Forget Teaching, Focus on Learning

Article excerpt

Teaching is one thing, learning is another. If teachers could learn from students how to design teaching, we might have better education and more learning. Speech to the Public Forum at Yukon College, Whitehorse, October 6, 1999.

One way or another, I spent 21 years in some form of school. Then I was paid by the army, a political party and then by universities to share what I had learned and I was encouraged to keep on learning. There were even a few memorable hours in the army when a sergeant taught us all I was ever taught about teaching: "Write f--ing big on the blackboard" was one thing I remember. And "make the class pay attention when an officer comes by." Come to think of it, pretty crucial advice.

Not very professional, you may complain, but neither am I, and "unprofessionalism" in education is a very serious limitation. So please discount whatever I say. First Nations tradition honours the elders but I assume that the honour is not extended to grumpy old men whose world has changed for the worse. Look at the trouble my pal Jack Granatstein caused with Who Killed Canadian History or the late Hilda Neatby with So Little for the Mindback in the 1950s.

Learning is important

Canadians put great stock in education, spend more on it than most people, expect great results, and are disappointed. People usually are when they rely on magic and unguided faith. Let me offer a different view: education is not very important, and neither is teaching. Yes, they are very costly, high-profile, activities, which have paid many in this room a good living. But what matters is not teaching but learning.

Oh you say, another playing word games. What's the difference? Teaching, learning, education -- we're busy people. But thinking can save labour. If we remember that the goal is learning, we can start straightening out priorities. How will this person, this building, this gadget help teachers is one question. Will they help learning is another. A lot of teaching goes on: how about learning? And what kind of learning? Does it stick?

It is easy to decide what to teach. Boards, departments, parents, politicians make those decisions all the time. So do principals and teachers. What about students? Do they learn what is taught? We all know that's a different, tougher question. But how many decisionmakers follow up with that question or -- rarer still, start with the learners and work back.

We all remember that when we really wanted to know something, it happened, whether it was how to fillet fish or mastering a Macintosh computer. Almost all children want to walk and talk but not until they are ready -- and then you can't stop them. Young people learn things we like -- and things we don't like. No one I know ever taught a kid glue-sniffing or main-lining. But remember: it is as hard to stop them learning what they want to know as it is to make them learn what we adults, politicians, editorial writers and professors want them to learn.

Who decides about dogfood? The commercial answer is that dogfood is designed for adults by other adults, not dogs by dogs. And the makes sense: adults have money; dogs don't. That's why packaging matters more than content. Keep thinking about dogfood. Who decides on school texts? The same people who buy dogfood: adults. We check out the content, censor words and pictures that offend us, and pay the bills. Kids put up with it.

"Learn Us!"

Education comes from Latin words meaning "lead out." Adults control the development of the young. There is a lot of power here. Here's another weird notion: what would happen if 5,000 Yukon children got the vote? Ridiculous, you say, and I agree. Children are too immature, too irresponsible, too special to be voters. Their young, innocent minds need to be sheltered from politicians. Children are special. Their innocence is a huge public resource not to be wasted. Right. Yet, these are more or less the arguments that denied votes to Canadian women until 1918, and in Quebec, to 1940. …