“How Do We Learn?” Isn’t This a Good Question for Teachers to Ask Themselves?

“Wow, that shirt simply screams, Josette.”

“Oh, those earrings are so you!”

Your friends may have qualified you with a certain look or style, and depending on your personality — or maybe just the time of day — you might feel annoyed by such comments as the ones above. Yet you may even feel pleased that your friends openly associate you with such good taste :P

I never thought I would receive a similar comment associated to my beliefs around teaching and learning. I’ll get to that comment soon, but first a little context.

I’ll admit without shame, and also with quite a bit of fervor, that I think effective teachers ask themselves how people learn. Without understanding how people learn, how do we begin to comprehend the best, most beneficial ways to teach? Every time I ponder this question, I come to the same conclusion: it’s impossible. I believe teaching and learning are married for life, with no chance of divorce on the eternal horizon. (Is that enough fervor? :P ) As long as there is the institution of education, this marriage will have a long lasting life together. Though, whether this wedlock is a happy one or not depends on if teachers ponder the following question:

“How do we learn?”

I think that any teacher who asks this question, and finds answers that work for their context, will get closer to meeting their goal of helping students learn. (Side note: I don’t support any form of punishment as methods to help students learn.) This is a question I try to help my *participants answer for themselves during our training program. However, I still end each semester feeling disappointed that, due to program scheduling, I can’t help them explore this question to the degree I believe would be helpful for their teaching careers. I expressed this disappointment to fellow educators over a few beer while celebrating our upcoming summer vacation. This is when one of them said,

“That’s a very Josette thing to say.”

It wasn’t the beer that took me aback. I felt confused by the comment and wondered how we learn is something these teachers associated with my style of teaching? My belief around teaching and learning is so strong that I assumed they would also agree that this would be an important question for participants contemplate. Instead, they associated it with a special way of thinking: my way. We didn’t have enough time to discuss their point of view in more depth, as the night was cut short, but they did mention they didn’t think this was a question our Korean teachers had the luxury of answering. This was sad and shocking to me. It sounded truly hopeless.

As I reflected on their reaction, my confusion and sadness slightly subsided to the satisfaction of being associated with this perspective on teaching and learning. However, the uncomfortable emotions still seem to be coming up, prompting me to ask you what you think. Should teachers ask themselves how learning happens, and how it can be maximized? Is it a waste of time for teachers to get educated around this concept of learning and teaching? I’d love to read your thoughts.

Have a great summer!

(*) Korean teachers of English in the Keimyung Intensive English Teacher Training program.


9 thoughts on ““How Do We Learn?” Isn’t This a Good Question for Teachers to Ask Themselves?

  1. I agree with you. It’s sort of a debate topic in the Montessori world right now and I have tried to ask several different people at different schools what their take is on the role of computers in the elementary classrooms. Most likely the students attending private Montessori schools (the majority of Mont. schools out there), come from affluent enough families where they have been exposed to computers at home for a long time (most likely their entire lives). Many of my future students will probably be more well-versed in technology than I am! As Montessori developed her method at the turn of the 20th century and died decades before the first minicomputers and personal computers had been invented, there is no place in her lectures concerning these matters. Some fundamentalists believe that her system is fine the way it is and that children can get access to all of the other technology outside of the classroom (or through their own personal studies if they choose), whereas others argue that Montessori was all about scientific observation and her curriculum is quite science and mathematics-based along with her mission to produce practical-functioning and self-reliant members of society, so she probably would have been on top of technology and encouraging students to apply it practically (and creatively).

    As for edutainment, I meant that today, in Korea, at least, it conjures up the image of an untrained Native Teacher at the front of a hagwon acting silly and simply playing BINGO with students all day, every day and/or relying too much on teaching the words to pop songs (but none of what the vocab or phrases mean and what significance they hold culturally, etc). So many teachers complain of having a job so easy that clowns or monkeys could replace them, which originally made me a wee bit self-conscious about being too dramatic while teaching. Once I saw how well it worked though, I fully embraced being quite physical and dramatic in gestures and with voices and intonations while teaching and getting the students involved (modifying degrees by age group). Nobody wants to see the same skit and dialogue performed by all five groups in the class, so I’d ask certain groups to act it out as babies, grandparents, angry or sad, etc. This pushed them to think about using the language in a different way and not just being robotic in their regurgitation of the dialogue. Seeing their peers perform, it usually resulted in each group trying to one up each other and made for thoroughly entertaining lessons, where they would critique and encourage their friends until they did it right!

    My take on edutaining seemed to work wonders with the students’ ability to connect with the language on all sorts of different levels. It left an impression on many adults who witnessed or participated in my classes, too, usually resulting in questions like, “You teach with so much ENERGY! Aren’t you exhausted?” My answer was, “No! When the students are energized, I am energized… we fuel each other! There is nothing more draining than trying to lecture a classroom of students who are bored to death!” And I never let my students get away with just watching videos. They were always prepped to be on the look-out for something to report back to me after it was over, or even for the most basic classes, to have the kids shout out any of the English vocab for things they saw every time they came on screen (For example, in the story of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, they had learned caterpillar, leaf, egg, cocoon, butterfly, and all of the food he eats, but they were also allowed to shout out words I hadn’t covered, like tree, sun, moon, flower, etc allowing the advanced learners to show off and the beginners to get exposed to even more than I had taught them).

    Oops! This got long! I hope it can help someone out there :)


  2. I think this is an extremely challenging subject, but I am surprised that the teachers would have never had a learning theories course in university (to be honest, I don’t even know if they exist in the US, but I would assume so). I have had the fortune of learning/studying 3 completely different foreign languages (Spanish, Bulgarian and Korean), and I learned them in completely different ways, so that I know now how I learn language best. But what works for me, may not work for others and vice versa :P Knowing how I prefer to learn, I always tried to make my lessons exciting and interactive, but also balanced with use of some of the less fun drills and even aspects of the old grammar-translation, My boards were filled with colorful sentences indicating the different parts of the grammar in the target language, I was careful to go over the intricacies of proper pronunciation vs a more fluent discourse, and I always tried to tie the words with some sort of movement. In a huge classroom with varying abilities, you never know what is going to resonate with a student. My philosophy was if I could captivate and engage them with one style, that perhaps they’d be more on board with joining me through the other styles.

    I am curious how you think the way youth interact with media/technology today is impacting the way they learn (and likewise how we teachers are going to have to adapt to that) and if you believe that “edutainment” can rid itself of being a dirty word in the EFL environment?



    1. Thank you so much for your rich comment Denice!

      You pose a great question. I think it is necessary for it to stop being a dirty word. We can’t ignore the reality of technology anymore. It would be like teachers ignoring the new concept of pens and notebooks for the nostalgia of the writing slate. If we have technology as a useful resource, why ignore it? In my opinion by ignoring this we do a disservice to students. Technology can be a tool for enhancing learning. But this is the important point. We can’t just put on a YouTube video that is somewhat related to our language point and then say we are trying to raise interest. Interest must be connected to learning. The technology must meld with learning and it should enhance it. It can’t be used only for the sake if using it. I’ve seen some of my participants do this. They aren’t sure how to connect technology to their students learning because they are so comfortable with their chalk and that chalkboard. We can’t just throw in technology in our lessons and hope for the best.

      I also want to mention that I don’t think technology is necessary for learning language. I think it’s a bonus and a luxury in the developed world. Learning is connected to motivation. Technology might be a motivator for students in Korea, while basic survival might be the motivation for street children in Cambodia.

      Thank you for raising this question Denice!


  3. I love your “more” response, Katherine! I love your openness, Josette. I hear your disappointment when a core concern of yours is not shared with your colleagues. I feel sadness at a moment of disconnection, but also hope that perhaps a seed has been planted and perhaps doubt also in a way that was always simply accepted. And finally, I share the end of semester 섭섭하다 that life is going on and I am wishing that we could do just a little more and go just a little further together.


    1. What I really liked about this comment was how you were able to see beyond the disappointment and find a glimmer of hope. I tend to forget the process that usually occurs after we have a discussion with someone. Oftentimes seeds are planted and change does occur. Sadly though we are not always around to see the change happen, but having hope and belief that this is even a possibility will definitely bring more hope to my conversations. Thank you for the reminder Elizabeth!


  4. I think willingness to go an extra mile, willingness to be wrong or to seek out the right, willingness to ask tough questions and risk receiving tough answers in return–are all part of caring when we work with our fellow humans. How can we ever think we are doing all we are able, if we have not sought out one more avenue?
    Perhaps the question is: How much work does it take to create excellence?
    And perhaps the answer is: More.
    I surely have enjoyed this exchange.


    1. Yes, MORE! How wonderfully simple, but how sincere. It reminds me of a quote I posted on Facebook the other day: “I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything; but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.- Edward Everett Hale”


  5. Ah, Josette!
    I once wrote a note to a friend who had made some bad life-mistakes. I wrote anonymously because I did not want her to accept or discount my words because of me, but to consider them closely and carefully on their own merit. I disguised my handwriting and traveled to another city to mail it. When she received it, she immediately called me and asked me, point blank, if I had sent it.
    When I asked her how she knew, she said, “Because no one else cares.”
    Josette, could that be what your buddies meant when they assigned the idea of excellence to you?
    Of course, it is easy to accept the mental labor of ages past, to use a text and hope it is the best way, but who cares enough to double-check?
    Although I am retired, you make me want to teach some more. And if you ever figure out how we learn, please tell me. :-)


    1. Dear Katharine,
      I like the idea of being assigned excellence. What a beautiful way of thinking about this.

      You helped me realize that in essence your story, and mine is simply about care. Could it be that teachers who care are willing to take risks, and are able to ask the tough questions?

      Although I am always learning about how we learn, at the moment I strongly believe that we learn by doing. I come from a background of experiential education, and this experience has shown me the magic of this form of learning. I also realize that we learn in many different ways and the best possible scenario is for a teachers to create an environment where all these learning modalities can happen. On a more practical side, I recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn about the different decisions teachers can take when they plan their lessons http://www.hltmag.co.uk/nov03/pubs1.htm Oh and the website I linked you to is an a wonderful organization focused on humanistic language learning. You might enjoy a browse :)


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