The Teaching-Learning Paradox

In an earlier post, I discussed the Educator’s Catch-22, which demonstrates the absurdity of trying to teach intrinsic motivation in environments (i.e. schools) built on extrinsic motivation.

Now, in order to advance your suffering: say hello to the Teaching-Learning Paradox, first coined in a 1968 study by Robert Dubin and Thomas Taveggia who set out to compare a variety of teaching methods. Here is their key finding:

No shred of evidence was found to indicate any basis for preferring one teaching method over another as measured by the performance of students on course examinations. Underlying all theories concerning the efficacy of one teaching method over another is an implicit model of how teaching and learning are linked. However, we really do not know what the linkage is. The need for establishing clear and unequivocal links between a theory of learning and a theory of teaching is a vital one.

If you’re not following Rubin and Taveggia’s academic-ese, they’re really saying there is no way to determine which teachings methods are better than others. Furthermore, they admit there exists no clear connection between teaching and learning. When someone learns, we have no way of knowing what, if anything, the student’s progress had to do with the teacher or the teaching method.

Though this study was authored almost 45 years ago, the riddle has not yet been solved. We seem to agree that learning happens; we’re just not sure how.

This is a bit like developmental psychologists who claim to be clueless as to how developmental leaps occur. Changes can be charted and measured, but their cause is mysterious.

Adding to the confusion is the constant call for individualized instruction to appeal to a variety of learning styles. This is all Howard Gardner’s fault, I believe.

Here’s what we’re left with: everyone learns differently, but we don’t know how. Teachers can all teach differently, but it won’t make a difference because students will still learn, but we don’t know how. Different styles, strokes, folks, and so on.

I’ve as I’ve written elsewhere, learning can happen anywhere, at anytime, for any reason. We just don’t know why or how. Is that so bad?

You can dissect a frog, but not a mystery.

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