Learning is a natural and inherently enjoyable activity, so if it isn’t fun, it is being attempted incorrectly or probably not happening at all.
Minds are like parachutes. They work best when open.
Learning, not teaching, is the goal. Learning happens when an individual is motivated (usually internally) to absorb information and to create or alter patterns of thinking to accommodate or reject the new input.
Most of our standard educating patterns and institutions inhibit learning for some or all people. Since individuals all have slightly or radically different optimum learning patterns, any cooperative educational activity should be developed with the needs of all participants in mind. It should attempt to present information to multiple types of learning styles, including linguistic, spatial, logical, quantitative, kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalist and musical modes of learning.
People learn best by doing. Education should not be what Wendell Berry calls a “hiatus of experience.” Practicing anything (including thinking in a new way) will allow one to evaluate it and to learn it faster and more thoroughly. In this light, Earnest Boyer’s call for institutionalizing the scholarship of service provides recognition of the power and value of service learning.
Processes, especially thinking and learning processes, are the most important subjects in all educational activities but usually receive the least attention. In a world in which we need to constantly learn in order to grow, we should emphasize recognizing how we interact with ideas and each other and how we learn best.
I believe that students learn best by practicing what they are learning and by accepting a major portion the responsibility for directing their own learning agendas. Consequently, I have designed many courses that allow students to select their tasks, projects, service placements or evaluation methods. Applied projects with real clients are often required, with community representatives frequently invited to participate in classroom as well as community activities. Both group and individual projects are used. Even though I teach environmental science, geography, planning, community development, citizen participation an philosophy courses separately, skills from these courses are often taught and practiced in other courses as well. I have designed and taught several courses collaboratively with other faculty and with public and private sector professionals.
Combining solitary and group activity enhances learning. Information, points of view and ways of thinking can be absorbed, evaluated and/or practiced within a single mind but are better tested, contextualized and integrated when shared. Students and educators need time alone to acquire and contemplate new material and ideas. The power of the collective pursuit of knowledge reaches its peak when we allow all parts of all beings to interact in facilitated discussions, simulations and other group learning activities. By including multi-cultural and other perspectives (from primary and secondary sources) we expand our understanding exponentially and enhance our experience of community in its broadest sense.
In seminars and brief lectures I help students understand the information gathered in readings and activities by organizing the material around its application to issues in the world and in their own lives. In a supportive atmosphere, students learn to evaluate alternative viewpoints and to make up their own minds on the issues.
Students often feel challenged by the real-life applications in these courses but appreciate the opportunities to learn in these projects, to build their resumes with major project responsibilities and publications, and to make the contacts that can help them land jobs.
Quotes on Teaching and Learning
Others who have inspired some of these thoughts have spoken more eloquently in the quotes offered here.
The first principle of true teaching is that nothing can be taught. The teacher is not an instructor or task-master, he is a helper and a guide. His business is to suggest and not to impose. He does not actually train the pupil’s mind, he only shows him how to perfect his instruments of knowledge and helps and encourages him in the process. He does not impart knowledge to him, he shows him how to acquire knowledge himself. He does not call forth the knowledge that is within; he only shows him where it lies and how it can be habituated to surface. (Sri Aurobindo, from “A National System of Education” in Sri Aurobindo and the Mother on Education)
No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge. (Kahlil Gibran, from The Prophet)
The notion that the moon voyages provide us assurance of enough to eat exposes the shallowness of our intellectual confidence, for it is based upon our growing inability to distinguish between training and education. The fact is that a man can be made an astronaut much more quickly than he can be made a good farmer, for the astronaut is produced by training and the farmer by education. Training is a process of conditioning, an orderly and highly efficient procedure by which man learns a prescribed pattern of facts and functions. Education, on the other hand, is an obscure process by which a person’s experience is brought into contact with his place and his history. A college can train a person in four years; it can barley begin his education in that time. A person’s education begins before his birth in the making of the disciplines, traditions, and attitudes of mind that he will inherit, and it continues until his death under the slow, expensive, uneasy tutelage of his experience. The process that produces astronauts may produce soldiers and factory workers and clerks; it will never produce good farmers or good artists or good citizens or good parents. (Wendell Berry, from “Discipline and Hope” in A Continuous Harmony)
Education is coming to be, not a long-term investment in young minds and in the life of the community, but a short-term investment in the economy. (Wendell Berry, Ibid.)
Although I have become, among other things, a teacher, I am skeptical of education. It seems to me a most doubtful process, and I think the good of it is taken too much for granted. It is a matter that is over-theorized and over-valued and always approached with too much confidence. It is, as we skeptics are always discovering to our delight, no substitute for experience or life or virtue or devotion. As it is handed out by the schools, it is only theoretically useful, like a randomly mixed handful of seeds carried in one’s pocket. When one carries them back to one’s place in the world and plants them, some of them will prove unfit for the climate or the ground, some are sterile, some are not seeds at all but little clods and bits of gravel. Surprisingly few of them come to anything. There is an incredible waste and clumsiness in most efforts to prepare the young. For me, as a student and as a teacher, there is always a pressing anxiety between the classroom and the world: how can you get from one to the other except by a blind jump? School is not so pleasant or valuable an experience as it is made out to be in the theorizing and reminiscing of the elders. In a sense, it is not an experience at all, but a hiatus in experience. (Wendell Berry, from “The Long-legged House” in Recollected Essays)