How did we learn what we know?

Why don’t we teach it the way we learned it?


This post grew out of a chance comment made by a friend on how we learn geography. We learn where places are, he said, by going there. That’s why we know the streets, shops, landmarks, even cities around where we live. We don’t learn about our country or our world from reading about it in a geography book. We don’t learn it from memorizing countries and flags, states and capitals. We learn by doing, going, experiencing.


I’m from the USA and it is a big place. It would take a year of road trips to go everywhere. When I was in school, we learned the names of all the States – alphabetically. I can still sing parts of the song we learned to memorize it. We memorized the capitals of each state (I only remember a few). However, the locations were deemed unimportant. Americans have a reputation abroad for poor geography skills.


A common project in schools is a leaf collection. I collected a leaf from a tree at the back of the school parking lot and spent a week arguing with my teacher that I had labeled it correctly. He was convinced that kind of tree didn’t grow in North America, but he wouldn’t go with me out to the parking lot to see it. I remember the argument clearly, but I don’t remember the name or features of that leaf or any other. However, I know the elm and oak and ash trees that grew around my neighborhood even though I haven’t lived there for nearly 15 years.


My favorite science teacher in high school took us out of the school in her van once a week to play in the creek and collect samples of everything. I don’t remember a single in-class lesson we did, but I remember everything from those mini-field trips (including the exact location of the creek). There were things there that were “too dirty” for the classroom, but testing the water and looking for tadpoles is permanently etched on my memory.


I took French in middle and high school. We sat in orderly rows and memorized verb conjugations for an hour. I still remember some of them, but they didn’t help me on my first trip to France (I know exactly where it is on a map, though). Alone for three weeks in Paris, I picked up French by using it. I listened and asked questions and stumbled through conversations, but learned more than four years in the classroom could ever teach.


So now, how am I teaching my students? In a classroom. In desks. In neat little rows. In groups. Am I teaching the way I was taught (with a few projects and role plays thrown in for good measure)? This is not how I learned anything that I still know.


Why do I spend time in my classroom teaching students in ways by which I know I could not learn? In an EFL environment, my options for authentic, experiential learning are limited, but that’s not a good enough excuse. Having to use curricula that dictates what I teach and how long I spend on each item limits possibilities, but I don’t think that’s the real reason. The real reason: I’ve forgotten how I learned what I know.


The compulsion to fall back on books and curricula is strong, but I must resist. It is time to design effective, memorable lessons that will allow students to truly interact with language and each other. In reminding myself, I must also remind my students to pay attention to how they learn and seek out further learning opportunities.

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