Recognising the Difference Between "Teaching" and "Learning"

As teachers, we are in a unique position to help shape the next generation, because they sometimes spend more time in our company each day, than they do with their families.

By the very nature of the work that we do, we spend hours each week engaging with our students and therefore have the opportunity to influence the choices that they make. It is hoped that we can blend our voice with that of a student’s main care givers so that they receive a unified positive message, but sometimes it takes a teacher to make a profound contribution that really makes a difference.

The temptation for any teacher is to do what we came into the profession to do, and what we feel we do best, which is to teach our students! But, if we want to have real impact on the next generation, there is one thing that is vastly more important than our teaching, and that is their learning! You have probably heard the following quote from ancient Greek philosopher and author, Plutarch who says in his writing on the subject of ‘Listening to Lectures’; “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be ignited”. But… do you know what he said next?

He makes the point that learners can be riveted to a teacher and enjoy it so much that it brings ‘a flush to their cheeks’ but that what they are hearing has no impact whatsoever on their minds. So, I want you to do me a favour; next time you are in a classroom, forget the students faces, how they are sitting, how they are behaving; and instead use your imagination to simply see a group of ‘floating’ brains in front of you. THAT is what you are engaging with, you are looking to reach inside their minds.

Engaging their minds isn’t always easy, as a combination of inheritance and the environment that they are growing up in away from school, has already formed their self-concept. This includes the view that they have of themselves subconsciously as a learner. A child’s self-concept has been formed by the age of 7, but it can be moulded further through the experiences they have of engaging with education. Without any intervention from us, their results as a learner will conform to their overall expectations, one way or another.

We have a real responsibility as teachers therefore to help those who have a positive view of their own ability, to ensure that they take off and fly, whilst at the same time, supporting those with a negative self-view to become learners who believe in their own ability to succeed. We are looking to create strong, independent students who are resilient in the face of challenge and can reach their full potential because they have taken responsibility for their own learning.

We can liken this to what happens if you place fleas in a jar. Without a lid on, the fleas would all escape immediately because they can jump much higher than the top of the jar! If, however you place a lid on the jar, they will attempt many times to jump out, but will be forced back down again by being blocked in. In a short while, the fleas are no longer capable of jumping out, you can remove the lid and they are unable to escape, because ‘experience’ has taught them that they can’t.

It is the same principle for training an elephant to remain in one spot. They are held initially in place by heavy chains round the ankles, but once they have stopped attempting to escape this is replaced by thinner chains, then a rope and eventually, even a piece of string will hold them in place. They now believe (from experience), that they are unable to move away if anything, however flimsy is tied round their ankle!

The principle here is that is it also very easy to put limitations on the belief of students about what is possible. We need to be so careful that we are not ‘putting a lid’ on students’ capabilities by keeping our teaching too contained or too restrained, and think instead about how we can open up their minds to what great potential they have inside of them to become independent and successful thinkers.

Learning is all about making sense of the world around us, which is literally what our senses are for. They exist as our mind’s only means of contact with the environment outside our bodies, so that information can be fed back to the brain on the inside, which is the part of us that actually ‘makes sense’ of what is being seen, heard, touched, tasted, and smelled.

Because these senses are switched on throughout the working day, our teaching has to compete with all the other information being streamed to our learners’ brains. It is their brain that is choosing what it focuses on, so to get our students’ attention, we need to provide lessons that are; different, fun, fascinating, memorable, novel, and relevant.

The most important factor to remember here is that it is not what you teach, but how you teach it that counts! Make it your resolve to remember that, with every lesson plan you create. Always focus on the learning by asking yourself; ‘what’s the best way to get their attention’ for that particular topic, so that your students’ minds (remember those floating brains), are actually engaged with what you want them to learn.

It helps if you can appeal to as many of their senses as possible at the same time. Provide an ‘experience’ for them. For example, when my classes need to learn about the internal reflection of light, the traditional way of teaching that was to get students drawing a diagram of how an endoscope works. Firstly, you had to explain what an endoscope was which was outside the experience of most pupils, then they copied the diagram. Job done! No!! They still didn’t understand how the internal reflection of light was a useful scientific concept for them personally, so it was of no interest.

To overcome this issue, I would take my Fibre Optic Lamp into school, we would turn all the lights off and the pupils would stand around the lamp, stroking its fronds! I would then prompt a discussion about ‘how’ it was working by encouraging them to look closely at the construction and work out between them, how the light was travelling up from the base to create the twinkling colours at the top of the fronds. Now, they could go back to their seats, draw the diagram and know what it actually represented and be ready for a conversation about its use in endoscopy.

Again, instead of referring to this process as an unfamiliar concept, I could keep their attention by encouraging them to imagine what an unpleasant experience it must be to have a tube shoved down your throat, but how grateful you might be for it in a medical emergency! Providing experiences that include the senses of smell and taste are more difficult in a classroom setting, but one area where I did manage that was when we used to make popcorn whilst learning about energy transfer!

Just to show the importance of students ‘experiencing’ something in order to learn it we can take a look at the experiment of scientist Marian Diamond. Decades ago, she placed 3 cages of rats in the same room, 2 facing each other and the other faced the other way. One of the groups of rats that were facing each other were given a cage full of toys and activities to keep them occupied, whilst their comrades in the opposite cage could only watch the fun! The third group of rats couldn’t see any of this, so were expected to get bored.

Diamond recorded data about how long each rat lived for and how healthy they were during that time. It was predicted that the rats with the stimulation of plenty to do would be the healthiest and live the longest, which is what happened. The interesting and unexpected result though was what happened in the other two cages. There was no difference in life expectancy or health of all the other rats, all of whom died prematurely in bad health.

Diamond wanted to know why the rats who had been able to see all the activity going on in the first cage had not fared better from the stimulation she had expected this to provide. To cut a long story short, this was the embryonic start of a greater understanding of how the brain works and what supports the thinking and learning process. We now know that the brain learns via a feedback loop from the five senses whilst having an actual experience, not from being told or shown about it!

So, make sure that you provide learning ‘experiences’ for your pupils where they can engage with the learning and makes sense of it for themselves. Always place greatest emphasis on the learning process itself. Don’t praise the person who finishes first or completes their work quickly, don’t praise the neatness or creativity of a person’s work, because the message to the brain under those circumstances is that finishing first or producing beautiful looking work is what counts. In both of those situations, the student has received praise, potentially without actually learning anything, so what was the point of the exercise?

Praise effort, praise independent thinking, praise resilience in the face of challenge, praise a willingness to get involved, praise determined practise, because those are the things that make the greatest impact on learning and academic progress. If you’re feeling brave, you could even introduce students to the idea of ‘metacognition’ where they start thinking about the involvement of their own minds in the learning process, and take responsibility for it. Whatever else you choose to do, and whatever method you choose to do it, always focus on the learning not the teaching!

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