I recently decided to attempt to define the concepts of teaching, learning, and taking a course to see how well my definitions match what I have done for the past twenty years. Upon reflection, I have arrived at two important realizations. I realize now that what I spent most of the first ten years of my career doing was not true teaching. I realize now that no one ever taught me how to learn. I can’t honestly say that my definition of taking a course has caused any stunning realizations, but I think it’s necessary because it operationally combines the other two into something students may find useful. On second thought, maybe school administrators may find it useful too. So here are my definitions. They are still very much mutable and I welcome feedback.
Teaching is creating an environment in which students can freely immerse themselves in the process of gaining proficiency in, or mastering, a discipline by all possible means, using all provided resources, and by finding other resources. The environment will be free of barriers, intimidation, and outside distractions, and provides opportunity for exploration of intellectual endeavors without fear of failure, reprisal, abuse, intimidation, or punishment. Barriers, in this context, are things we use to relieve us of the responsibility for learning. Some barriers are unavoidable, but many are entirely avoidable, and it is the avoidable ones that teaching must minimize. Hopefully, this definition includes both scholarly classroom teaching and research.
Learning is the willingness to take advantage of your freedom to fully immerse yourself, free of distractions, in gaining proficiency in, or mastering, a discipline without fear of failure, reprisal, abuse, intimidation, or punishment. Learning can happen without knowing what your newly discovered knowledge may be used for in the future. Learning must happen without giving in to feelings of (intellectual) uncomfortableness. Learning never ends, but intermingles with periodic reflection. Hopefully, this definition includes both scholarly classroom learning and research.
Taking a course from an educational institution is an opportunity, indeed a guarantee for an opportunity, to (a) learn under the supervision of an expert in a discipline and/or (b) to earn a credential certifying that you have demonstrated proficiency in a skill or discipline. The expert creates the environment and students do the learning, and that includes deciding what is and is not relevant to the course contents. One depends on the presence of the other. This expert also provides constructive feedback throughout the process and provides a final professional, data driven assessment of a student’s performance. Learning can happen without taking a course, but taking a course guarantees you will have the requisite environment and increases your chance of success.