How to learn is not how to teach

Every year I try to learn something new. One year I learned a programming language on the computer. Another year I worked on robotics. I took guitar lessons for several years and then switched to mandolin. A couple of years ago, I started raising native bees, and then added honeybees.

Last year my grandson and I studied for our amateur radio licenses. After many months of study, we went and took our tests together. He not only finished before I did, he got a higher score.

Now I have to hear about that on a regular basis. Kids now-a-days sure can trash talk. I don’t know where they get it. However, his call sign is KD0LUU and mine is KD0LUV. I tell him he may have gotten the better score, but I got the LUV. There were some Ham radio classes held locally, so we attended them pretty faithfully. I thought that was all I would need to do. Wrong!

We ran through some sample test questions in the class, and I knew I couldn’t pass the test. So I went and bought a book. Before it was over I bought two books, and read them both. I still didn’t know the answers. So I made some flash cards, just like I watch my anatomy students do. Man, it had been a looooong time since I had done that! Finally, my grandson and I got together once a week for many weeks. We worked practice exams on the Internet until we were getting pretty-consistent high scores.

I take on new projects for several reasons. Mostly, it’s fun. It also keeps me in touch with being a learner. I have been teaching students for many years, and it is easy to forget the struggles of the beginner. There is a certain slowness and awkwardness that is very real in learners. The tendency is to teach way too fast and much too detailed for the beginner. Learning new things helps me keep in tune with the appropriate pace and expectations I have for my students.

For example, in studying for my amateur radio license, I rediscovered a central and important truth about the education process. That is, in all the years I have taught, I have never been able to teach a student anything. Many students have learned things while attending my classes. (In fact, thousands have taken courses from me, but have still gone on to live fairly normal lives.) But it isn’t because I have taught them. If they learned, it was because of what they did. They simply studied.

We are not always careful in our use of language, and sometimes confuse teaching with learning. Teaching is something one person does to another. But learning takes place inside the individual. There are countless books written on teaching, but there are very few books written about how to learn.

Modern neuroscience has much to tell us about the process, but the knowledge is so new it has not made its way into educational practice. In addition, some educators disdain educational methods while deploring the lack of student achievement. And, of course, American education is highly controlled by politicians who usually have little understanding of the learning process.

Students are back in school now after Christmas break. I have one class that is presently trying to learn the names of over 100 bones of the human body. Another class is learning to grow and identify live bacteria safely. The students who will be successful are the ones who will spend many hours working at the various tasks. My job is to clarify information and encourage the students to put in the effort and time.

See, it is a great myth that any one person can teach another anything. It can’t be done. Learning takes place inside the student. Students learn when they study long and hard.

Until society understands this, education will not improve.

Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College.


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