Realities of Teaching, Learning and Becoming Effective

Warren Kinston 9. April 2013 11:00

I remember it well: 2 times 1 is 2, 2 times 2 is 4, 2 times 3 is 6, and so on.  Up to 12 times 12 is 144.

What a great way to learn.  I still know that 9 times 7 is 63, and lots of other tricky multiplications too.  Has this gone out of fashion with smart-phones?

Everywhere you look in the blogosphere people seem to be bothered by their inability to teach and their students' failure to learn, especially in higher education

Alison Gopnik, Professor of Psychology, writes: “children learn by exploring—by experimenting, playing, drawing inferences.”  True—undoubtedly and it sounds so liberating.  But they also learn by repeating things 10,000 times: for example that’s how they learn to stand up or play the violin. I suppose endless practice, like rote learning, is not fashionable anymore.

I see that young people claim to master a topic these days by doing a “deep dive” for all of 6 weeks.  It takes me years, even decades, to get their level of confidence in knowing about something.  I was probably born too soon and I'm now held back by my old-fashioned ideas.  

Our Professor notes: “I don’t think there’s any scientist who thinks that the way we typically do university courses has anything to do with the best methods for getting people to learn.”  Did she say “getting people to learn”?  Perhaps there is a hidden desire to insert probes into the brain, so as to upload what's required.  After all we are now told that “biology, genetics, epidemiology, evolutionary science, psychology, philosophy, computer science, and medicine have converged into the catchall field of neuroscience”, so why bother with the details?  Why waste time with books and seminars? Just upload it all.

In my visits to the pedagogy and education section of, it seemed to me that many teachers want to help their pupils to manage the world after they leave university, to get the knowledge and skills they are going to need outside the classroom.  The idea of subjects and disciplinary knowledge hardly gets a look in.

Nobel-prize winner Carl Wieman bemoans the fact that passive absorption does not occur during his lectures.  He seems to have forgotten that the main goal of lectures is to let you know what you will be examined in.  

I remember my young head being filled with foolish ideas of actually understanding things like an expert.  My lecturer in pharmacology was so awful that I skipped the lectures.  To compensate, I bought the most respected text book (as I recall it was "Goodman & Gilman" and many inches thick) and simply learned it.  I really knew my pharmacology.  Nevertheless, that was the worst exam result I ever got in my whole University career.  It taught me a lesson in life I never forgot.  Ignore what people preach: look at the realities.  Lectures are primarily about passing exams.  Wieman was distressed by finding that at the end of physics and chemistry courses, students have become less sophisticated.  But, as my pharmacology experience shows, that is exactly what the system requires.  There is an inevitable, inherent dumbing down when dozens or hundreds of students have to be simultaneously taught a vast body of knowledge and then tested en masse.

What experts and do-gooders seem to ignore is willingness as the core issue for learning.  If we students are eager to learn then we will do so, through lectures or despite lectures.  If we are not willing, then nothing will penetrate our thick skulls.  In an educational setting, our willingness has to be directed to succeeding in that setting, not to succeeding in a later vocational setting with its entirely different pressures and demands. 

Are teachers responsible for the willingness of their students?  Beyond a certain basic limit—politeness, pleasant environment, timing—I don’t think so.  But I take it as a given that teachers have a passion for their subject and are genuinely willing to teach.  I suppose that some, or possibly many, don't and aren't.  Even Wieman, committed though he surely is, must be far more incentivized to teach the handful of graduates in his lab than 200 students in a class that takes him away from his international lectures, pet projects, high-level committees, and grant-writing.

Those in the teaching profession ought to be clear about the various ways that the willingness to learn can manifest, whether it is about their learning to teach, or their students learning while being taught.  This has been my current taxonomic preoccupation.  The ways we learn must surely be mentalities found in THEE (or derived from these). They will be observable in children.  They will be universal and found in all cultures.  They will have existed since the dawn of time—certainly long before we commercialized and bureaucratized education.

As for learning to handle the world, every student is going to move into their own world and their primary tool for that challenge is themselves.  Apart from relevant knowledge, the key issue in success is personal, especially emotional maturation and development of social skills.  We all need an awareness of how we and others use brute power to get our way: why don't they teach that?

Universities are not about handling oneself in life at all.  They are (and should be) about disciplinary instruction about engaging with what the best minds have concluded in a field  I’m not happy about the idea that physics or history or mathematics professors should be teaching personal maturation or social skills or power-games.  What would be their qualifications for that?  

Even in the humanities, Universities (at least in modern times) are primarily about worked-over knowledge, not the wisdom of life. Wisdom deals with matters that we must learn for ourselves, perhaps with gentle assistance from wise and tolerant mentors, or via small voluntary (non-academic) philosophy academies. 

But how do we learn for ourselves and why do we learn for ourselves?  The answer is simple, we learn for ourselves because we want to become more effective in whatever we specifically choose to do.  Notice that this has nothing to do with personal growth or spiritual development.  Intellectual celebrities show that it is possible to be an emotional midget or a rabid materialist and still be highly effective.  There is no place in my book for pontificating about how a person should be or what they should become. 

The drive to be as effective as possible—in maintaining an oil rig, in investing, in playing the guitar, in managing staff, in writing articles or whatever—is rather natural, but it cannot be taken for granted.  If your heart is not in what you want to do, then you will not make the effort.  

Remember that willingness is the highest level of endeavour.  Making the effort in an endeavour is a matter of activating willingness-RL7—whether it is by keeping trying, joining groups, fighting for success or something else in that vein.

We organize our willing efforts to be effective via specific ways of learning, and each of these is built on the primacy of a particular form of willingness

That will be what my next blog is about.  See you there.



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Warren Kinston is the creator of the THEE-Online website as an open forum for the further discovery and development of THEE. He writes this blog as an escape valve for the excitement and frustrations of the work. More info here.

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