Replacing Instruction

It’s the last day to vote for a word to replace “instruction” over at Nicholas J’s blog Straight From the Desk.

I have been thinking that there are (at least) two possible reasons to reject the word instruction and that a person’s reason for rejecting instruction probably influences that person’s choice of replacement words.

One reason for rejecting the word instruction might be its authoritarian connotations.

Another would be a difference in theories held about how people learn.  Do people learn primarily from other people telling or showing them things or do people have to discover things for themselves to really learn them?  This might loosely be described as the sage on the stage versus the guide on the side disagreement and my guess is that a person inclined towards the former theory is more likely to choose the teaching or mentoring options (or even just stick with instruction) while a person more inclined towards the latter theory is more likely to choose learning, discovery, or engagement.

I confess that I voted for teaching for a couple of reasons.

I like teaching as focusing adults in the system on the things that they can control.  Some methods, materials, and sequences of topics are more effective than others.  The choice of grading systems (or forgoing grades altogether!), awarding credit based on competency or seat time, and single grade or multiage grouping of students are also entirely within the control of the adults in the system.  These, and other choices, set the stage for learning to occur (or make it less likely for learning to occur), but ultimately real learning requires voluntary cooperation and work on the part of the students, and whether students make that effort to learn isn’t really under the control of the adults.

I also picked teaching because I fundamentally disagree with the notion expressed in the Model Core that it is impossible to learn from lectures, textbooks, and other readings.  I have been privileged, apparently, to have had teachers and professors that were quite skilled at lecture and I have learned a lot from them (of course, their teaching methods were never limited to just lectures and assigned reading).  There are speakers that I look forward to hearing from at CLEs (some of whom are former professors of mine and others are practicing attorneys) and I am generally sorry that they aren’t given more time to tell us what they know about their areas of expertise.  Now when I want to learn something new I hit the internet in search of bloggers with expertise, articles and books on the subject, or I ask someone to teach me.  And, frankly, if I had had to discover my way to Trig on my own, I never would have made it.  It was good teaching plus diligent work on my part that made learning math happen for me.

By the way, I am not arguing that effective teaching requires lecture and textbooks.  I think it could encompass other methods like guided discovery and project based learning, but for me the word teaching embodies the notion that we learn largely from other people who know more than we do, whether we listen to them talk, read what they have written, model ourselves after them, or allow them to mentor, coach, or guide us.


One thought on “Replacing Instruction

  1. Chris Liebig

    I like this understanding of the word “teaching” a lot, in part because it seems at least consistent with being “the guide on the side,” or even with just providing kids a rich environment and then leaving them alone to explore it, at least part of the time. I guess I think it’s good not just to reflect on what the adult’s role in a classroom should be, but also on just how much of a kid’s day has to be devoted to other people’s attempts to “educate” him or her.

    The problem with the word “teaching” is that it means so many different things to different people that it doesn’t communicate any particular view of how people learn or what is worth learning. It is often used, for example, to describe attempts to get kids to subscribe to particular values–“We need to teach kids to respect their elders!”–which is to say, to indoctrinate them. I don’t think schools can or should avoid standing for a set of values, but I do think the transmission of values raises certain issues that the transmission of skills and knowledge doesn’t, so I wish we didn’t use an all-purpose word to describe both.

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