Teacher Dependence and Independent Learning

I remember those countless hours spent in group discussion during the years of my bog standard education. The lessons would meander on, until eventually the teacher finally paid us some attention, and we would have to share our findings with the other members of the class. But our findings usually had to be corrected, and it was usually clear that the teacher was much more interested in the findings of a few select members of the class.

These members of the class were the ones who had succeeded in reading the teacher’s mind. I became rather adept at this myself, and I would often spend the so-called discussion time explaining to the other group members what answer the teacher actually wanted.

But most of the class was left guessing for most of the lesson, if not all of it, or several lessons in a row if this was a more extended project. And then finally the teacher would give us the answer. Is it surprising that many pupils simply discussed football results or the latest school gossip for most of the lesson? They knew they were going to get the answer eventually, and they had no idea how to discover it. Just like the human race had done for millennia, they could watch an apple dropping any number of times without discovering the law of gravity.

A reputed descendant of Newton's apple tree, at Trinity College, Cambridge.

A reputed descendant of Newton’s apple tree, at Trinity College, Cambridge.

But if someone would explain the law of gravity to them, and then make them memorise it, and then test them on their knowledge to make sure it was really firm, then they would be empowered to understand the law behind the falling apple. They would have more knowledge and they would understand the world better.

The teacher did usually explain it in the end, but we were left with the impression that school was not about receiving knowledge, but about guessing what was in the teacher’s head, when they kept withholding that information from us. In the name of independent learning, we were being made ever more teacher dependent.

Why is it that leaving pupils in the fog of ignorance can be described as independent learning, when true independence is achieved through mastering knowledge? A malnourished person may appear to be apathetic and incapable, but start feeding him a rich diet and he will transform. A mind starved of knowledge through years of vague project work will lack energy and independence. Once you start feeding it with facts it will come alive.

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