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We Learn By Teaching

Steve Wheeler


Student PresentationAlthough I am employed to teach, I consider it something of a disappointment if I don't learn something myself during my teaching sessions.


Sure, it is my prime responsibility to ensure that my students are given the best opportunities to learn, and I take pride in creating the best possible learning environments and experiences I can offer. The real magic occurs when we are all learning together, and I would like to argue that this should be the case in any learning environment.


In his 1968 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire wrote 'Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students.'

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Overcoming Your "Expert" Status

Some might complain that 'only the expert has a right to teach', or that 'students should not be allowed to go off and find out for themselves', but sadly, this is really missing the point. Every student brings their own unique knowledge and experiences into the classroom, and it's impossible for 'experts' to know everything.


Let me give you a recent example: During an ICT session this week, as I made hard work of 'wiping the interactive whiteboard clean,' my students pointed out to me that on Smartboards, all you need to do is circle the text you wish to delete with the wiper and then tap the middle of the text, and hey presto - the entire text disappears. Well, that was new to me, and I won't forget it - it's a new skill that will save me a lot of time and effort in the future. Now that's learning - and I'm very glad it was me on this occasion that learnt something new - from my students.


But you see, there is more to learn about this incident than the fact that the students taught the teacher a new 'skill.' The students and I had a good laugh about me (a so-called expert in ICT) not knowing how to use an IWB, but ultimately, the secret to good learning is that often you can't afford to be afraid to admit that you are ignorant of something.


Embracing Ignorance as a Path to New Learning

Pride often gets in the way of good learning, but sometimes we need to admit 'I don't know', and we also need to admit that students know things teachers don't. Often, being honest about your ignorance, and being open to new ways of doing and new ways of thinking, opens the door for new learning, unlearning and relearning. How many of us have sat through a lecture or conference presentation, and have been afraid to ask a question because it might make us look stupid? If we all want to ask that same simple question but we are all too afraid to do so, then that is stupid - because then the entire room remains ignorant.

There is an old Latin aphorism - Doscendo discimus - which means, we learn by teaching.


Must we be so rigid in our mind set as to not see the powerful potential of this idea?

Can we not break away from the idea that students are only there to learn and teachers must only teach?

Can't we each do both, and isn't this exactly what Freire meant?


The Student Becomes The Teacher

I insist that all my students present their learning in seminars, and I also encourage questioning during these seminars. It's for a very good reason - having to stand up and explain something, means the students need to learn it first. They need to become familiar with the concept, theory, idea they will be talking about in front of their peer group.


Even better, in recent years several of our Plymouth University Primary Education students have presented at conferences, Teachmeets and other public events, in front of people they have not previously met. This is really dropping them in at the deep end, but I think it's important they have the experience. They are understandably very nervous, but afterwards, each and every one of them will tell you the same story: They are glad they have had the chance to present in public, and they learn a lot from this rich experience.


If you want them to learn, get them to teach.


How do you invite students to teach in your classroom? Share in the comments section!


Reprinted with permission from author Steve Wheeler. Original article appears on Steve's blog Learning with 'e's.

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