Saturday, October 15, 2005

Self-directed learning and the group

I have a doctorate, which I have always understood to be a recognition that I no longer require someone else to put a stamp of approval on my learning. Whatever the discipline, this is what the highest degree means: not so much that one is qualified to teach others, but that one is qualified to teach oneself. This is, of course, what models of excellence in every field do: they build their own models of learning. Some of them teach others but they all teach themselves.

Often, studies of education confuse the quality of teaching with the quality of learning. Learning in classes is different than learning alone because other people are part of the class: the one who is the teacher may or may not be the one who has the biggest individual impact . Even the biggest individual impact is probably not as great as the total effect of learning with the group. This is as true for the kids in junior kindergarten as it is for people with doctorates. We learn more from a class than we learn alone because we learn from being part of the class while we are learning whatever subject matter we study.

It has taken me a long time to come to this. I suppose it was what one of my most brilliant professors meant when he said that when he wanted to learn something he had to teach it. Maybe he wasn't telling me about the difference between teaching and learning; maybe he was telling me about the difference between learning together (a teacher is part of a class) and learning alone.

This has, of course, changed my approach to both teaching and learning. My goal as a teacher is not to teach brilliantly (although applause is always welcome!); my goal is to create the conditions under which a class becomes a group for enhanced learning, a collection of individuals who not only learn best together; they also thoroughly enjoy the process. The pleasure comes, I think, not only from the teacher's charm and humour, not only from the knowledge of a job well done. It comes from engaging all the different processes we use to connect with other people and connecting all that energy into the skills and information the course conveys.

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