Do We Really Teach How We Were Taught? Three Things You Should Know

“Learning is a lifelong process of keeping abreast of change. And the most pressing task is to teach people how to learn.

— Peter Drucker

Do you ever think back to the teachers you had growing up?

Maybe a private music teacher or a choir director or your high school English teacher or a professor you had in college.

What do you remember about them? What was your learning experience like? What approaches did you observe? What do you find yourself incorporating into your own teaching?

There’s an age-old adage that says we teach how we were taught.

This isn’t the full story, of course: we all have unique backgrounds and a variety of experiences that inform the people we are today and the teachers we are becoming.

Observing our own teachers is certainly a part of that, but it doesn’t define what type of teacher we are or will become. But it is worth considering every now and again: 

  • How do these influences and past experiences affect our teaching mindsets, our approaches, and the way we think about learning? 
  • Are we keeping an open mind, pursuing new avenues of instruction, learning new technologies, and challenging our perceptions from time to time or are we getting stuck in a rut, clinging to the things that feel comfortable and safe and familiar, teaching the way we’ve always taught?

Author and speaker Peter Drucker once wrote:

“We now accept the fact that learning is a lifelong process of keeping abreast of change. And the most pressing task is to teach people how to learn.” (source)

Think about how much the world has changed since you were a student. To connect to students where they are today and prepare them for the world they’ll face in the future, our teaching has to remain flexible, responsive, and adaptive to the changing world around us.

We need to keep our eyes and ears and minds open to new ideas, new ways of thinking, new ways of doing. We need to continue learning ourselves.

Do We Really Teach How We Were Taught? Three Things You Should Know

No. 1 – Experience informs practice

In a 2013 article, researchers Amanda Oleson and Matthew T. Hora interviewed and observed 53 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics faculty at three research institutions. They discovered three primary teaching influences: previous teachers, past teaching experiences, and experience as learners.

In sum, modeling and imitating our own teachers is one type of experience (of several) that informs our knowledge and practice of teaching. (source)

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No. 2 – We teach based on how we learned

This makes sense, doesn’t it? We remember the teaching strategies that were most effective for us as learners.

Stephanie Cox, in her 2014 master’s thesis, explored the question: “Do Teachers Teach as They Were Taught?” and determined that teachers take a deeper and more thoughtful approach to teaching than simply imitating the way they were taught. Instead, they reflect on their past experiences as students and choose strategies and approaches that they feel helped them learn.

In sum, we teach the way we preferred to be taught and the way we think students will learn best (often, the way we learned best). (source)

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No. 3 – Learning takes effort

Learning isn’t always easy. As teachers, we know this to be true. But as students, it’s hard to accept the fact that learning requires effort. It’s a struggle, sometimes, to achieve mastery of a new concept or skill. And sometimes, that means failing multiple times before achieving success.

In a review of the book, Make It Stick by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel, Jennifer Gonzalez wrote, “Easy learning is not long-lasting; it’s the effort required to learn that results in true retention.” (source)

In sum, teaching and learning is a two-sided coin. For true learning to take place and take root, it requires effort on both sides.

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