The Subordination of Teaching to Learning

Initially the phrase “Subordination of Teaching to Learning” seems a little opaque. Perhaps the word “subordination” isn’t so commonly used, and therefore seems a little odd. Anyway, all teachers would tell you that their teaching leads to learning. So what’s the big deal? Isn’t all teaching aimed at learning and therefore, in a way “subordinate” to it?

Perhaps the shell of this tough nut can be cracked if we look firstly at the last word in the phrase, “learning”. Gattegno spent his life studying learning in himself and others. He created a unified theory of learning that takes into account development from the embryo to the octogenarian. He found that learning is a natural process which occurs spontaneously when human beings meet the unknown and develop new skills and functionings in order to grapple with it.

Illustration from What We Owe Children: The Subordination of Teaching to Learning

Illustration from What We Owe Children: The Subordination of Teaching to Learning, Caleb Gattegno 1987

In the physical environment, humans master the use of their muscles to navigate the environment. They learn to crawl, to walk, to climb and to run. But learning also occurs in a cultural context, when humans begin to adopt the more advanced cultural features of their society. Children first use their hands to eat, but soon learn to use spoons, forks, chop-sticks, etc. These tools are a part of the cultural environment. Learning also allows children to use the most complex social tool available to man: language. So if learning is viewed as a natural process, then our first job is understand how it works. So let’s look at children learning.

When we watch a small children as they start to learn, the first thing that strikes us, is that they do so without any assistance whatsoever. They even become frustrated when adults offer too much assistance, showing their drive to learn unimpeded. Also, they learn all their skills completely without verbal instructions or explanations, in fact, without any words whatsoever. And finally, they have no memory of what they have learned, in the sense that one might recall one’s phone number. Instead their “memory” is proven in action, by performing the skill. None of us remembers how to walk, we stand up and do it.

A number of principles of learning can be deduced from this:

  1. All learning is self-learning – no one can learn anything for us, we have to mobilise ourselves to learn, thus the teacher is compelled to present situations that mobilise learners. Teacher should not “push” or “praise” as the task itself should be challenging and, therefore, inherently motivating to the child as a spontaneous learner.
  2. Learning is autonomous – once students are on task, teachers should observe silently and try to understand from the evidence available how the student is conceiving of the task. They should plan their interventions on the basis of this concrete information. Deficiencies in student performance should be viewed as guides to the teachers’ presentation, task design and set up of the learning environment.
  3. Humans learn skills but forget facts – Students engaged in learning how to do something are able to improve and refine their performance. Once they have fully mastered the skill, it is available to them as if it were there all along and requires almost no attention. Conversely, students engaged in memorising and regurgitating information can only be correct or incorrect. They are ultimately left feeling dissatisfied as so much of their natural learning functions have been left unused in the task.

Once we understand this, then we can intervene to shape the learning progression. But if we do not understand the learning process, then we stumble into the classroom like an apprentice mechanic: very eager, but without any idea of the inner workings at play. To subordinate one’s teaching to learning is, firstly, to study human learning scientifically and, secondly, to show respect for the innate powers present in all learners by disciplining oneself to make only those interventions which are necessary, and no more.

“Let’s say I never tell you anything, except what you can’t invent. Then anything you say, has to be given to you. I have to grant you that you said it, because I didn’t say it. So one way of giving back to children what they do is to make the teacher shut up. Silence. A silent way of teaching…”

Caleb Gattegno on Speaking Freely with Edwin Newman

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