What Does It Look Like to Teach and Learn Now?

Changing Education Paradigms YouTube RSA Screenshot

You may have already seen the above video (if you haven’t, click now). Have you thought about how teaching or learning has changed since you were in school or your parents or grandparents were in school. I think we frequently take education for granted – what it looks like, how we teach, how we learn, and what it means to get an education.

At a workshop on open education, an English professor who has switched to using open resources in her classes said that switching to open resources wasn’t a huge thing around using open vs. pricey textbooks. What it really was, was part of a discussion around what teaching and learning look like now as opposed to what has been the standard.

When you close your eyes and think about getting a good education, what do you see? Most of us would say that the first things that come to mind are children sitting at desks in neat little rows with the teacher at the front of the class. Maybe the teacher asked a question and the students all raise their hand in anticipation of being called on and when the teacher calls on them, the student knows the answer. Or what if the students are older? They’re still at desks in neat rows with the teacher lecturing at the front of the class while the students quietly taking notes until the teacher asks a question.

Now, let me ask you, when you go to trainings or conferences or seminars or go to learn anything, what do you do? Sometimes, you sit in very large rooms with a lot of seats, all in neat rows where you quietly take notes while listening to a speaker. Do you remember much from those things? Do you have time to attend many of those? When do you learn the most, the best?

First off, just by asking the question, how do you learn best when considering teaching methods, is the first MAJOR switch from the way we’ve been teaching for the last 250 years

Wow. So, what are the differences?

Old School Building in black and white

Then: Schools were smaller, one room houses with neat little rows and children working quietly waiting their turns to go up to the front of the class for recitation. Then, those smaller rooms turned into factory-like buildings where the children neatly filed in to their classes and sat in neat little rows of desks, quietly listening or writing notes while the teacher lectured from the front of the classroom from a book, writing on the chalkboard or a combination of both. Talking out of turn was not allowed. Collaborating with peers was considered cheating. The teacher in the front of the room was the gate keeper to knowledge. A bell rang (like in a factory) to send you to recess, your next class or home. When you were at school, you learned about school things that had absolutely nothing to do with what you did outside of school. When you were outside of school, you preferred not to think about school. That was where school belonged. In a neat little row of desks in a square building with teachers who are the only ones with the answers.

Square concrete building with windows moving in a wave motion

Now: Schools have swelled to a point where they are bursting at the seams because the nation has realized that we want more people educated, not less. (In 1918, only about 6% of children entering elementary schools in the U.S. reached 8th grade –  http://www.multiage-education.com/russportfolio/curriculumtopics/bibliography.html#methodsco) More education is needed now to enter the workforce and some have said “today’s college degree is the equivalent of the 1950’s high school diploma…” (Aaron Clarey – Worthless: The Indispensable Guide to Choosing the Right Major) Some of the answers to educating many more people and needing more classroom space to teach them in have led to online and hybrid learning. Now, students don’t have to worry as much if there’s space in an Econ or English 101 class, because in the virtual world there’s always space. Now, students expect to use technology in their classes, even if they’re in a face-to-face class. Now, students grades depend less on seat time and more on the work they produce. Collaboration is a mandatory part of most classes because…you know…this great big ole crazy world…it’s got lots of people in it that we encounter on a regular basis AND are supposed to know (or figure out) how to work with. School isn’t neat, straight-lined or quiet any more. It’s messy and loud and crooked. The teachers aren’t the experts. They facilitate learning and help lead the direction of learning because while instructors are subject matter experts, they don’t know everything. Students know stuff. With the instructors’ guidance, they teach each other and learn new things themselves that they never would have even thought possible by passively and quietly sitting in a neat little row just listening.

Remember when you closed your eyes and imagined yourself in a conference or training? You are the student, too. Sometimes (maybe a lot of times) you’re not neat, passive and quiet. Sometimes you’re messy and loud and you learn better by working with people.

So, all that to say, try not to think about changing things because that’s just too big. Instead, ask yourself, “how do people learn?” “How do I learn?”

Then, go forth and rock on.


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