What is Teaching?
Our own Mike Schilling explores some interesting elements of English grammar, ultimately noting that the rule in question is such that “[w]e know it well enough that there’s no need to teach it.” This led me to ponder what it means to teach and how it is that we come to learn things which, seemingly, none of us are taught.
Some things that we, as humans, do are indeed innate, untaught and unlearned. A gag reflex, for instance, is not something you are taught but rather is a type of behavior that a typically developing human is either born with or acquires through the natural course of development.
Other things are taught and, absent being taught them, they are things we are unlikely to do or know. The rules of language are such, largely because of their high level of abstraction. So while we may have innate tendencies towards language acquisition, the specific language we acquire, our understanding and use of its various rules and conventions, all of that is taught one way or another.
What we must realize, though, is that not all teaching is of the variety most of us think of when we think of teaching and learning, namely direct instruction. As I mentioned in a comment on the post, I “teach” that rule of language through modeling: if a child were to come to me and say, “I go tomorrow swimming,” I would respond with something along the lines of, “Wow… so you’re going swimming tomorrow. Where will you go swimming tomorrow?” In this little interaction, the child has now heard the rule modeled twice correctly versus just once incorrectly. He may not immediately take to it, but as he encounters more situations in which he hears the correct version and fewer in which he hears the incorrect version, he will likely come to understand the “right” way to construct such a phrase.
Now, not all modeling is as deliberate and intentional as my own. But most people aren’t tasked with educating children as I do. Yet, every time you speak to or in front of a child, every time you utilize proper rules of grammar or the correct pronunciation of words or other such skills, you are teaching that child. Which is why it is important to realize that so much of what children learn takes place outside the classroom. And, as such, why any efforts at education reform must be rooted in broader societal and cultural shifts.
To crystalize this last point, I point towards a study on language exposure in young children. By observing mother-child interactions across a variety of socio-economic groups, the study found that:
- Children of welfare mothers heard an average of 620 words per hour from their mothers
- Children of working class mothers heard an average of 1250 words per hour from their mothers
- Children of professional mothers heard an average of 2150 words per hour from their mothers
- These differences were tightly linked to broad differences in a number of child outcomes
Now, please know that I do not offer these numbers to you with the intention of chastising lower- or middle-income families or to insist that the education gaps we tend to see between different socio-economic groups are wholly the fault of mothers. Rather, I offer them in conjunction with Mike’s comment about things not being taught to demonstrate that our perception that direct instruction is the only form of teaching can easily lead to reforms predicated on equalizing this form of teaching which are seemingly destined to fall short. What I think Hart and Risley’s research demonstrates more succinctly than any other such study is that teaching and learning, especially for young children, is happening all around us. And when we focus our efforts at improving the education of children on just one or a few approaches to teaching, we ultimately fall short.
If we really want to make gains in teaching our children, especially those children who so often seem failed by the education system, we need to change our perception of what education is, of how children learn, and of the important role that the various adults play in education.