Friday, November 13, 2009

Teaching vs. Learning

After reading this post entitled The Role of Parental Instruction over at Unschooling Ruminations, I was thinking about the word "teaching", and trying to figure out if there really is anything *wrong* with it, or if as an unschooler I just have an unfair prejudice against it. I know that I certainly get a bad feeling when I hear it. But I've come to the conclusion that no, it isn't just an unfair bias. I really do feel the two words have distinct meanings, and I choose not to use the word "teaching" because I don't like the meaning it conveys. This is how I see the two words:

  1. Teaching puts the emphasis on the external: the person or thing *doing* the *teaching*.
  2. Teaching implies something being done to you, instead of being something that you do. As if learning is something done *to* you. You're taught. It implies a certain passivity in the learning process. You sit and take in what is being taught, instead of going out there and learning it.
  1. Learning, however, puts the emphasis squarely where it belongs (IMO), in the hands of the one doing the learning. What learning is, as far as I'm concerned, is what YOU make of the world around you. Not just what experiences you take in, but how you interpret them. Thus learning is the process of interpreting and making sense of the world around you.
  2. It implies an active process. You are the one *doing* the *learning*.

I'm sure there's tons more that could be added, but this is the brief version of why you won't hear me using the word teaching if I can help it! ;-)



  1. My 3 year old son thinks teaching is fighting (think: "I'll teach you!") Thanks to the cartoons his grandpa lets him watch. I kind of agree, teaching can be violence.

  2. I think your definition/explanation is grand!

  3. I *totally* understand where you are coming from. Our "modern" definition of the word "teach" has much more to do with coercion than it should.

    But on a whole, I don't have an issue with the *word* "teach", depending on the context. I tend to think of its TRUE meaning, which is "to pass on knowledge". I see the original word (not the contrived thing we've created it to be) as a partnership, a give and a take. When someone knows something I desire to know, I want them to teach me. When I know how to fix something on the computer, Zeb wants me to "pass on knowledge" to him. There is nothing passive about it. But that kind of teaching looks much different than what is expected: a lecturing teacher and the rapt attention of 30 sets of eyes. blech!

    Think Socrates talking philosophy in the streets. Teaching was communal. It was something done *together*. You could come and go as you pleased; question, discuss, think. You could take what you wanted and leave when you were done. A teacher is only one whom you allow to teach you. It's completely up to the learner IF they are taught. Otherwise the person isn't a teacher. They're just a NAG. ;)

    Obviously the current definition is far from my ideals. But I still don't dismiss the entire word, simply because some use it coercively. That would be word bigotry. lol

    PS In regards to the post you linked to, I would agree that the use of the word "teach" in that context was certainly more coercive in nature than I would ever use the word.

  4. Glad I could serve as a jumping off point. I agree with your definitions 100%. I guess I just sometimes do want to "teach" something to my son, even if that doesn't necessarily mean that he learns it at that point. This mainly applies to those areas of raising a respectful, passionate person. It is my choice, so the impetus is on me, and therefore, I teach. However, I hope that I can quickly say, "He's learning to be respectful" instead of, "I'm teaching him to be respectful." I just don't feel like I can say that until he actually is learning it. Hair splitting, I guess.

    I think that, usually, the word "teach" has a negative impact, since it puts the emphasis on the teacher, and therefore the glory goes to the teacher. We hear constantly about how amazing teachers are. Not to take that away from them, but the same is not often said about students. But, theoretically, they are the ones learning, and therefore the ones doing most of the hard work.

    Anyway, I do strive to take the word "teach" out of my vocabulary as much as I can, but I do think there are times when the definition is appropriate. At the same time, our society doesn't understand, as we in the unschooling community do, that teaching is not the same as learning, and that teaching is less effective than learning. So, when I use the word, it is with the understanding that whatever is being taught may come to nothing.

  5. I might just backtrack on what I just said. The statement "He's learning to be respectful" is true no matter what age and place in the process. And, the learner feels empowered by that statement more than the "I'm teaching" statement. Hmm. Also, I can say "I want my kids to learn to be respectful" instead of "I'm going to teach them to be respectful." Again, the emphasis should be on the learner over the teacher. No matter what my intentions or desires are, it will be my kids who do the learning.

    Okay, this may sound like a silly, minor difference to others, but I truly believe in the power of language. Honestly, thanks Idzie for posting this and creating a moment of self-reflection for me.

  6. I don't think one can be taught unless one wants to learn.

  7. +JMJ+

    Idzie, the distinctions you make speak to my own (limited) experience with homeschooling.

    An aunt of mine has hired me to help her homeschool my teenage cousin, because she doesn't feel qualified to teach him Science. I tried to say that I'm not qualified to teach Science, either--but she had more faith in me than in herself! =P

    Anyway, I was starting to feel frustrated with how I was doing until I read one homeschooling mother's reflection on her similar situation. (I'm sorry that I can't find the link to her blog at the moment!) She said that she doesn't teach her son Science, but they both learn Science side by side, and it's just as effective.

    This paradigm of everyone as a learner is really wonderful, and I wish I had known of it earlier! =)

  8. Wendy, I see your point and agree to a point, but I'm wondering:

    If a person cannot be taught unless he or she wants to learn, why do so many people completely accept the coercive, disrespectful, forced teachings of schooling? No child wants to be forced to do anything, but most eventually learn to accept it, and then continue to accept it as adults (when they are supposedly free to say no) because they've learned to. Something happens to change people from curious learners to people who WANT teaching to be done to them. They learn through forced schooling to be afraid to trust their own brains and experiences without the permission or approval of an authority. I don't think anyone "wants" to learn to distrust themselves.

  9. So, I finally posted a follow up to this convo on my blog at


  10. The meaning of words is organic. You can reject many or even most forms of teaching, but you don't have to reject the word itself. I like what Tara said in her comment above: "That would be word bigotry". And I don't think unschoolers have to reject all forms of teaching a priori. As adults, can we seek to be taught something without being coerced? I think so.

    This blog conversation inspired the latest post on my blog: "The Unschooling Thought Police" at

    I'd be curious to hear your response. Thanks!

  11. Interesting dialogue. I don't know that I can agree; despite not really enjoying public school myself, I still do not have negative connotations for the word "teach". To me, it is a partnership between the teacher and the learner, and it often shifts back and forth. I've been told the best way to learn a subject is to teach it to another. In my own experience of "teaching" people ask questions that I would never have thought of on my own, questions that I have to struggle to answer.

    When I think of teaching, I think of my classes in developmental psychology, especially a Russian theorist, Vygotsky, who determiuned that we learn socially, with kids who are more advanced or older assisting the younger or less advanced ones. This seems similar to Montessori - one of my best friends from high school is now a Montessori preschool teacher. There is no coersion in her teaching style (beyond, of course, "no hitting" etc).

    Like Tara mentioned, when someone can do something that I want to be able to do, I want them to teach me how. I may say, "show me" but I also expect instruction, explanation, description of the underlying theory or mechanics.

    I also see a lot of "teachable moments" with my kids. They ask a question about something, and I see it as an opportunity to delve more deeply into a discussion of history, ethics, physics, etc. That doesn't mean I'm forcing anything on them, I stop talking when they lose interest.

    But I definetly see myself as a teacher, which, to me, is someone who facilitates the learning of others. Teaching (informally) has always brought great joy to me, especially when you try and try and keep changing tactics, and they're not getting it, and then suddenly, they DO get it. That moment is magical.

    I just wonder, are these discussions and attempts to exclude the word "teach" from the unschooling vocabulary akin to throwing out the baby with the bath water?

  12. Lots of really thoughtful comments, thank you so much, I really enjoy reading them! :-)

    I left a comment talking more about my feelings on using or not using words over here on Lenz on Learning.

    @Alison: But what you describe as *teaching* sounds a lot like what I'd just call fascinating conversations with interesting and intelligent people! It's all a matter of what words are chosen, what meaning you're trying to convey. As a writer, I think words are incredibly important, and when I write something, I want people to understand what I'm trying to say, to see things from my point of view. That's what I'm doing when I write something. So I use words that I think will best describe what I mean, words that convey the meaning I want them to. If a word generally has certain connotations attached to it that are in conflict with what I'm trying to say, then I'll choose not to use it. Teaching is just such a word as that.