Learning as teaching

[This is the second segment of my draft of a learning philosphy. This first part is here: 5 Senses.]

I have learned the most about teaching in the judo dojo. Most good judo organizations fit each of my themes for learning, but they are an especially good reflection of how important teaching is to learning, and learning is to teaching. Like most martial arts, judo has a set of “forms” (kata) that act as a kind of catalog of perfect techniques for the student to emulate. However, far less time is spent learning and observing the forms than is dedicated to what might be translated as “open engagement” (randori). Unlike the rigid grades for classes that are found in more structured learning environments, those practicing judo often work in pairs. Sometimes these pairs have similar experience, but other times they do not. While teaching does not occur in an explicit way, practitioners gradually widen their knowledge through physical discourse with those in their own club and, ideally, other clubs.

My syllabi often list a set of objectives that allow them to fit the genre and the expectations of the university, but I am quick to tell my students that what I expect is for them to teach me something I do not already know. It is fairly common to expect this of graduate students, who are quickly expected to learn through teaching, but undergraduates are less accustomed to such an approach. Creating a seminar structure in smaller classes is not too difficult, but even my large courses now include elements that are explicitly designed to go beyond the material in the class and ask students to create documents for teaching.

In an undergraduate theory course, for example, the final assignment, pursued through much of the course, was to create a communication theory textbook. Small groups worked on individual chapters, and in a couple cases, they actually sought out and interviewed scholars most directly involved in the theory. Several of the assignments were far better than existing textbooks on the subject, and while many were worse, the students had, in the process, become experts on the topics they were writing about. More recently, I have had students create entries for the Wikipedia, or write tutorials for technical topics.

After finishing my undergraduate degree in 1993, I spent two years in Odawara, Japan teaching in junior high schools, working with the board of education, and redesigning a curriculum in “international understanding.” In many schools in Japan, foreign instructors were used as human tape recorders, to provide better models for students to learn English conversation (a different sort of English, in many ways, from the formal study needed for high school entrance exams). Instead, we focused on what English conversation might be useful for, and created opportunities for its use. Students from different grades mixed and taught one-another what they knew and had discovered on their own. Initially, much of what they discovered was through pop culture, though in 1994 we instituted an e-pen-pal system so that students could learn about others living in Hawaii, Oklahoma, and New Zealand, and teach about themselves and their own culture.

In the years leading up to my first full-time university experiences, I was largely self-taught. I remain a strong believer in autodidactism, but I also recognize that knowledge only exists usefully when it can be communicated and shared with others. The ability to teach oneself is closely related, I think, to the ability to teach one another.

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  1. Posted 5/14/2005 at 5:30 am | Permalink

    Right on. I think the “write your own Com Theory textbook” assignment is brilliant. (Is it still around for outsiders to read?) I came to a similar realization a few years back when I finally understood that 1. I was ONLY assigning papers in order to grade them and 2. Students never read all the comments I spend hours making on them. Why not have the Intro to Com class collaborate on a little journal about pop culture and media controversies that we could art direct and then post as a pdf on the class website for others to read? My problem, which sunk the assignment, was that many students really wanted the safety of the professor-student channel and were scared of the prospect of outside readers. I thought this was a silly attitude for professional communication majors, but in fact, some students were so intimidated that they failed to turn in their final papers, thus sabotaging their grades. Has this been an issue for your students? Is wikipedia anonymity a help?

  2. Posted 5/15/2005 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Well, I do have the assignment in hard-copy in my files. I could PDF it if you are interested. I never (stupidly) got permission to publicize the chapters, so I can’t do much there, and worse, I’ve had a hard drive crash in between, so I don’t have many of the good ones.

    (If any of the good folks are still reading, I know you’ve offered this in the past, but maybe you could post or email your assignments?)

    I’ll admit that the publicity has always been a slight impediment, but never enough to derail anything. I’m a bit surprised, really. At UW, from day one in my courses they knew that the major assignment was going to be showcased for outsiders to see, and this meant they needed to work hard to get it right. In fact, that’s what got me into blogging in the first place: I think the professor-student channel often does more harm than good. Students were willing to submit stuff to me that they knew was bad, and that they were embarrassed to have others read.

    Now, I still look at student work before it is public at times, but this is with the ultimate aim of making it public.

    Perhaps one of the reasons that this is OK in my case is that I’ve been teaching at big state schools where students can self-select out of my classes when they learn that what they will be doing is transparent and public. But really, for me, teaching students to communicate to a larger audience is a big part of what I think they should be learning in college, and so I “make” them :). That reluctance, while natural, I think is something worth overcoming.

    There is a discussion going on elsewhere right now about allowing pseudonymous participation. There are cases where this is particularly appropriate, and I certainly allow students who want to do this to do so, but I don’t encourage it. I think it is good for them to shape a public voice, and good for them to be responsible about what they say with that voice.

  3. Posted 5/16/2005 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this post. I’m just begining to explore wikis and other collaborative media. Reading this post is helping me to step back and get a broader picture of how this can be used. I am imagining the look on fifth graders faces when I tell them, “Teach me something I don’t already know.” They do not have the same access to experts as college students have, but I’m not going to let that easy answer let me off the hook.

  4. Posted 5/16/2005 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    I suspect you give college students too much credit in their reaction to this. Indeed, I’ve had first year grad students who found the prospect of teaching me to be daunting. I think it’s healthy for people to learn as early as possible that their teachers are not omniscient.

    When I taught middle school, it was in Japan, so there is definitely a cultural thing going on there. But the few times I got the chance to talk with and teach fifth and sixth graders, I learned a lot. And moreso than seventh and eighth graders, the fifth graders were eager to take you by the hand and act as a teacher, explaining each of the rooms in the school, telling you about what they did there, which teachers were well liked, how school worked, etc. Somehow, by seventh grade, the teacher in them had been largely removed.

    One of the keys here, I think, is to let students know when they have taught you something. It’s often as simple as saying “Thank you! I did not know that before. That is really interesting.” You know how hearing that from students affects you, so turn it back on them. I agree that the challenge “teach me something I don’t know” can be intimidating. If I had a bit more time and contact, I’d try to sneak it in sub-rosa, and I certainly try to openly encourage and reinforce the idea that I am welcome to learning new things.

    At the college level, I think we train ourselves not to be open to such criticism. We begin as TAs, often not that much older than the students we are teaching, desperately afraid that we are going to make a mistake and be seen as incompetent by our students. That fear of losing authority in the classroom seems to stay with many teachers.

    In my most recent large undergraduate class, I was explicit in the first days of the class: “There are many of you who know more about certain aspects of this than I do, and I will consider it a great favor if you tell me when I make a mistake in my lectures.” So many students are afraid of their teachers becoming upset if they bring up new or better information, and see this as a direct challenge to the teacher. I suspect some of this is also learned in 5th grade :). While classroom discipline is important at all levels, I think we need to make sure that students understand that this does not preclude active scepticism and bringing their own stores of knowledge to the table. Whatever we can do to create an environment in which this happens is well worth the effort.

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