” “What else should I be doing?” Teaching is terribly important. It can contribute so much to learning, but it’s not essential. Learning can happen without teachers, which means there’s no justification for teaching that doesn’t promote learning. This is why the focus on learning is more fundamental and why the best ways to improve teaching grow out of understanding how students are learning.

Consider questions more important than answers. Learning is a quest powered by questions—the curious inquiry that transforms into a powerful need to know. Teachers and students have the right (or is it an obligation?) to ask questions. They may direct the questions to each other, to classmates and to themselves. They should question the ideas and information set before them. They should question answers, their own and those of others. Learning is the difficult but joyful pursuit of answers and answers are good, not for what they settle, but for the new questions they raise.

Take advantage of the opportunity to learn. College isn’t much of an experience for those who know everything or for those who’ve got all the answers. But college may be the best place in the world for learners. There are more of them per square inch at a college than any place else. Colleges exist for the purpose of learning. Granted, not all learners in a college know the same things or have the same levels of expertise, which is why students have much to learn from teachers. But teachers are learners, too, and for every learner there is always more to know; about what is already known and what is, at the moment, unknown.

When learners gather, they do so in a space of possibility. In that space shared by learners, new ideas may be formed, new discoveries made, and this creation of knowledge is a possibility whether you’re the teacher or the student. A bit of magic and some mystery surround the learning spaces in classrooms, including those online. Many days, as learners work together, things seem pretty mundane. The earth doesn’t shake; fireworks don’t light up the sky. But then there’s that take-your-breath-away insight, or that missing puzzle piece that’s suddenly dropped into place and then the earth does move and lights do flash across the sky. Often these learning events occur when least expected. Careful planning may make them more likely, but it’s no guarantee. When teachers and students gather in learning spaces, they should gather anticipating these possibilities.

The more I work on this advice for new teachers, the more I think it’s good advice for new students, too. Actually it isn’t bad advice for any teacher or student, regardless of experience. After all, is there anything more important in college than learning?

Let me turn the question to you. If a new teacher or a new college student asked you what’s most important to know up front, how would you respond?

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  • Jan

    I would probably talk about the importance of risk-taking (for both a student and a teacher). Trying new ideas, new roles, and new possibilities opens up wonderful spaces for learning. It could be as simple as asking questions when you usually don't, questioning authorities when you never had before, giving up power (as the teacher) to let students have more say in the structure of their course/learning, etc… I didn't step out of the box much as a student, and I really regret that. As a teacher, I step out of that box more and more, and am rarely disappointed…

  • Helen

    Get to know how your students learn through carefully constructed reflective prompts. Be careful that the prompt cannot be answered by simply listing what they are doing but asks them to dig deeper into how and with whom. Asking students to think critically about their learning strategies is important for all faculty new and experienced to know. You will not really get to know your students if you do not know their learning strategies.

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