Great Teachers Don’t Teach

Imagine this:  You walk into your classroom one day and say to your students, “A poll cited in the Scientific American says that just 66 percent of millennials firmly believe that the Earth is round. Do you believe this is true? That the world is not round? Your assignment for the next 2 weeks is to prove what you believe. I am here to help you in any way I can, but the work must be yours.”

This is Constructivist Learning Theory, the notion that people learn best by experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences, which forces us to connect what we learn to what we already believe and know. Along the way, we discard what we no longer believe to be true, and replace with the new knowledge that we believe. In contrast to the traditional classroom which moves from the parts to the whole, the constructivist classroom moves from the whole to the parts. 

In the classroom, this looks like encouraging students to use experiments, real-world problem solving and constant reflection to assess what they know and integrate what they are learning.  The teacher functions as a facilitator and mentor, a source of expert knowledge. Ultimately, the students should be moving from passive to active learners. 

Some principles that guide this theory that is reflected in the thought that “great teachers don’t teach” are:

  1. Learning is a process that takes time.
  2. Learning involves language and is by its nature a social activity.
  3. Learning is active.
  4. Learning happens in the mind and the mind changes as the learning occur.
  5. Learning happens in the context of real-life experiences.
  6. The learner must be motivated.

 In the context of the current academic structure of schools, the Constructivist Theory presents some problems: 

  1. It puts the process of learning over the right answers.
  2. Some subjects, like math, require repetition to master foundational knowledge necessary for higher level knowledge. 
  3. Students, in general, thrive in direction, otherwise, they don’t know when they have “arrived”.
  4. It is extremely difficult to grade a process instead of an answer. 

But, just because this theory of learning presents some problems does not mean we have to abandon it. Like any teaching method, as a teacher, you must adjust your instruction based on the concept being taught. Constructivist learning certainly has a place in education, even if it cannot be the main learning process. 

Moving from teacher-led (where the “expert” pours information into the passive students) to a process where students are more actively involved in their own learning might seem pretty intimidating. But, if a teacher just shifts the focus of a lesson at times to “asking good questions”, he might find that students engage and drive their own learning.

Wise teachers should employ some self-directed, peer-involved learning each day as they guide their students to more knowledge. Great teachers actually do teach, they just vary the methods to engage all of their students every day.

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