Understanding the difference between teaching and learning

Children are the major variable in every classroom. They ensure nothing is ever the same and mean that a great lesson with one class may be an abject failure with another. Teaching is guaranteed, but learning not necessarily so. It’s in this difference that the skill and art of teaching come into play

a teacher demonstrating to kids teaching and learning differences
Cluey Learning Monday, 30 December 2019

I need to confess that this is a topic that has occupied me since I was an early career teacher in the last century (no really, I mean way back). Disappointingly, from my perspective at least, it’s still a conversation that we need to have today. Comments similar to, “well I taught them” or “I taught that topic” still haunt me because as teachers, we don’t teach topics or subjects, we teach children. It’s not up to the students to learn, it’s a teacher’s job to facilitate the learning.

The following cartoon from Bud Blake was something we used in the 1990s to try and shift the thinking on teaching and learning in the school I was working.

Bud Blake teaching and learning cartoon

If teaching was easy then anyone could do it and our cartoon character above would have ensured his dog learned how to whistle.

Why are teaching and learning different?

Part of the problem in discerning the difference between teaching and learning has been the traditional dichotomous nature of education. Back in the day, answers were right or wrong, and learning was basically memorisation. Today, learning is more of a process, a journey, and answers are not so black and white. The process of learning is something that is shared between teacher, student and parents. It’s not something that is done to you.

In a traditional classroom, teaching was active and learning was passive. Now, both teaching and learning require focused, purposeful activity. All teachers understand that the best way to learn something is to teach, because the teacher does all the work in learning their subject matter. Classroom experiences now need to ensure that students are active in their participation — something which goes well beyond rote learning or memorisation. To be truly active and engaged requires buy-in or ownership from the student.

How do we achieve that?

Buy-in is achieved when the work is relevant and the students understand why they’re doing it. They also need to have an idea of what success looks like for them. Educators also talk about success criteria and learning intentions, but as with all facets of education, even this is not cut and dry.

There’s been significant discussion amongst my colleagues around some basic tenets of teaching. This has generally focused on the importance of learning intentions and success criteria in giving students the power to understand their learning. Put simply, outlining learning intentions at the beginning of class is a must. Every student in the class wants to know what they’re going to do and why. 

Relevance is a major issue. If it’s not relevant then the obvious next question is why do it? That’s still not a question easily answered in some classrooms and “it’s on the test” is not an appropriate response.

Understanding success criteria

Success criteria have been a bit more of a thorny issue, with varying shades of understanding that range from confusing it with learning intentions, through to the sophisticated theory of understanding by design or backwards mapping (see Jay McTighe). Somewhere between these two points lies the explanation to the students of what success looks like for a particular lesson or sequence of lessons.

It appears to be quite simple, so why is there such a diversity of opinion? The answer, I believe, lies in the question of whether teaching or learning drives the lesson.

If the driver is teaching, then the spotlight is on the teacher, the lesson activities and (in a high school setting) the content being delivered. In this situation the success criteria tend to be interpreted through the completion of the activities. It doesn’t always allow for differentiation, or levels of success. In fact, success can be completion of the task alone. Granted, this is a simplification of a complex situation, but success can be viewed in the number of pages generated in a workbook or the number of topics completed.

When the lesson driver is learning there’s a very definite shift in approach. The focus becomes the students, not the content or the teacher and the activities they require to allow them to achieve success. This is where understanding by design comes in. Success is different for each individual, and, for us as teachers to be successful, we need to know our learners and what they need to do to be successful. Every planned activity needs to be framed with this in mind.

The evolution of learning theory

The fundamental difference between teaching and learning stems from the way we view learning itself. 

Many of the ways we have of talking about learning and education are based on the assumption that learning is something that individuals do. Furthermore, we often assume that learning ‘has a beginning and an end; that it is best separated from the rest of our activities; and that it is the result of teaching’. But how would things look if we took a different track? 

What if learning is social and comes largely from our experience of participating in daily life? It was this thought that formed the basis of a significant rethinking of learning theory in the late 1980s and early 1990s by two researchers from very different disciplines – Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger. Their model of situated learning proposed that learning involved a process of engagement in a ‘community of practice’. 

It may be a tad dated, but it’s still no less relevant. We need to think about how we view learning and how it differs from teaching. If we shift towards something similar to the model proposed by Lave and Wenger then constructing success criteria should become less problematic. We focus on the students, their learning needs and their ability to complete the tasks we set them to the level we expect. The focus is not on the content we decide to teach. 

By providing learning intentions, we’re communicating with our learners what they need to learn. Similarly, the success criteria demonstrates what success looks like. In this way the work shifts from teaching to learning.


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