Education is about Teaching

How could we take something as wonderful as learning, and turn it into something as oppressive as education?

As parents, grandparents, and members of society, we know that education doesn’t work for many (or most) of our children. We send our children to school for years and years, and then follow it up with optional (and expensive) post-secondary education that can go on for many more years. And, at the end, we are left wondering about the entire process. Shouldn’t they know more? Shouldn’t they be able to do more? Shouldn’t they be able to think?

Education is big business. Hundreds of billions in public money, and tens of billions in private money are poured into education every year. Private companies worth billions and billions are vying for public contracts to deliver teaching, teaching enhancements, teaching support, teaching development, and teaching innovations. Although some of these are called “learning” enhancement, innovations etc. the learning is almost always a part of the title only, with very little attention paid to how people actually learn. Instead, education is focused on the art and traditions of teaching.

I have been a part of this sector for years. I was hired to make the teaching in a world leading psychology department better. I worked at it for about 20 years. For the first ten years, I focused on what education said about how we can teach better, but always felt disillusioned, because what I was being told didn’t sit well with my own understanding of how the brain worked. I have a PhD in cognitive psychology, and a lot of what I was told about teaching didn’t make sense in terms of how we think, remember, and process information (cognitive psychology).

One day, I was in the ancient city of York at a teaching and learning conference, and Robert Bjork, then the Department Head of Psychology at UCLA, gave the keynote address. I almost wept as he told me (there might have been others there, but he was talking to me), with concrete examples, just how wrong the education world has been, as they ignored how people learn in so many of their practices. I went back to my own institution determined to figure out how people REALLY learn, and how that information could be applied to education.

I read and studied with a voracious appetite to find out as much as I could. As I learned, I decided to teach a class using what I had been learning. I designed my class around how people actually learn as opposed to the traditional foundations of teaching (Middle Ages clerical training, Prussian efficiency, and C19 industrial models), and I couldn’t believe the results. The students learned! They loved learning! They did extremely well at learning. I consistently received the highest accolades the students could bestow.

I began telling others about what I was learning, and how they could modify their teaching practices to adopt some of the techniques I had found. I was amazed at the response of the professionals. I was ignored and sidelined. As an example, I was told by one lecturer “I entered this profession so I could stand up and lecture, so I could care less what your evidence says, that is what I will do.” I was told by the institutional head of teaching and learning  “If the students are unsure about what you are advocating, I could care less about the effect on learning. My job is to make them happy”. I became one of those guys who spoke to colleagues about teaching and learning both inside and outside my institution and raised eyebrows, but the most common question I was asked was something along the lined of “Can’t you just give me a tip that will make me look better in front of my students?”

I gave a keynote at a leading business school in the UK at a teaching away day, and as I presented the evidence about how people learn, I was asked why they should change their practice, as they taught the same way others taught, and they were doing fine. In short, I was ignored and stonewalled.

After leaving higher education, I began to talk to primary and secondary school teachers. I had already had the opportunity to talk to a number of them, but more recently began to really talk to teachers. Most are simply not interested. They already know how to teach, and have no interest in thinking about education in a different way.

A different way? I guess it is a different way. I don’t focus on teaching, I focus on learning. My definition of teaching is simple and clean: fostering learning. Anything I can do to foster learning in a student is teaching. Hence, the focus is on learning. How people learn, and how I can help them learn.

Over the next few months, I will be posting, in a clear and concise manner, a few of the known principles that underlie learning, how they might be used in a formal learning environment, and what education does that ignores the principle or even undermines learning efforts by doing something completely different.

We know the principles underlying how people (including children) learn. The principles are well researched and understood – so why is teaching still considered an art?


One thought on “Education is about Teaching

  1. As a psychology student, I have often wondered many times that the world class research that is done all around, in the different fields of psychology (in educational, government, research institutes) is phenomenal and exponentially growing; however whenever it comes to the actual application of psychological principles for the actual betterment of the society somewhere there is always a massive backlog in wanting to talk about the ideas, experiment with new techniques to have a deeper understanding of what works, what works for whom and then implementing new ways of learning etc etc etc. I truly believe that we shouldn’t just get wiser and more intellectual by learning, we should also be able to make a change through the application of (good research based scientific knowledge) for the betterment of the entire society. Having knowledge is one thing and having the passion, conviction and dedication to implement it is another and also to inspire the same feelings in others as well, in the future generations. This kind of application based thinking, teaching students to think, to challenge one’s own thinking and not only giving them material to read, but actually churning their cognitive wheels are visionary yet simple ideas as far as fostering and enhancing the best possible learning is concerned, however it is difficult to understand why we aren’t more enthusiastic or even simply open minded to learning better and then implementing the techniques which prove to help learn better. Thank you so much for the enlightening blog. There is a lot of food for thought.


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