Chapter Seven: Teachers, Students, and Teaching

7.3 The Relationship Between Teaching and Learning

Fundamental to understanding the nature of teaching is appreciating the uncertain relationship between teaching and learning. Presumably, schools are for learning. The goals and objectives of schools, which we discussed in Chapter 1, have to do with what students will learn, do, think, and feel, and how they will behave. We want and expect students to develop literacy and numeracy skills. We want them to develop an appreciation of ideas, skills in finding knowledge, an interest in the variety of the world, an appreciation for citizenship, and so on. We want them to learn to be tolerant, caring, thoughtful, and sensitive people.

We also know that people learn things in different ways. Learning theory is a complex field and, despite important developments in the last few decades, the science of learning is certainly not definitive. It is clear that learning is related in complex ways to previous knowledge and experience, to motivation, to one’s life situation at any given time, to the stimuli for learning, and so on (OECD, 2020). It is also evident that no single approach to learning will work for all students. While there is no such thing as a typical class of students, at any given moment within a group of students one would find some who are interested in a particular subject, and others who are not; some for whom the teacher’s style works, and others for whom it does not; some with and some without backgrounds that facilitate the task at hand; some who find the particular presentation of material meaningful and helpful, and others who do not. Some students may be preoccupied with other demands made on them, whether from home or from friends. Some may feel incompetent at the subject being studied. Some may not understand the teacher’s communication style very well. Some may find that the material and the examples don’t fit the world they know. In short, people learn different things, in different ways, at different times, and with varying speeds.

Some might see this variety as a problem to be remedied, thinking that if only people were the same, schools could be so much more effective. The argument for a standard curriculum across the country or a province is an example of such reasoning. A more compelling way to think about variety in people, though, is to value it as one of the things that make life interesting and worthwhile. What kind of world would it be if we all thought the same, felt the same, and did the same things? Uniformity would also cost us the sudden insight from a student, the flash of understanding, the humorous remark that brightens a class, the countless unexpected ways in which other people surprise and delight us by being themselves.

The organization of schools does not always reflect our knowledge about learning or about differences among people. The organizational choices that have been made mean that schooling is organized on the basis of groups of students learning the same thing, at the same time, in the same way, and at the same speed. There are standard curricula that are supposed to apply to all students in a given grade or course. Students are divided into classes, their days are divided into subjects or courses, and they are assigned to teachers for these chunks of time, on the presumption that they will learn what the teachers teach them. Essentially, the majority of how learning is organized is determined for students; they are told what to do, and when and how to do it. Though individual teachers may try to make their classrooms relevant to the lives of students, rarely are students’ own understandings of themselves as learners, what they can accomplish, or what they might like to learn taken into consideration in the overall structure of schooling.

Many teachers realize that education cannot be effectively standardized, and some schools have made efforts to change the delivery model to de-emphasize these features. However, it is difficult for even the most committed staff to work against the various requirements that may be imposed by provincial regulations, school board requirements, or the habits of experience.


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