Education – The Secret To How Teachers Teach and How Students Learn


Education: To What End? For What Purpose?

In this article I invite participants to explore the various meanings and purposes that we attach to education. Education is more than mere credentialing, and it doesn’t only take place within formal institutions, such as schools.

We tend to think of education, today, as preparing a global workforce. In the past, education has been variously defined as a process to prepare future citizens, a process to teach morality, and a process to train an industrial workforce.

There was a time when fewer people were educated in formal institutions and education was more holistic. Today, in the countries with the highest standard of living, we have universal education but the nature of that education tends to be fragmented and highly specialized. Rather than seeing knowledge as being organic and interrelated, we tend to approach knowledge as being mechanical, so that parts of it can be separated into individual silos.

We also tend to narrowly define knowledge as something that gives us power over other people and our environment; we say that it is not education if it is not operational. We define reason as being grounded in empiricism: that which cannot be measured or weighed, we say, is not worth knowing. Inquiry into such things, we say, is “unreasonable.”

Are we short-changing ourselves with this approach to education? Does this approach to education diminish our humanity? What is the value of formal education? What will be its value in the future?

What Scaffolding Is Already In Place?

Assessing Student Preparedness to Learn:

teachIt is important for teachers to determine, early on, what perspectives and experiences students bring with them to the classroom. A teacher should structure assignments to draw out student preconceptions of the subject matter, their familiarity with the academic discipline, and their knowledge and skills in the area of instruction. This information will be helpful in order for teachers to calibrate instruction to the place where students are starting from, and the things they can relate the contents of the course to.

Early on, you want to get your students to talk and write about what they already know about the subject matter and what understanding they have of how it can be useful to them. You want to be clear about any vagueness or misconceptions they might have, especially if this is reflected in the statements of a number of students in the class.

Figuring out the frame-of-reference and skill level that students bring to the course does not mean that you have to re-structure your entire lesson plan once you have this initial feedback from them. This information should be helpful in tweaking the course; you will want to take advantage of fine-tuning the course, as much as possible, to the particular set of interests students have. While it is important for students to reach and to struggle in order to learn things that are not familiar to them, it is also important to try to present the contents in the course in a way that engages them.

Students; an important part of your strategy for learning should consist of trying to link the contents of the course to what you already know or have experienced. If there is something in the content that your teachers are exposing you to that surprises you, it is important to pay attention to that information and think about why it surprises you. This is where learning takes place. Relate the contents of the course to what you already know and allow that content to challenge your preconceptions. Teachers must try to motivate students to learn and students must motivate themselves — otherwise very little education is likely to take place.

Feedback Is a Two-Way Process In Education:

Feedback is an essential two-way process in education. Teachers give feedback to students, but students also give feedback to teachers (and I don’t mean course evaluations at the end of the term). The kind of feedback students give to teachers is feedback on how well they are grasping the contents of the course. Teachers should structure the course to make sure they are actively getting this feedback on an ongoing basis. This can be done by assigning participation in discussion boards, wikis, or short quizzes. It is important that these tools be used to calibrate what students are grasping rather than penalizing students for not knowing. Any points awarded for participation in these activities should be nominal to prevent these activities from having a significant effect on students’ final grade.

The more common notion of feedback is the kind of feedback teachers give to students. Actually there are two types of this feedback: one type is instructive (formative), where the teacher provides feedback on how the student can improve their performance on assignments — this type of feedback is very specific, focused on building strengths and strengthening weak areas of performance. The second type is evaluative (summative), where the teacher is essentially evaluating student performance and awarding a grade.

Instructive feedback should occur early enough so that students can address their weak areas. Evaluative feedback typically comes at the end of the course. It is not uncommon for both forms of feedback to be given simultaneously, throughout the course.

Students; it is important to use formative feedback from your teachers as part of your study strategy. Most students focus on the feedback in the form of a final grade. This is not the most important feedback for you, in terms of building your learning skills. The feedback you want to seek, early on, from your teachers is feedback on how well you are understanding the contents of the course and organizing and presenting your ideas. If you focus on formative feedback — feedback that gives you specific advice for how you can strengthen your engagement of the contents of the course — then the summative feedback (your grade) will take care of itself.

For teachers; part of the process of getting feedback from students is to have them discuss, before the end of each class session, what the most important thing was that they learned during that session. You will also want them to discuss what questions they still have and what remains fuzzy and unclear to them.


Drawing Students Out:

It Is Important To Get Students To Discuss Concepts They Are Unsure Of.

It is important to keep in mind that the process of explaining things helps the explainer to understand content in the course — explaining is a powerful tool for learning.

From the very outset you want students to identify what questions they want to pursue, discuss why these questions are important to them and how they might go about getting answers to these questions.

Have students single out areas of difficulty and explain their difficulties to you. Have them explain the topic to each other. Have students identify the essential points of each unit and respond to “naive” questions about the subject matter — all of these activities facilitate learning.

You want them to summarize what they have learned, by engaging the course content, and provide specific evidence to support their conclusions. You also want them to identify questions for further inquiry and to think about strategies they might use to pursue such additional inquiry.

Students; don’t expect your teachers to explain everything to you and don’t rely on them to do all, or even most, of the talking. If the teacher is doing all, or most, of the explaining in the classroom, then it will be the teacher who will also be doing most of the learning. It won’t be of much help to you, as a student, if your teacher is doing most of the work in the classroom. Many students think that if they speak up and tell the teacher that they are unclear on a particular concept the teacher will think they are stupid. Actually, the reverse is usually the case — the teacher will recognize that you are engaged and are thinking about the contents in the course. They are more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt when it comes to grading.

As a student, if you think you understand the contents of the course then discuss what it is you think you understand in order to get better formative feedback from the teacher. If you don’t understand the contents of the course then discuss what you don’t understand and where you are having difficulty. Either way, this helps the teacher to give you the kind of feedback that is most valuable to you. Pretending that you understand things that you really don’t understand will only weaken you and might give the teacher the impression that you aren’t really interested in struggling with the material — that you aren’t really interested in trying.

Also, discuss the contents in the course with other students because the best way to learn is by teaching. This is yet another reason why the teacher should not have to do most of the talking. Of course, there will be gaps in your knowledge — you are, after all, human. It is helpful, however, to discuss and explain the contents in the course to your classmates and to the teacher so that they can respond to you. This creates the opportunity for you, and everyone else, to learn from the interaction. You will emerge as a much stronger student as a result of that kind of interaction and engagement, and your teacher will appreciate this.

Priming the Pump:

Preparing Students to Learn (and how students can prepare themselves to learn)

At the beginning of each class session you will want to “prime the pump” and prepare students to learn. There are several methods for doing this:

Activate prior knowledge: have students recall what they already know from previous classes or experiences. As a note to students; if your professor or teacher is not doing this at the beginning of each class then you have to do it yourself. Having a lame teacher is not a good excuse for not learning.

Use advance organizers: Foreshadow the lesson. Preview, for your students, the relationship between new ideas and students’ existing knowledge. Again, as an aside to students, if your teacher or professor is not doing this it is up to you to read ahead and try to anticipate where the instructor is going. Make it a game to anticipate the instructor; you will be amazed at how much you learn.

Identify the relevance of the subject matter: emphasize, to the students, the importance of the information they are about to learn. Locate the information they are about to learn within a continuum of learning, i.e. the objectives of the course or the overall curriculum of the department or school. Students, if your teacher doesn’t do this for you there is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to work on your own and figure this out for yourselves.

Emphasize meaning: build upon the information that students already know. Draw their attention to similarities and differences between familiar and unfamiliar ideas. Present information from different points of view. Students, if your teacher doesn’t do this — or if your teacher has low tolerance for contrasting and comparing different points of view and relating the contents of the course to your own experiences — do it anyway, outside of the classroom. It is your responsibility to make sure that you get the most out of your education.

Help Students Become Aware of Themselves As Learners:

One of the main objectives, in the process of education, is to help students think about how they think. These are some of the metacognitive questions that you should encourage them to think about:

What do you think you already know about this topic or phenomenon? Brainstorm about the topic, its background, its context and its implications as you currently understand these things.

How do you know what you know? What is there, about the topic, that remains unclear to you? How would you like to apply or relate this topic or concept to other things, not given in the text or classroom? What is the teacher or the text not talking about that you wish they would examine and explore?

What sources are you relying on in order to know? What are you basing your ideas and opinions on? Are there other sources you might tap, that might give you another point of view and broaden your perspective? Where did the sources you are relying on come from — who generated or produced them? Who was the target audience of the person or persons who produced your source material? How might that material have been different if there was a different target audience?

How are you interpreting these sources? What are other ways of interpreting these sources? How have other people interpreted them? What assumptions do you bring to your interpretation?

What rival hypotheses have you considered? What are some of the other things that we might say caused phenomena we are observing, or motivated the actors to act as they did? What are other explanations for what we are seeing and hearing?

You will want to trigger active learning in your students. The best way of doing is is to ask your students questions and encourage them to ask questions as they study:

What is the central issue or question here? It is always important to try to identify main points and central issues.

What key concepts must you understand in order to understand what the author of the text is talking about? Authors usually use specialized language and terms, or use common terms in a specific and specialized way. In order to understand what an author is saying you have to do what Mortimer Adler, in his classic text How To Read a Book, referred to as “coming to terms with the author.” Students; you want to be on the same page as the author and your professor or teacher, and make sure you understand each other by speaking the same language.

What sources, data, and evidence does the author use to support his or her point of view? Always examine the sources. It is never enough to know what people’s opinions are, or the conclusions they have drawn. It is rarely interesting to swap opinions because we end up liking people who agree with us and not liking those who have another point of view. That doesn’t make for a very interesting discussion. Discussions become interesting when we are willing to talk and write about how we arrived at our opinions and conclusions — what sources and experiences did we draw on? What data did we use? When, as a student, you read an academic text, try to figure out what sources the author used in order to write the text. You might want to hunt down some of those sources to see if they might also be useful to you — or if you even agree with how the author has chosen to interpret them.

What connections do you see between related concepts? The weakest learners are quickly overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material that is covered in a course. If you, as a student, are feeling overwhelmed and you find yourself saying, “I’m never going to be able to memorize all of this material,” this should be a warning sign that you are not grasping and focusing on the main ideas or seeing how all the parts tie together. No student should feel that they have to memorize a mass of unrelated data. Your focus should be on seeing the underlying patterns and the bigger picture that the fragments fit together to create. Taken by itself, a piece of a jigsaw puzzle is pretty meaningless; but when you fit the pieces together to create a picture then the individual pieces take on meaning and are much easier to keep track of. Work with your teacher to help you to see the bigger picture.

What pressing questions remain on your mind? No teacher, no textbook, no course can cover everything you need or want to know. As David Hackett Fischer points out in his book Historians’ Fallacies, We can’t say everything about everything — that would make the content of a course so vague as to be meaningless. We also can’t say everything about something — there’s always more that is left out. What we are able to do is to say something about something. We must define and appreciate the limits of what we are able to cover at any given time. This should lead us to ask more questions and to identify what more we would still like to know.

Teresa Taylor

Teresa is a coordinator for the Aspen Institute. Her favorite novels include, Red Harvest, Ragtime and Mrs. Dalloway.