Teaching and Learning

At the end of last week, I was part of an excellent online discussion on the differences between teaching and learning, and the detriment of using the word “teach”. This conversation was held on Twitter and blog posts and comments, and was sparked from my post called The Role of Parental Instruction. You can see that Idzie responded here, and the comments on her post carried the conversation further.

So, I wanted to cap off my end of the discussion with my final thoughts (for now).  In the end, I agree with both Tara and Idzie that the word “teach” can be detrimental because it focuses the attention on the teacher and does not automatically mean that learning happens. However, our society sees no difference between teaching and learning, and so they assume that where teaching happens, learning does also. In unschooling, the learning comes first. And then, when necessary the teaching. These situations would be when a child wants to know more about something and they decide to go to a person for that knowledge. They request the instruction. So, while there is a “teacher” involved, it is still child-directed. This is a much different model than, “I want you to know something, and so now I will teach it to you. Sit down and learn.”

I am in an unschooling Yahoo group and one member shared a story that perfectly illustrates this. Linda writes:

“Just under an hour ago, I saw an accounts ledger that my daughter has been keeping for her scout group, to keep track of their popcorn sale fundraiser. She was elected purser of the group, and accepted the office. This is the kid who hates math with a passion! If I had told her she must make up and keep an account book, including tallying up many separate sales, for some phony assigned school-ish project, she would have refused. But she came downstairs almost in tears a while ago because the amount of cash and checks in her cash box did not equal the amount she had entered in the book. She had recounted/added everything up 3 times! (With a calculator; it wasn’t the actual addition that was the problem; it was a missing or incorrect entry.)

“It turned out that she had $20 more than she thought she should. She was also absolutely certain that everything in the ledger had matched with the actual cash and checks in the box until just before last night’s meeting. Last night, she received some more cash and checks from one of the scouts, and hurriedly recorded it all as one lump sum in the ledger, at the end of the meeting. She couldn’t understand how she could have mis-counted it last night – even though she admitted she was rushed!

“Anyway, I calmed her down, assured her she was doing a fantastic job – especially for having caught her error before any more amounts were entered (and told having more money than she thought she should was a LOT better than having too little!), gave her a bottle of white-out, showed her where to white out the incorrect amount, told her to enter the cash and each check separately, recounted the money with her, and all was well. (All the previous entries were listed properly; no one had handed her cash and checks together before.)

“So, this is one example of how I “teach” my daughter. It was a real-life problem, and I helped her solve it.”

I love this example because it shows just how wonderfully unschooling works. There are myriads of these examples in the unschooling community, and in many situations teaching is involved. It’s just from an entirely different perspective than the schooling world understands.

And so, this is how we need to shift our thinking about what it means to teach. It is providing answers when asked by a curious child, or helping them work out a problem they could not solve on their own (but letting them try first and come to you with the problem).  It is not (or should not be) parent or teacher-directed content thrust upon an unwilling mind.

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8 Comments on "Teaching and Learning"

  1. Evan Lenz
    17/11/2009 at 1:04 pm Permalink

    Your tweet led me to your article, which led to me writing a response on my blog. It addresses a few pet peeves I have with some of the discourse I’ve seen among unschoolers. I’d love to hear what you think.

    The Unschooling Thought Police

  2. Cassi
    17/11/2009 at 1:19 pm Permalink

    I was actually reading your post when I got the email about your comment. Funny, Twitter and email and RSS feeds just make everything so immediate!

    I left a lengthy comment on your interesting post.

  3. Ben Snell
    07/01/2010 at 9:07 am Permalink

    The father of a now 19 month old that is mostly potty trained (we make it through most days, but not the nights yet), has taught me that we are constantly teaching our kids. verbally and non-verbally, we have unwritten or even unnoticed expectations that we have for our children and those around us. It is amazing to see what she is able to pick up. Ex.: the looks that she will return to us, that we ourselves hadn’t even realized we were doing; or their first words (when not being told what their first word should be).

    All that to say teaching isn’t bad, because we are teaching our children in one way or another everyday. On purpose or not. I think the danger comes from just giving an answer, and more specifically for force feeding answers to minds that are not even asking the question yet.

    just my 2 cents worth…

  4. Cassi
    08/01/2010 at 6:59 pm Permalink

    Hey, Ben! Thanks for the comment and congrats on the baby. I hope you’re doing well in Tennessee.

    Anyway, I’ve been thinking about your comment, and I agree with what you’re saying. In fact, we’re currently “teaching” Wesley sign language. This isn’t something that he would naturally seek from us, but if we present it to him, he will (hopefully) learn it. So, I think the point that many in the unschooling community want to make is “Emphasize the learning.” Yes, there is teaching, and no, it’s not a bad thing. But, where the problem comes is when we emphasize the teaching, putting the importance on the teacher, and not on the learner. And, also we must recognize, as you have, the things our kids learn when no one teaches them anything.

    In my life, that means that I try to change my language to “My son is learning sign language.” That statement just gives him so much more credit and takes the credit from me. He’s the one “doing” the work, really. So, he should get the credit, just as your kids should get the credit for learning to use the toilet. It’s a big feat, but we routinely take that credit from the learner and give it to the teacher, just by virtue of our language.

  5. Ben Snell
    10/01/2010 at 9:09 pm Permalink

    Well said! I have learned that the biggest part of raising a child is re-educating myself. especially in how I approach things and am constantly having my views and perspectives challenged. My wife brought up the idea of unschooling to me a while a go. though we haven’t made up our minds, on it yet. We like the idea, and will probably pursue it more as Baby Girl grows.


    PS – Congrats on your baby as well! TN is nice, I love the colors and we are doing pretty well.

  6. Cassi
    11/01/2010 at 2:52 pm Permalink

    Wow, Ben, that’s great! I’m glad you guys are interested in unschooling. It’s still pretty fringe, but more and more “educated” people are turning to it after seeing the damaging affects of traditional schooling. Even if you guys decide not to unschool, you should look into Sudbury schools, democratic schools, or free schools. Those are really good options for people who can’t stay home, but still want the same spirit of unschooling.

  7. Ben Snell
    22/01/2010 at 10:19 am Permalink

    Cool! Thanks!


  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Cassi Clausen. Cassi Clausen said: My final (for now) thoughts on teaching…

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