The Gap Between Teaching and Learning

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¨There is, in fact, no teaching without learning. . . . Whoever teaches learns in the act of teaching, and whoever learns teaches in the act of learning.¨ ~ Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom

Fundamentally, teaching and learning spontaneously go together. The general condition of learning occurs as a consequence of teaching not only in the formal (e.g., classroom) sense but in any circumstance that creates a significant impact in the life of a conscious species—an animal of either lower or higher category. Nature—this reality that presents itself to consciousness—is the ¨cosmic classroom¨ where the teaching-learning experience transpires. Planet Earth is the main campus of the real universe-city where empirical events are the ¨teachers¨ and the conscious entities in it are basically the ¨learners¨. In other words, the world we live in is a ¨school campus¨ where every bit of information (consciously synthesized data of perceptual experience)—which reaches a higher level of conceptual concentration in the human realm—is the basis of all the ¨prescribed textbooks¨ read to cope with the demands of survival and of progress which forms what humanity has agreed upon to commonly call ¨culture.¨  The nature-to-culture trajectory is therefore possibilized by the spontaneity of the teaching-learning event on cosmic scale. In this particular framework, no gap between teaching and learning is, hence, either possible or perceivable.

In Chapter 9 of the scholarly volume, The Human Nature [http://www.essayandscience.com/upload/ficheros/libros/201105/mosterin__cap__ix.pdf], the eminent Spanish contemporary philosopher Jesus Mosterin says:

Learning is the process through which information that is not inherited is acquired by an animal and stored in its brain, it its long-term memory, in such a way so as to be recoverable at a later date. Learning is a process of individual adaptation of the body´s behaviour to its environment. The specific things that an individual learns depends on the nature of their species, as expressed by their genome. Eacn animal species has a hereditary disposition to learn a specific set of abilities, which determines the things each individual in that species is able to learn. . . .

Learning can be social or individual. Through individual learning one acquires information through trial and error, imprinting (learning certain guidelines during a specific stage of life), classic conditioning, or other methods. . . .

In social learning, one assimilates information transmitted by others, which is acquired through imitation, communication or teaching. . . .

. . .

Social learning through teaching is learning through observation, where the appropriate behaviours receive positive reinforcement in the form of rewards and those that are inappropriate receive negative reinforcement in the form of punishment. With mere imitation, the model that is imitated is passive; faithful reproduction of the imitated behaviour is neither controlled nor corrected. In teaching, the imitated model is active and rewards or punishes the imitator according to their correct or incorrect imitation. Although active teaching processes have been observed in chimpanzees, in humans they have reached their highest level of development, as proven by our numerous public and private teaching institutions. Humans also use telecommunications for social learning. . . .

In the human condition, the general notion of the teaching-learning experience is basically understood as: Teaching aids learning and learning is achieved through teaching. We learn something because we have been taught of it either through an outside teaching agent or by our very own selves. Being self-taught is at all times within the nature-to-culture trajectory and thus precludes the likelihood of a gap disconnecting teaching and learning. Learning in this sense is a natural occurrence within the range of what is deemed significant in terms of our personal evaluation and judgment of an event as well as in terms of the degree of an incident´s impression in our consciousness as something satisfying, interesting, challenging, terrifying or at worst, tragic. We call this a learning experience taught by and in life.

But the gap between teaching and learning occurs likewise and exclusively in the human condition, though—as we have pointed out earlier—not in all instances because human sensitivity to the fundamental character of the nature-to-culture trajectory will prevent the chasm. To be more specific on this issue, it is in the formalization of the teaching-learning event in the hands of human initiators that the gap gets in as a resultant disorder—even a syndrome. In this sense, formalized teaching doesn´t always result to learning. In certain cases, formalized teaching (as in a school classroom) simply gets so far as the level of a mental assent—a theoretical approximation of a subject matter whose empirico-pragmatic location in real life is nowhere found. Learning—if we could call it as such—in this case is hence short of realization.

I may know the basic theoretical rudiments of driving a car but it doesn´t in any way mean that I have already learned how to drive and can actually do it at this point in time. Here, we find a gap between teaching and learning which may only be appropriately filled in as the teacher her/himself sits on the car side-by-side with the learner on the steering wheel to perform the actual driving on the road. The present example illustrates a pragmatic development that moves on from teaching to learning (process) to being (a) learned (individual). A genuinely learned individual doesn´t only have the knowledge of what s/he has learned but also the wisdom—the acquired and ¨lived¨ understanding—of it which is demonstrated and confirmed by the sheer proficiency and mastery of the skill in the actual performance of what has been truly learned.

The teacher-learner divide has been complicated by the modern institutionalization of formalized system of education traditionally called ¨schooling¨ wherein the teacher is culturally regarded to be ¨omniscient¨ at least in the field of discipline s/he has been formally trained. By virtue of such formal training, s/he automatically assumes the role of a teacher before a group of learners initially considered to be ignorant of the elements of the field of discipline they have subjected themselves into with the objective to substantially learn from what the ¨omniscient¨ teacher is supposed to teach them. In this particular situation, ¨schooling¨ is equated with ¨banking¨ wherein money is deposited and withdrawn by clients. In institutionalized formal schooling, canned information from theoretical sources are ¨deposited¨ in the memory banks of students and later withdrawn from them through examinations. The human mind in this process is treated like a sponge with the capacity to absorb and retain water until the sponge is squeezed to release the water it has absorbed. In his monumental magnum opus, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (http://www.users.humboldt.edu/jwpowell/edreformFriere_pedagogy.pdf ), the great Brazilian philosopher of education, Paulo Freire, calls it, ¨the banking concept of education¨.

A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship at any level, inside or outside the school, reveals its fundamentally narrative character. This relationship involves a Narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening objects (the students). The contents, whether values or empirical dimensions of reality, tend in the process of being narrated to become lifeless and petrified. Education is suffering from narration sickness.

The teacher talks of reality as if it were motionless, static, compartmentalized, and predictable. Or else he expounds on a topic completely alien to the existential experience of the students. His task is to ¨fill¨ the students with the contents of his narration—contents which are detached from reality, disconnected from the totality that engendered them and could give them significance. Words are emptied of their concreteness and become a hollow, alienated and alienating verbosity.

The outstanding characteristic of this narrative education, then, is the sonority of words, not their transforming power. . . . The student records, memorizes and repeats . . .

Narration (with the teacher as the narrator) leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated content. Worse yet, it turns them into ¨containers,¨ into ¨receptacles¨ to be ¨filled¨ by the teacher. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.

Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. . . . This is the ¨banking¨ concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits. . . .

In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. . . . The teacher presents himself to his students as their necessary opposite; by considering their ignorance absolute, he justifies his own existence. . . .

[Pages 71 and 72 of Freire´s Pedagogy of the Oppressed]

In bridging the teacher-student gap—which in effect likewise automatically bridges the teaching-learning gap—teachers are not supposed to project the sole image of and hence be treated as an omniscient master in the classroom but as fellow learners, co-discoverers and co-creators of new knowledge with the students who are not supposed to be narrowly treated as only learners with no capacity to impart significant insights but also as co-teachers, co-discoverers and co-creators of new knowledge. In all circumstances of life—whether inside or outside the four walls of a classroom—the human being is both teacher and learner. The gap of separation emerges only in a situation of alienation wherein convention compartmentalizes in definitive terms roles strictly bounded by superficial and artificial norms that render such imaginary boundaries impenetrable. In the final analysis, teachers are actually learners and learners are likewise teachers.

Socrates is a perfect epitomé of a teacher-learner who severely berated the professional ¨omniscient¨ Sophists of splendid Athens when he declared to them that upon consultation with the Oracle of Delphi, it was revealed to him that he was the wisest of men because ¨he knows nothing and he knows that he knows nothing.¨ In Socrates we have a teacher who at the same time is a perennial learner.

Let me end by quoting Kahlil Gibran´s words ¨On Teaching¨ in his magnum opus, The Prophet [http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/gibran/prophet/prophet.htm#Teaching]:

Then said a teacher, “Speak to us of Teaching.”
And he said:
No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of our knowledge.
The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness.
If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.
The astronomer may speak to you of his understanding of space, but he cannot give you his understanding.
The musician may sing to you of the rhythm which is in all space, but he cannot give you the ear which arrests the rhythm nor the voice that echoes it.
And he who is versed in the science of numbers can tell of the regions of weight and measure, but he cannot conduct you thither.
For the vision of one man lends not its wings to another man.
And even as each one of you stands alone in God’s knowledge, so must each one of you be alone in his knowledge of God and in his understanding of the earth.

© Rue F. Pepa, 1 October 2013

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