Let’s learn by teaching, not by being taught

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Ever wondered who learns the most in a classroom? The teacher. Yes, you read it correctly. Russell Ackoff, in his brilliant lecture on Systems Thinking, says – we learn by teaching, not by being taught. If we really learn by teaching, are we creating the necessary environment for learning at our schools and our homes?  I have tried to address these aspects one-by-one, with a personal perspective.

1. Do we learn by teaching?

The most successful pre-school system in the world is known to be Montessori. In a Montessori environment, kids of all ages learn together. They explore, share and therefore learn. Older kids teach younger ones. There is no set curriculum by age and ability is not limited to the understanding of a syllabus. Kids thrive in this environment, but we limit it to play school only so that we can create more efficiency and accountability in higher education. Where is the accountability in a Montessori environment? Do teachers teach or do they simply facilitate the learning? Do children compete or do they collaborate? Let’s imagine the Montessori system in primary school. How would it work? Kids from ages 6-12 would learn together in a classroom. Some may work on laptops, others through clay modeling. The clay-models may be animated into a short film and coded. Or they may be used in a complex science experiment. Reading would happen instinctively, as a method of communication and bridging gaps. Math would be seen as a challenging problem, waiting to be solved. Learning would happen on demand, all the time. The best-known examples of this system are already seen in middle and high schools all around the world. Children move from one specialist class to another, often taken together with kids of all ages between 13-16. Their assignments can be on the same topic but graded as per their learning rubrics which can be age-appropriate but not limited to it. Collaboration on projects is often seen and teachers collaborate as much as the students. The more digital our world becomes, the higher the need to learn by teaching. Teachers don’t have all the answers anymore, they also need to ‘look it up’. “I don’t know, let’s find out’ is increasingly considered an appropriate response from a middle-school or high school teacher.

2. Are we creating the necessary learning environment at our schools?

In the school my kids go to, I see the attempt to create this learning environment. I also see areas where these attempts are successful and others where it needs more adaptation. My kids are lucky enough to go to a school where continuous improvement in this aspect is visible and welcomed by the teacher parent body alike. I run fitness centers where our clients get trained by a personal trainer at all times. Do our trainers learn by teaching? Absolutely yes. Do we learn by teaching them? Yes again, our fortnightly staff teach and motivate us to stay committed a lot more than them I think.

3. Am I creating this learning environment at home?

My kids go to school for only 186 days in a year. The remaining 179 days that they spend at home have a huge influence on their learning modalities and aptitude. Until a few years ago, I didn’t understand the difference between learning by teaching versus being taught. I tried to teach my children so that they could learn. I sat them down with worksheets and digital math sites where they can learn the fundamentals. I made them practice their dance moves, keep reading logs and did my own research into developing lists of books they ‘should’ read. My kids resisted sometimes and often complied. They got it, but probably never loved it and rarely wanted it. So I stopped many of these attempts or it just fizzled away.

That’s when I decided to explore this concept of learning by teaching. I encouraged them to teach me their dance moves. They talked me through the steps of learning how to do a pull-up at the gym or play a game of tennis. We read and re-told stories to each other. There was no recommended reading, only story-telling. There was no report writing, rather we decided to write our own fictional mythological story. Practice was encouraged but not monitored. They self-monitored their practices, decided when they felt like painting and kept track of their TV time and selections. Meals were more fun this way, full of discussions or sometimes watching something together too. Learning became less regimented but more effective.

Has efficiency suffered? Probably yes. Has skill development suffered, it depends. My experience so far tells me that this is not an ideal system if you are a competitive parent and have strong ambitions of ‘success’ for your child measured through various milestones. If you are a tiger mum, focussed on a measurable, specific goal for your child in the near future, this method may not work efficiently. You may struggle to clock the 10,000 hours needed for mastery of a specific skill. You may find your child not measuring up to set standards and face disappointment.

However, if you can separate yourself and your family unit from this global race and redefine your definition of success to something that looks like – love what you do – then this formula works. The recipe for ‘Love what you do’ needs a lot of trust, empathy, patience and non-judgement as key ingredients. Accepting your child for who he is, and yet encouraging with positive reinforcement needs time and an ability to tune in. Internalizing, giving space and accepting without judging are words easier used than practiced.

Do you need to give up all ambition for your child in that case? Probably not. Rather, redefine it to a measure that your child decides on, not you. Don’t compare yourself to your child. He is not you, but he can be the best reflection of you if you allow him to lead his development.

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