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Dan W. Butin


I Don't Buy It

Posted: 12/17/2012 11:24 am

"There is the same exact equation," the philosopher John Dewey wrote, "between teaching and learning that there is between selling and buying." We would laugh at a merchant, he explained, who claimed that he sold something if in fact no one had come into the store to buy anything.

That is why I always tell teachers - whether in middle school or graduate school - that there is no such thing as teaching without learning. It is one of my biggest frustrations when I hear teachers say that it is their job to teach, not to help students learn.

What they think they are saying is that students must make the effort to do the work of learning whatever is being taught. If students don't have the ability or the motivation, such an argument goes, well, that's their problem.

Yet what these teachers are really saying is that they don't understand the art and science of teaching.

I can lecture about an important topic in a crowded auditorium; I can upload it onto a website; I can stream it out to the universe. But until and unless someone out there actually learns something from my talk, I haven't been teaching. What I have been doing is unidirectional, pushing information out into the world, and hoping it is caught, ingested, and digested by someone.

We professors all too often believe that this is our job; to profess. Perhaps. But to be clear, this is not teaching. Let's at least call it what it is: the attempted transfer of information from one container (my brain) into another (your brain).

But that's a really problematic way to think about the classroom experience. Knowledge isn't only a bunch of bits of information, teaching isn't simply the depositing of such information, and learning isn't just filling up an empty container.

To be blunt, our students don't buy it. They drop out of school, forget what they just learned, find school boring, and, more often than not, have to relearn a good portion again. To give just two statistics: one national survey found that half of all high school students are bored in school every day; and half of all college students need to take at least one remedial course.

The key here is to realize that Dewey was not suggesting that we simply do a better job of "selling" the product of education to that other half of students who don't get it or don't care to get it. This is not about more bells and whistles in the classroom. We are not used-car salesmen pitching dubious merchandise.

It's about helping all students realize that education matters. Dewey was arguing that education is a relational process between individuals, where learning is a never-ending spiral of development and discovery. Think of education as a verb rather than a noun. A "process of living," Dewey famously stated, "and not a preparation for future living."

If all we want out of schooling is a unidirectional transfer of information, then, fine, let's be replaced by MOOCs and other technologies that are proving to be just as good at such one-way content delivery. But if education is a process, then we must figure out how to engage learners in their own educational journeys. It is only then that we come to practice the art and science of teaching.