We learn by teaching

Although I am employed to teach, I consider it something of a disappointment if I don't learn something myself during my teaching sessions. Sure, it is my prime responsibility to ensure that my students are given the best opportunities to learn, and I take pride in creating the best possible learning environments and experiences I can offer. The real magic occurs when we are all learning together, and I would like to argue that this should be the case in any learning environment. In his 1968 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire wrote 'Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students.' 

Some might complain that 'only the expert has a right to teach', or that 'students should not be allowed to go off and find out for themselves', but sadly, this is really missing the point. Every student brings their own unique knowledge and experiences into the classroom, and it's impossible for 'experts' to know everything. Let me give you a recent example: During an ICT session this week, as I made hard work of 'wiping the interactive whiteboard clean', my students pointed out to me that on Smartboards, all you need to do is circle the text you wish to delete with the wiper and then tap the middle of the text, and hey presto - the entire text disappears. Well, that was new to me, and I won't forget it - it's a new skill that will save me a lot of time and effort in the future. Now that's learning - and I'm very glad it was me on this occasion that learnt something new - from my students. But you see, there is more to learn about this incident than the fact that the students taught the teacher a new 'skill'. The students and I had a good laugh about me (a so called expert in ICT) not knowing how to use an IWB, but ultimately, the secret to good learning is that often you can't afford to be afraid to admit that you are ignorant of something. Pride often gets in the way of good learning, but sometimes we need to admit 'I don't know', and we also need to admit that students know things teachers don't. Often, being honest about your ignorance, and being open to new ways of doing and new ways of thinking, opens the door for new learning, unlearning and relearning. How many of us have sat through a lecture or conference presentation, and have been afraid to ask a question because it might make us look stupid? If we all want to ask that same simple question but we are all too afraid to do so, then that is stupid - because then the entire room remains ignorant.

There is an old Latin aphorism - Doscendo discimus - which means, we learn by teaching. Must we be so rigid in our mind set as to not see the powerful potential of this idea? Can we not break away from the idea that students are only there to learn and teachers must only teach? Can't we each do both, and isn't this exactly what Freire meant? I insist that all my students present their learning in seminars, and I also encourage questioning during these seminars. It's for a very good reason - having to stand up and explain something, means the students need to learn it first. They need to become familiar with the concept, theory, idea they will be talking about in front of their peer group. Even better, in recent years several of our Plymouth University Primary Education students have presented at conferences, Teachmeets and other public events, in front of people they have not previously met. This is really dropping them in at the deep end, but I think it's important they have the experience. They are understandably very nervous, but afterwards, each and every one of them will tell you the same story: They are glad they have had the chance to present in public, and they learn a lot from this rich experience. If you want them to learn, get them to teach.

Image by Sneebly

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We learn by teaching by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Stephan said…
So agree, Steve

Gave a Moodle training session the other day and when I wanted to show how best to create a csv-file to upload users into Moodle, I learned that the ampersand (&) saves having to use the concatenate function in Excel. And this after years of creating csv-files where initial passwords are created from info in the other columns... Will have to check now whether this also works in LibreOffice...
Peggy Hale said…
I am a firm believer of this quote and am so blessed that I have tapped into this idea. you can also say that there is no age limit to this...Jesus alluded to this in that we are to be like little children...they don't have the baggage and are so innocent and pure in their love. my passion for technology 15 years ago began while learning and teaching with my first graders! if they know you are opened to their help and ideas...the learning blossoms! I always left the day with plenty of lessons taught by my students. thanks for sharing your insights.
I too have learnt loads from students, i'm still grateful to the one who showed me to use the tab key when filling in a form! Only last week I was delighted when a late arriving student was taught the speed lesson I had just delivered on the past tense by a peer - she did a great job too!
Yumi Teama said…
Greetings! Nice article! Very intellectual!
Paul Richardson said…
Spot on (as ever), Steve! By the way, the Welsh language has a single word, 'dysgu' (pronounced 'dusky') which means both 'teach' and 'learn', representing the tangled nature of these two processes. Apparently, a similar semantic conflation exists in Russian. See Frank Coffield's excellent paper: Just suppose
teaching and learning became the first
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks Paul. I knew about the Welsh word dysgu because of Graham Attwell's Pontydysgu website/research agency, and can appreciate the inexticability of learning and teaching even more now. diolch yn fawr!
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks to Stephan, Peggy, Teresa and Yumi who have already commented on this post. It's one I have wanted to write for a while, and I'm glad to see it has resonated with each of you :)
Peter Reed said…
Hi Steve,

whilst in principle I agree with everything you're saying, I don't think the examples given are the best. I don't think Friere (although I can't understand much of him) meant to say that whilst you teach about topic X, you might learn about something irrelevant to the subject matter, like how to erase text from the whiteboard, tab through an online form or the ampersand-in-excel trick.

I interpret it more from a social constructivist perspective, in that my view on a specific topic is personal to me. For example, what I think is a good approach to website navigation, might not be the same as my student's opinions. So a student could provide further insight that I hadn't considered, given their personal experiences/genders/outlooks/biases/etc/etc.

In that sense therefore, we are both teachers and students. Perhaps I am off the mark, but that's just my view.

monique pijls said…
This is a strong idea, low math achievers become experts by teaching younger students. See http://mathboost.scriptfactory.nl/2011/11/trailer-math-coaches/
monique pijls said…
Strong idea! Low math achievers become experts by teaching younger students.
See http://mathboost.scriptfactory.nl/2011/11/trailer-math-coaches/
Steve, you might want to check out Upside Down Academy - http://upsidedownacademy.org - as it was built to try and encourage students to try and teach, whereby further reinforcing their own understanding of a subject.

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