February 12, 2014
The Teaching-Learning Synergy
This weekend I saw a diagram with visual representations of teacher-centered instruction juxtaposed to graphics illustrating learner-centered approaches. I heard myself telling someone that I used to think of them as separate, and I still see value in understanding the differences between them. But thinking about them dichotomously is not how I think about them now—thanks to a re-read of some of Parker Palmer’s work and a great article written for the newsletter by colleagues Ricky Cox and Dave Yearwood (January, 2013).
I continued to explain that, rather than making a big deal about what is learner-centered or teacher-centered, we need to think of them as being combined. It’s learner-centered teaching. When we are able to combine them, and get them working together, a synergy results. “I’d like to know how that synergy works,” said the teacher I was talking with the other day. My attempt to explain made it clear that my thinking about exactly how it happens was pretty fuzzy. What follows is my attempt to clean it up.
The learning-teaching synergy happens when teachers are thinking, observing, and focusing in all sorts of ways on learning—when we are constantly asking, “What’s going to help students learn this?” This focus on learning and attempts to understand how it’s happening for students drives decision-making about teaching. It is what determines whether students will work in groups, whether they need to write or speak answers, whether their understanding of a concept should be tested, and on and on. Teachers become learners of learning. We have always been learners of content, but now in every class we seek to better understand the relationship between the learning experiences of students and the instructional approaches we are using.
The teaching-learning synergy happens when students are focused on learning—what they are learning (the content and skills of the course) and how they are learning it. Both are important. Students need to develop an understanding of themselves as learners. The synergy happens when students are learning from and with others. They are learning from the teacher who has relevant experiences and expertise. They also are learning from classmates who offer explanations that make sense to novice learners and use examples that beginners find meaningful. When classmates act as teachers, their confidence grows, as does the confidence of those learning from them. Through this synergy students discover that they can figure things out for themselves.
The synergy happens when teachers are open to learning from students. Sometimes (not all the time) a student asks a question, offers an example, or shares an insight and the teacher learns something new about the content. More often students are instructing the teacher about learning—what content causes them confusion, what examples aren’t meaningful, and what assignments don’t generate much engagement. On the other side, they’re also able to help us understand the things that inspire them to learn, and the tactics that help them to do so.
I know this all sounds like pie in the sky—the impossible dream. Perhaps it is only achievable sometimes and to some degree—in some classes, with some students, on some days. But it’s a noble goal, and one worthy of our efforts. The place to begin is very concrete. We start creating that synergy when we stop thinking that teacher-centered and learner-centered stand in opposition.
This isn’t the first blog post I’ve written on how we need to think about teaching and learning in combination. (See the Jan. 16, 2013 post.) Am I revisiting topics too often in the blog? I worry about this—less after a glass of wine, because thinking and rethinking changes ideas, moves them forward. I hope so anyway. The earlier post describes the synergy using Parker’s metaphor of a battery—hold the poles together and they generate energy. What I didn’t clearly understand then is how joining teaching and learning can create classrooms where the movement between them is fluid. The boundaries are gone. Teaching and learning pass over, under, around, and through each other, moving forward with a power that easily trumps what they accomplish when they are juxtaposed. That’s the synergy we all want in our classrooms.