AAPT.org - American Association of Physics Teachers

Summer 2006 Executive Officer's Report

Bernard V. Khoury


  Announcer, Vol. 36, Iss. 2

Teaching Without Learning

Is it possible to teach without learning taking place? Is the quality of teaching tied directly to the amount of learning? Is the best teaching somehow related to the most learning that occurs?

As you might infer from these rhetorical questions, I think that teaching and learning are highly correlated. If no one learns anything, then I would assert that teaching has not occurred. Sure, someone might have presented some information or some material, but if no one comes away with some evident learning, the teaching was a waste of time.

Teaching is not merely exposition of material. Teaching is inducing learning in someone else. If I teach and no one learns, what good is my effort? One could make an argument, to be sure, that explanation of material by a teacher is often a wonderful benefit to the teacher. As teachers we often hear that, "I never understood that material until I had to teach it." Understanding of material is often improved by the exposition of that material. But that is surely not the reason we have students in our classes.

Not every student in our classes will experience the same quality and quantity of learning, regardless of our effectiveness as a teacher. Students bring different skills and traits to the classroom. These skills and traits vary across individual students in our separate classrooms. Further, across classrooms the distribution of students’ skills and traits can vary dramatically. Hence, the effectiveness of an individual teacher depends inextricably on the skills and traits of the student audience.

In our national obsession with accountability and measurable outcomes, how can we assess teachers? How can we assess students? How can we assess the effectiveness of the teacher, if any learning depends to a great extent on the students? Likewise, how can we assess students if their learning depends to a great extent on the teacher?

Changing the group of students in a classroom may be all that is necessary to improve the effectiveness of a given teacher; of course, such a change might actually erode the effectiveness of that teacher. Changing the teacher in a classroom may be all that is necessary to improve the learning of a classroom of students; again, such a change might actually impede the learning of the students.

Were we in a physics lab, we might know well how to deal with such convoluted variables. We would likely set up controlled conditions that would allow us to make some clear inferences about the separate variables. The classroom is not, of course, very controllable in an experimental sense. Teachers seldom get to select their own students, and students seldom get to select their own teachers.

As indicated above, teaching and learning are highly correlated. As the old adage asserts, you can’t have one without the other. They are obverse sides of the same coin. The role of the teacher is to facilitate learning. The role of the learner is to become a teacher so that self-learning is facilitated.

Some of you may have read the most recent book by Frank McCourt of Angela’s Ashes fame. In Teacher Man, McCourt wonders why he was called a teacher. He didn’t feel as though he was teaching in any independent sense. He observes that he was helping others to learn. Whatever advanced their learning was a component of his success. He observes that, if no one learned, then he could not claim to have taught.

While McCourt’s teaching environments and experiences may have been a bit extreme, he continually profited (as did his students) when he focused on the needs and interests of the students in his classroom. While he was sometimes chided for not teaching the syllabus, he did recognize that it was more important to teach his students than to teach that syllabus.