Spevak: Teaching and learning success still a mystery

By John SpevakApril 12, 2013 

Besides writing this column, I keep myself busy by teaching part-time at our local college campus. I enjoy teaching, and the process of teaching and learning has intrigued me since I taught my first course in 1969.

What does it take to be a good teacher? How do students learn? What exactly is happening at the interchange of teaching and learning?

These are complex, enigmatic questions at any level of education, from pre-school to post-doctoral.

Many people think they have definitive answers, but I think the "definitive answers" are simply "educated guesses." My perspective was reinforced when I read an opinion in a recently published book by a highly respected educational researcher, Dr. Norton Grubb of the University of California at Berkeley.

The provocative and articulate book, "Basic Skills Education in Community Colleges," presents the research Grubb and his associates collected while visiting community colleges, as they tried to determine why some college classes succeed while others collapse.

At one point Professor Grubb candidly writes, "With the current state of knowledge and data, no one, absolutely no one, has any idea about which reasons are more important than others."

That conclusion may come as a surprise to some people, since a great deal of information has been collected and many words written about education over the centuries. But Grubb's statement didn't surprise me. I have long believed the dynamic of teaching and learning is largely a mystery.

While teaching a community college class this semester, my belief was reinforced when I realized the students in this class had mastered the information and skills better than any previous group of students I had taught in the same course.

Why did this happen? Am I now a better teacher? If so, why? Are the students better learners? If so why? The answer to both questions is, "I don't know." In this case and in other classes I've taught with different results, I agree with Grubb, that neither I nor anyone else could tell you, with definite assurance, the reasons.

Yes, I could talk about reasonable explanations, like effective teaching approaches using constructivist classroom techniques that engage students, with emphases on high expectations and frequent encouragement.

Or I could talk about student traits that lead to success, like having clear career goals, being highly motivated, having good academic preparation, showing up regularly, following through on assignments and collaborating with other students.

Such a discussion of plausible reasons would be useful, but it wouldn't explain with any certainty why this semester's students are doing so well.

I'd like to think I'm a better teacher, using more effective classroom pedagogies. Maybe that's partially true. But I'd be fooling myself if I concluded that was the primary reason.

I could say this semester's students are better learners, which might be true, but I would likewise be foolish to think I know precisely why.

So what has made this group of students learn better? Perhaps they were more motivated and goal oriented. Perhaps they were academically better prepared.

Perhaps my students' lives this semester were less hectic. So many community college students have tumultuous lives. Maybe this group has more time and space to study and learn.

What is the answer? I don't know. Nor does anyone else, for sure.

But I do know this: Good teaching and successful learning require intense work.

Teachers need to create classes that are stimulating and engaging. Students, in turn, need to participate actively and think extensively.

When teachers' and students' intense efforts mutually succeed, we may not know precisely why, but we can and should be grateful.

Reminder: This Tuesday evening anyone interested in becoming a literacy tutor should come to an orientation at the Los Banos public library at 5:30 p.m.

Comments on the writings of John Spevak, an Enterprise columnist for 29 years, are encouraged, and can be sent via email to john.spevak@gmail.com.

Comments on the writings of John Spevak, an Enterprise columnist for 29 years, are encouraged, and can be sent via email to john.spevak@gmail.com.

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