Teaching as Helping to Learn

What does an ideal teacher do? How could just-in-time technology be used to do some of the same? How can we motivate more people to act as teachers for each other?

Eleanor Duckworth defines teaching as “helping people learn.” For that, the ideal role of a teacher can mostly be defined by recognizing the attributes of an ideal learning experience, of which I’ll mention a few.

According to the Piagetian tradition, knowledge, understanding and meaning are actively constructed in the learner’s mind: the learner make the meaning and the connections for herself. She doesn’t simply accumulate what’s provided to her as it is. Telling and explaining play a very small part in helping people learn. The teacher shouldn’t be an authoritarian source of knowledge that determines what’s right or wrong, but rather a facilitator that supports raising questions and pursuing them.

That’s why Lisa Schneier, a student of Duckworth (and one of my teachers) says the role of the teacher has to do with the “trustworthiness of the students’ minds”, which means believing that students can approach a knowledge field building on the their own experiences and ideas.

A teacher shouldn’t be telling the learners when to stop their explorations because they had enough learning, but provide them with various possible connections that allow them to expand their explorations beyond their initial intents and feed their curiosity and motivation. I usually refer to that by saying the missing role of the teacher would be making “commas” instead of “periods”. Rather than cutting the exploration of one topic to move to another, a teacher should work on making smooth transitions between fields of knowledge and keeping the exploration process continued.

Helping the learner in making connections to facilitate her experience or expand her explorations requires knowing the learner herself and her previous experiences. I needed that only a few hours ago! I had one of these crazy moments when one suddenly decides to start learning a new thing. I wanted to learn Hebrew and started with the alphabet so I could read. I started losing my motivation in less than an hour: my native language is Arabic which have a few letters whose names are similar to Hebrew (both are Semitic languages), but the order of the letters and the script were totally new to me. It felt like going back to the 1st grade. I was looking at English resources for teaching the language, but accidentally found an Arabic book which mentioned that the order of the letters in Hebrew alphabet is the same as the letters (or actually sounds) of an Arabic phrase that had all the Arabic letter in an ancient order (which many Arab kids learn by practice). I already knew that phrase, and could in 5 minutes learn the Hebrew alphabet by heart.

I’m afraid that many of the current just-in-time technologies are about informing us but not learning. Learning is a process (or a journey if you like), not a destination. When some expert is telling you how to fix your dishwasher you’re not necessarily learning how to fix dishwashers; you’re following instructions, which’s different from learning. Learning includes taking risks and receiving feedback afterwards (from a teacher, a peer, or the environment in general). To refer to some of the characteristics of an ideal teacher mentioned above, a good technology would encourage making further explorations by referring to similar learning experiences or topics that are pursued by fellow learners, i.e. in a way similar to the way Wikipedia links to related articles. Also, one’s learning process can be teaching for others. Providing learners with the tools to document and reflect in-time helps them in being more conscious of their learning experiences, and provide other learners with a valuable resource to support theirs (an example that’s still work-in-progress is Build-in-Progress).