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What is teaching?

To answer this question, I am going to engage in some type of thinking out loud. What you’ll see on this page is sort of what goes on in my mind at the time of writing. I may well decide to turn this into a podcast, because it mimics my thinking process, but there are times when I find it’s more fruitful to think in writing. Today is one of those days.

Well, what is teaching? An answer that comes to mind is that it is the act of making someone (or other) learn something. Therefore, it requires the presence of an active agent (the teacher), another active agent ( the learner), assuming they’re active, and materials/processes/lessons to learn.


I will call the first active agent A1. A1 may be any of the following: a teacher, an instructor, a tutor, a professor, a coach, a facilitator, a guru, a knower or any of the fancy names we now associate with the act of instructing. Sometimes, peers, parents, and other individuals play the role of A1. Now, A1 is not necessarily a human being. It could be a software program that can repeat the lesson ad infinitum, and ad nauseum. It can be a recorded TV or radio program. A1 could even be materials standing on their own, let’s say on wall chart at a clinic, explaining a process to any passer-by, and not requiring the physical presence of a knower. In this case, it is possible to argue that the learner is serving as their own A1 or instructor. This is very important, and it is called self-learning, or independent learning but let’s put it aside for now.


I will label the second agent A2. A2 is the learner, the student, the acquirer, the knowledge seeker. Now, this person does not have to be a student registered at a school or college. It can be anyone of us, regardless of our degrees or educational attainment. In this sense, we are in the business of learning, even when we are not in a formal setting. This is called lifelong learning, and it’s a characteristic feature of living beings that they are learning new things all the time, even when not expressly engaged in the technical act of learning. Lots of factors come into play, including motivation, but we can’t escape this feature. So, even as we listen to the weather report, we are learning something about the conditions today or tomorrow and we can plan our trip accordingly. As an aside, the learner can be an animal, as in the various experiments conducted throughout history. Animal training is something humans have done since antiquity. Nowadays, computer programs too can be learners, because they are made to integrate new information that they collect and analyze, and they behave smarter next time around. These instances are not what I am focusing on here.


What we have yet to discuss is the lesson. Let’s call it L. Now, L needs a lot of unpacking, because it is this juncture which we associate with learning. There is a topic for learning, materials to learn, processes and activities to implement, comprehension checks to perform to gauge the level of learning, and often an evaluation of the pedagogic processes employed. So, we’re distinguishing between the materials and the lesson. The materials are somewhere, often in writing, but they can also be mental notes prepared by the teacher. The lesson, i.e., the learning plan, the actions that take place so learning is effected, is where the instructor’s and the learner’s focus should be.


Now, it is not enough that the learner be prepared to learn, in the absence of a carefully constructed lesson on the part of the instructor. Sometimes, the instructor goes out of their way to create what they think is a wonderful learning plan which anticipates the stages of learning, including starting from the learner’s previously acquired knowledge, introducing the tools and means through which the lesson is conducted, creating the necessary scaffolding and interaction among learners so they draw into each other’s knowledge, and so on. Despite the quality of this learning plan, it may be that the learner is distracted, busy, sick, hungry, drugged, uninterested, worried about something else, or whatever.


This is not the full answer to the question, but the short answer is that it takes desire and preparation on the part of two agents to learn. But the meaning of learning has yet to be broken down into more processes: short term learning and permanent or deep learning and many shades in between. How do we commit what we learn to the long term is of the essence. How do we ensure the permanency of learning is what we need to invest our time and effort on? What is the value of time spent in the so-called learning space if nothing new is introduced to the learner? What we can distill from this monologue is that learning must always consist in learning something new, and pushing the boundaries of the person learning (and the person instructing) so they learn and integrate new ways to understand a phenomenon and see part of reality differently than they saw it before. In a word, the questions we should ask (and answer) are these: what have I learned that is new? How has my learning transformed me? Is it deep learning, or superficial, ephemeral learning? Perhaps you may ask even more substantive questions such as ‘Is this learning useful, it is making me a better person, which problem is it solving/’ Mind you, we have started out with the question what is teaching, and we ended up discussing the question of learning.


I think I will stop here today, and will revisit this question at some point. Please feel free to chip in your own take on what learning and teaching are.

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