Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Teaching and Learning; brothers from different mothers

Teaching and learning are often used synonymously and sometimes even interchangeably, we often talk about what learners will learn, when what we mean is what students will be taught. Am I just being a bit picky here? After all, we set things like learning objectives, we talk about elearning, surely it's just a rose by another name right? No I don't think so, I think that teaching and learning are closely related, but they are different animals, think half-brothers, maybe step-brothers (and as a quick tip of the hat to the world of political correctness I apologise for using the male part of the definition; it was just that brother and mother rhyme and made for a better title). What is taught has always had a major influence on what is learnt, but to think they are one and the same is a key flaw with the way we often approach education and has major impact in the training world too.

Anyone who reads any of my previous ramblings will know that I have long-time held knowledge in a form of contempt, the search for knowledge is not a higher purpose, the search for learning is. Fact is I've had to reshape my own thinking a little on this with recent discussions too.  I've spent much of my time dissing knowledge and in particular the memory and recall as the lowest form of learning, but actually I'm beginning to think that it's more about focus and less about levels.  What I mean is that actually the memory process and the way we accumulate knowledge is a necessary part of learning, but it isn't learning. We learn by shaping what we know, have experienced, observed or conceive to change the picture.  Learning is somewhat akin to a chemical reaction; it can happen in a variety of ways but the outcome is a 'change' of state or substance.  What I mean is that when you learn something you change the shape (or state) of what you previously knew or you form a new concept (substance).  I've got to acknowledge that memory and the previous state is a combination of skills, experience and yes knowledge too. Damn it. But that's kind of my point, everything changes and there's a learning opportunity in everything.

So if we think chemical reaction, surely education is best set up like an experiment right? We control the variables and under a set of conditions we can guarantee the outcomes, after all if I want to change hydrogen and oxygen into water I can reproduce the result every time. The thing is that hydrogen and oxygen are elements, the simplest of substances that we can always predict the way they behave, could you describe people that way? Even at your own singular level, would you always react the same to learning new things or does it depend upon your mood, the time, how much money is in your account, the latest post on Facebook, the problems your friend is having etc etc?  So if it's an experiment it's not one we can completely control and herein lies the point, we can't isolate and control everything so learning isn't something we can completely prescript. So teaching is a bit different, we can set things we teach, we just can't guarantee the learning will be what we intended.

If this all sounds a bit desperate I really don't think it is.  Teaching doesn't equate to learning in a directly proportional arrangement but it sure as heck has a close relationship (otherwise we can all just pack up and go home).  What it might do is change the way we approach teaching; typically we've concentrated heavily on the transfer of knowledge and skills from teacher to student.  As a by the way here I have to say I don't understand the hate on the word student; it perfectly describes someone who is being taught something. The word learner may be the popular and politically correct version but if you've taken any notice yet on the above you'll know that someone is being taught X isn't necessarily learning X so sure, they're a learner, but it may not be a learner of X and under that definition everyone is a learner so it's a bit of a nothing term; let's roll with student you can be a student at any age and any stage of life. Back to my point, the teaching can't guarantee exact one for one learning for every student, this isn't a failing, just a scientific principle down to the inability to control all variables.  So teaching needs to change it's emphasis to stop trying to focus on the direct transfer of knowledge and skills and place a greater emphasis on in increasing the chances of success of our 'learning experiment' by setting the environment and behaviours.

Think about the best teachers you remember; what was it that made them stick in your memory and helped shape your early learning? I can bet that one of the biggest things was the way they made you feel about yourself and the way they inspired you.  Kicking that idea around a bit, we have the concept of inspiration; if someone inspires you it aligns some of those 'variables' and generates a desire for learning to take place that can override some of the other negatives that may otherwise act as inhibitors. The other half of that is the personal nature. When my high-school English teacher first inspired me, I really felt it was about me, not about one. We're all essentially linked to a singular perspective that is our own, personalising the teaching is a way to unlock potential in individuals.  Of course if you're teaching a class of 30 individuals how can you possibly achieve this? The answer is remarkably simple, 'you have to stop teaching and start enabling learning'. The shift needs to be off the teacher and on to the student and in recent years we've started to see a shift towards student-centred teaching. The teacher needs to provide the environment, the inspiration, the challenge and allow the student to personalise and take it further... read from page 59 and copy this off the board won't ever achieve that.

If you're involved in training in industry that's slightly different to the world of teaching and education as the outcome is usually task or skills based. Essentially you're looking at a competency based outcomes where students either can do what they need to do or they don't. Funny thing is that the exact same principles occur. You can measure whether or not they are able to do the 'thing' that they are supposed to under assessment conditions, but will they be able to do it tomorrow, in three weeks or nine months? The skills or abilities may fade or disappear altogether but it doesn't mean that nothing was learnt, it just means that was being learned may not have been exactly what was trained or more vitally that learning happens continuously and the formal training is just a small part of the learning (think along the lines of 70/20/10 here). With that in mind when you design training think the same way as for education; think about behaviours, environment and inspiring over and above the end result. It's the combination of training and the other pieces such as experience, watching others and the others we can't control that define what is learnt over time. Again, not a hopeless state it just means that the training isn't an isolated single hit that solves everything, it needs to inspire and facilitate learning rather than be the silver bullet cure.

So there you go in short, teaching and learning are related, but don't fall into the trap of thinking if you teach X then X is learnt. Instead if you teach an approach to finding out about X by inspiring and setting the environment, then the learner will have the skills to not only learn X but also to find out about Y and Z and keep up with X when it morphs into something completely different.

If you didn't learn something by reading that it's okay, I wasn't trying to teach you anything, but if you want to find out more or take it in a different direction then that's very cool and if you want to let me know about it I'm interested, but hey, that's not essential either :)