August 14, 2013
How We Learn and How We Teach
Do you teach the way you learn? That’s the question Harold White asks in a short essay in which he recounts how he decided that he should. The catalyst was a faculty development workshop (more than 20 years ago) that featured an interesting activity. Participants were challenged to think about the most important lessons they had learned in life. They named six of these learning events, writing one on the front of six index cards. On the back of each card they wrote as much as they could remember about the circumstances that surrounded the events. Then they looked for patterns—things those learning events had in common. Where did they happen? In school or in less formal settings? How many involved teachers? What kind of feelings accompanied the learning? Was the learning hard? Was it planned or did it evolve out of unexpected circumstances? How often was the learning about correcting a misunderstanding, gaining a new insight, or deepening a current understanding?
When White analyzed his learning events, he discovered that most of them had not happened in formal educational settings with teachers. Many did occur during college and involved other students. What he learned from these events were not things he purposefully set out to learn—most involved circumstances beyond his control that faced him with issues he needed to resolve. All of the lessons had strong emotional components, and interpersonal relationships often played a key role in the learning. Do these shared features have anything to do with how you teach?
Back to the opening question: Do you teach the way you learn? Or maybe the better question to ask is: How would you teach in ways that reflect how you learn? And then there’s the question White didn’t ask: Should you teach in ways that reflect how you learn?
White’s insights about his own learning did change his teaching. He started thinking more about what his students might be learning outside the classroom. He also considered whether he could do some things in class to promote and possibly direct that out-of-class learning. He stopped ignoring the emotional aspects of learning and started recognizing how powerful the motivation to learn can be when there’s a need to know something. Struggle is an inherent part of learning, especially when the learning involves big, important lessons. Students don’t struggle when teachers are always there with the answers, so White answered less and asked more.
Challenging your thinking
The index card activity is a great exercise. I like it for all sorts of reasons. It’s a way to get us thinking about the kind of learning that lasts, that changes who we are, how we think, and what we do. Too often we give up on this really important level of learning, wandering instead in the forest of content details. There are times when we need to look up, think larger, and realize that we can help students learn these life-altering lessons.
I also like the challenge of thinking about the implications of how we’ve learned in terms of how we could or should teach. Do our students learn as we do? Perhaps not, but when it’s a life lesson, maybe they do. The lessons I put on my six index cards all included struggle, all were emotional, and all involved others, mainly teachers. Most of the lessons on my list weren’t learned in a flash of understanding, but were more gradual awakenings to which teachers contributed, sometimes in small but significant ways. Did they intend to be part of something larger?
I encourage you to get a pack of index cards and do this exercise with a few colleagues. It will challenge you to think about your learning and your teaching in new ways, and that thinking can only be enriched by exchanges with others. How are your most important learning experiences alike or different from a colleague’s experiences? Were the patterns seen in yours present in the experiences of others? If not, what do you make of those differences? Should teachers be purposeful in their efforts to teach these larger life lessons? A good prompt improves the caliber of any discussion and this exercise is great one.
Reference: White, Harold B. (2013). Do you teach the way you learn? Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 41 (3), 187-188.