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The Truth About Teaching and Learning

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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I would like to do an interesting visual exercise with you. I'd like you to imagine that on a blackboard with a piece of chalk, I draw a horizontal line all the way across the board. Then, on each end of the horizontal line, I draw a vertical one.

I scratch on top of the board the word continuum, pronouncing each syllable of the word as I go. On the left side of the word, I write "teacher directed," and on the right side, I put "student directed." I turn around and face you, and ask the question, "Where would you place an x on the continuum corresponding to your teaching style?" I then hand you the chalk. Let's say I did that with all of you now.

Into the Lesson

Afterward, I look at the board and ask why all the x's are in different places. You all respond in chorus, "Because we are all different!" You politely do not add the "Duh!" that you are all thinking.

Now, I take my piece of chalk (which is getting short because of all the x's), and I quickly create multiple continuums labeled from one end to the other: "efficient and effective," "quick and time consuming," "auditory and kinesthetic," "passive and active," "easy and hard," and "order and chaos."

As the chalk dust settles, I turn around and ask you the same question, "For each pair, where would you place an x on the continuum corresponding to your teaching style?" Instead of giving you the chalk, I direct you to create the continuums -- let's dream a bit here -- on your laptops and tell you to place the x on each as accurately and honestly as you can.

After a minute, you all hit the Send button on your laptops. In seconds, my computer has tabulated all the results, and I display those on an interactive whiteboard (more dreaming).

Through the Lesson

Imagine what that display looks like. I ask, "What do we see that jumps out at us?" One of you raises your hand. Rather than take the proffered answer, I respond, "Please talk with your partner and come up with two answers. You have 3.25 minutes."

The anticipation builds. You wonder exactly what answer I am looking for, and this goes through all your minds as you discuss with your partners. "What answers do you have for me?" Each partnership gives their analysis of why one side of the continuum has more x's than the other. All good stuff, mind you, but obviously not what I wanted.

With a smug look on my face, I go to the interactive whiteboard. Using my finger, I draw a fat red line around the ends of each continuum. I ask, "Did you notice that there are no x's on the ends?" You all "Ooh" and "Ahh" in unison as the lights go on in your brains. All right, you can stop imagining now. What? You'd like me to go on?

All right, let's keep our imagination hats on. "As you demonstrated earlier," I say, pacing back and forth in the front of the room, "we wouldn't expect each person to place their x in the same place, because we are all different. And, as you pointed out, there are more x's on one side than on the other because of various teaching truths that we are expected to follow."

"So, why aren't there any x's on the ends?" I raise my finger in the air and press on without waiting for an answer. "The truth about teaching and learning is that there are no absolutes. This data shows that teaching and learning are not about absolutes, nor are they about minimums or maximums." I touch the interactive whiteboard with my finger, leaving red dots as I emphasize the words. "They are about what lies between the ends of the continuums."

I circle the insides of the continuum areas. "They are about thresholds, plateaus, valleys, and peaks." I change the color to blue and draw dotted lines, horizontal lines, and jagged lines (prompting more "Oohs" and "Ahhs").

OK, now we really have to quit imagining, or we will get into the interactive part of the lesson and, of course, the evaluation.

Going Beyond

I'll just summarize the conclusion of the lesson for you. If teaching were an exact science, it would be a simple matter of finding the right formula and applying it. The truths about teaching and learning are that one size never fits all, and surefire works only some of the time.

Public school educators are starting to understand -- I mean really starting to understand -- that we have to blend chaos with order, easy with hard, and student directed with teacher directed in order to teach within the confines of standardized tests, limited time, and, certainly, limited resources.

Each teacher is different, and some teachers can get away with things that other teachers couldn't pull off in a million years. Both can be extremely effective. What is the common denominator? It is individualized, unique, blood-sweat-or-tears problem solving! Each successful teacher has to bring it down to the question "How can I help Myesha learn?" It is that simple.

So, what is the truth about teaching and learning? We don't know for sure. We just try our best, and that seems to work. I'd be interested in reading about what other truths you know about teaching and learning.

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Comments (38) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Steve Choisser's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Coming from an "old fart", anyone can learn new things only if they want to. Was recently retired from the constrution industry because of a prior injury. Now that I can't woek, I'm going back to school after almost 30 years & am findiong out that "dinosaurs" can learn. Believe me it's hard until you put your mind to do sometning that's always with us EVERYDAY OF OUR LIVES.

Margaret Theonnes's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Thank you so much for your article on "The Truth About Teaching and Learning." What you state in your summary is a closely held belief that I have had for years.

Teaching is an art, not a science. Just as an artist uses different brushes and brush strokes to bring their work to life, teachers do the same. Every child brings a different set of challenges and assets to the table. We as teachers have to be patient enough to see this and invest the time necessary to identify each child's needs. Then we can teach the child what they need to know.

It is problem solving that makes this job so rewarding. There is nothing so sweet as seeing a child light up when they finally "get it."

Margaret Theonnes's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I forgot to add my info on the post...

I teach a 4/5 combo class in Anchorage, Alaska.

Please add this to my post.


Amy Kerins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a student at Walden University and I have to agree, that after 15 years of teaching, the key is that you never stop learning. I attempted to start a master's program because I felt that after I could check that off my list, I would have officially arrived! What I am finding is that I will never arrive!Never meet the final destination of learning! Why? Because teaching and learning go hand in hand. I agree with my fellow blogger that you teach what you know and who you are. When you are comfortable in your "teaching shoes" you can pass on the caring, nurturing, and and all the knowledge that you have. I agree that teaching is not a "one size fits all" profession. As we become more aware of who we are and learn more about the world around us, we can connect with others and move them on in the continuum of learning.

Amy Kerins Bridgeville, Delaware

Rebecca Phillips's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am recently going through a Master's Program and have been researching what makes an effective teacher. It is wonderful to have such a resource as this blog to stay connected with professionals, and people in the community, and discuss the issues in education. As I am reflecting on all of the extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking ideas very apparent in all of the comments, I am reminded that being an effective teacher means not only reflecting on the lessons you have taught, but reflecting on how to make them more student-centered. We are told again and again that if you are tired at the end of the day, you have done too much of the learning for the students. It is our job to guide them through their education, not spoon feed it. There is a continuum through education not only for students, but also for teachers. There are so many styles in teaching, there is no correct style. There may be concepts that lend themselves to more hands-on inquiries. At the same time, there may be concepts which do not lend themselves as easily to hands-on inquiries. By working as a community of teaching professionals as well as imput from the community, collaboration is key to constantly be improving the way concepts are presented and taught to our students, and in turn helping the continuum to better teaching. I know at our school and district, all employees are given an Instructional Calendar for each subject, which teachers must follow, so as students move around within the district, they will not be ahead or behind in concepts being taught. In the past, this was not always the case. Many students would come with previous experience with concepts and some would miss concepts taught earlier in the year. This led to many students "falling behind". As this blog and discussion so wonderfully states, it is not the students fault, nor the parents. We are the professionals so therefore it is our job to help these students achieve. We must, as teachers, make an effort to collaborate and research ways to have all students achieving, since it is what all effective teachers want for thier children!

Joshua Rice's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that teaching isn't an exact science, but I feel that a teacher can use information to teach the students. Teachers can use students' learning styles as a basis when planning lessons. Using the learning styles and the multiple intelligences a teacher hopefully can meet each student's needs. I feel that teachers need more training in this area. I know that in the district I work we have had a couple of conference days where they had learning style workshops and workshops on differentiated instruction. I think that teachers need more than a couple of days per year learning this. Knowing how to differentiate instruction will help the students and the teacher in the classroom.

Joshua Rice
Clyde Elementary
Clyde, New York

Mary Kiefer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think your article on the teaching and learning is very relevant to what teachers face on a daily basis. Teachers can teach all day long but are the children actually learning. I am starting my masters and we are duscussing the difference between a novice teacher and an expert teacher. I have been teaching Pre-K with the same school district for 12 years. Over the years I feel I have made it beyond the middle of the continuium but I am definetly not an expert yet. I think that learning is a constant thing teachers have to do in order to become and stay an expert teacher. I think you were right when you said that no one would put their X in the same place because we are all different. I also believe that we need strong support from our administrators to become an expert teacher. This is sometimes hard in a large district which is why the responsibility lies on the teahers. If teachers work together we can get ideas on how to best help our students learn the materials.

guide's picture
Counsellor with a passion to build world class assessments

Thanks for the comments. You are correct of course. I did not contribute a strategy or magic silver bullet to "Move the profession forward." I did have a purpose, and I think I accomplished that purpose. For some reason teachers seem to forget the "obvious". They have to stop blaming everybody else; society, parents, earlier grade levels, administrators and the system. What should be obvious is that teachers own the problem and they also own the solution, both on a classroom level and on a systemic level.
Too many teachers isolate themselves (and administrators allow it) and only join forces when it is to fight against individual accountability and transparency. Shoddy instruction cannot be tolerated, but it is tolerated because no one but the students see it.
The sole point of my essay was to inspire teachers to believe that they have the power to take whatever instructional problem they are faced with and find a solution--but they have to have the heart to do it and then they have to take action.
You seem like a person that is doing that! Thanks!
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX[/quote]

guide's picture
Counsellor with a passion to build world class assessments

For all Teachers

Teach Less and initiate Learning in your student

Education should be Teaching Directed and Learning Centered

To impart knowledge of or skill in; give instruction in.

* Teaching is giving (instructions) of knowledge.
* Teaching is a must. Good instructions cannot be equated. However in classroom teaching the transfer (giving) of knowledge from teacher (instructor) to student (learner) can be limited by
o Time (say 60 minutes for a class of 40 students).
o Instructor's Knowledge.
o How much receptive is Learner (student) in the class.
* Learning should be objective of education. Teaching should competently and compassionately facilitate learning.
* Memorising should not be mistaken with learning. Most of what is remembered is short lived and is quickly forgotten.

To acquire knowledge of or skill in by study, instruction, or experience

* Learning is gaining of Knowledge. Learning is construction of knowledge in your mind
* Learning is what I (student) am doing.
* Learner (student) should only be limited by Learner's own creativity leading to self construction of knowledge and not to the extent of instructor's Knowledge.
* Assessment of Learner's Knowledge measures level of transfer of Knowledge (i.e Learning) and also indicates shortcomings (as concepts not clear) or areas (topics) not covered (no transfer of Knowledge in some required areas)
* Assessment evaluates learning and also creates learning challenges thus self motivation for you to learn.
* Learners find knowledge retention long lived in their minds, because they put in efforts to gain understanding in form clear enough for them. Learning leaves learner enriched with lasting Knowledge.

To impart knowledge does not ensure the acquisition of knowledge

Mary Scorpati's picture

First let me say that your visual exercise was very effective and I enjoyed participating. I teach high school remediation which prepares juniors for the high school proficiency assessment. The basis of remediation is individualized instruction, as many of my students are on different academic levels. I have been doing this for almost 15 years, and during that time some days have been great while others have not. I think that we can be anywhere on that continuum at any given moment. It is my opinion that to be effective we must be flexible. Along with being educators, nurturers, mentors, and role models we must also remember that we are life-long learners as well. Flexibility affords us the luxury of experiencing both ends of the spectrum. I plan turn-around days in my class whereby any student who would like to be the teacher may conduct the class. With my help they prepare a lesson plan and gather all necessary materials. On those days I sit in that student's desk and participate in class. I get such joy seeing them model my mannerisms and being "the student" has provided me with invaluable lessons. Having a new perspective on a situation is beneficial to all involved.
Thank you for your post, I really enjoyed it.


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