Whatever does not spring from a man’s free choice … does not enter into his very being, but remains alien to his true nature; he does not perform it with truly human energies, but merely with mechanical exactness.
—K. Wilhelm Freiherr von Humbolt
(1764 – 1835)
Ref. Limits of State Action
(Liberty Fund, 1993)
I Former Days
Around the time our system of schooling was taking shape the verbs “to teach” and “to learn” were interchangeable, both capable of taking a direct object, an indirect object or both. Toddlers learned to talk and teachers learned first graders to read. Fathers marched naughty sons to the woodshed to learn them a thing or two.
In the middle of the nineteenth century the great Benjamin Disraeli, a novelist before he became a statesman, and so a purveyor of language before becoming a purveyor of imperialism, exhorted his Tory colleagues, to “Learn to know the house and learn the house to know you.”
Nowadays, such usage is considered uneducated and vulgar but it tells us a lot about the intimate give-and-take in this instance between the act of teaching and its intended result.
The fact that teaching and learning were once synonymous may sound strange but every teacher has experienced it; you have to teach a subject to find out how little you know of it.
Thomas Young, (1773–1829), professor of natural history at the Royal Institution, famously referred to as “the last man to know everything,” told a friend that when he wanted to understand something he would write about it and the very process of formulating what exactly he wanted to know would lead to guesses (hypotheses) and experiments that confirmed or denied them and ultimately to knowledge. Learning is self-teaching.
Louis Agassiz (1807–1873), world renowned Swiss born zoologist and geologist was hired by Harvard in 1848 to introduce science and in doing so influenced a generation of American scientists. Notice the word is “influenced” not “taught” because Agassiz had little more to say to them than “Look, look, look and look again.” To illustrate this and incidentally to pay tribute to a great teacher Agassiz’s students and their students like to tell the story about the fish … some say it was not a fish but a snail.
The great man presented a graduate student in the laboratory with a fish (or a snail) and told him to find out what he could. By and by, he said, I will ask you what you have seen. The student got no further directions. Each morning he arrived at the laboratory, sat before the aquarium and stared at the fish (or snail) but could think of nothing to do. Agassiz, concentrating on his own work, paid little attention to his student. After about ten days, in a fit of exasperation and desperation the student took up a pencil and began to draw the fish (or snail).
Only then did he get an approving comment: The pen is a great third eye, said Agassiz, thereby inspiring the student to see more. Under a watchful eye and in the fullness of time this student and others went on to distinguished careers in science. Great teachers inspire and do not control, direct but do not restrain, guide and comment but only after learning has begun. It follows then that teaching is not a pitch-catch, cause-effect activity. Self-teaching may be energized by the desire to emulate. Self-teaching is not imitation. Teaching causes learning alright enough, but in the teacher and not necessarily in the student.
To sever learning from its cause-effect tie with teaching frees it for closer, clearer scrutiny. Think of all that has been written, library shelves crammed with studies and reports. Learning, they tell us, is susceptible to reinforcement and extinction. As personal attainment learning is valued if it fosters a student’s ability to generalize and to discriminate. Psychologists classify learning, examine mental processes of rote learning, memory, concept learning. Professional educators preach learning skill, methods to be used to teach the principles that are needed to sustain social, civic, moral and aesthetic values. Learning involves the acquisition of knowledge, all agree, and this invites philosophical language. All studies and reports make necessary assumptions about learning, assumptions that are sometimes simple, clear and distinct as they ought to be, and sometimes not.
The system we have overlooks the common sense meaning of learning. It provides schools and schools provide environments that more or less facilitate learning. To embrace common sense learning we must let our minds be free. Doing so presents a simple concept of learning that is at once sharp, far-reaching, and revealing of features that point the way towards significant improvements.
II Two Modes of Learning
Linguistic considerations are revealing. The present participle “learning” is commonly followed by “to” or “about” and this suggests two modes of learning: All learning is either learning to (insert a verb) or learning about (insert a noun). The first mode involves physical activity and ends in the acquisition of a particular skill.
School-age children learn to play baseball, to ride a bicycle, to sing, to draw, to read, to write, etc. Learning to (verb) leads to performance. The second, learning about (noun), results in knowledge. (There is third mode distinguished by another suffixed preposition—learning that. This involves the acquisition of facts, and the acquisition of facts is static and contributes little to the kind of learning we want.)
Each of these two modes of learning calls for a different approach. How a student learns to speak Chinese is quite different from how he or she might learn about Chinese. A student learns to do something by imitating and practicing. The goal is clear and the process is self-regulatory.
If a student wants to use a word and does not know the Chinese for that word, then he goes to his dictionary. If she pronounces a word incorrectly, then she will not be understood and must, therefore, alter the pronunciation until she gets it right. In its unassisted aspect learning to is acquired naturally with growth and maturation. Human babies suckle, like animals, by instinct, but as they grow they learn to walk by practice and to talk by imitation.
The fact that some animals can learn to do tricks but no animal can learn about something suggests that learning about (noun) is the more elevated, the more admired, more desirable mode. This may be, but the two are so intimately connected that it is virtually impossible to have one without the other. Learning about (noun) depends on learning to (verb) for its very existence.
It is useful to recall the contrast Richard Hofstadter draws between a person of intelligence and a person of intellect (Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Vintage Books, 1962), a distinction paralleling the two modes of learning. Intelligence refers to “…an excellence of mind…, [an] …unfailingly practical quality” while intellect is “…the critical, creative and contemplative side of mind”. Intelligence seeks to grasp and evaluate while intellect evaluates evaluation.
III Yin Yang Connection
To understand the relationship between the two modes of learning we need to consider how we determine that learning of any sort has taken place. As a teacher what tells you that a student has learned what you taught? What is evidence for learning?
Teachers, indeed everyone, must per force interpret what a person does as evidence for that person’s mental state. Thus, learning about (noun) a supposed elevated mode, is linked vitally to the primary mode, learning to (verb). Doing is the ordinary manifestation of learning.
Students demonstrate that they have learned something by doing something. Anyone who has learned to do something—play the piano, solve a quadratic equation, speak Russian, etc.—feels good about it. There is a delightful sense of accomplishment; we get an emotional lift. And we do it again just to bring back the good feeling.
A cycle is developed. We do well what we enjoy doing and we enjoy doing what we do well. The point is that learning to (verb) and learning that (noun) are linked by this feeling of enjoyment. Depending on context and purpose, learning to may require assistance, and this is where teaching, more properly termed instruction, enters.
A teacher or instructor directs with explanations and demonstrations. Success may arise from determination and innate gifts, the whole endeavor being more or less strenuous, more or less useful. Training, therefore, arouses, extends, enhances and occasionally perfects the student’s inherent talents.
The situation is quite different with the other mode of learning, learning about (noun). Here attainment cannot be reached by imitation and practice. Training doesn’t enter the picture. Learning about is open ended, not self-regulatory; there are no criteria that can readily be applied, no universally accepted standard.
To learn about Medieval England, say or to learn about the Constitutional Convention means to acquire information and the nature of the information is not preordained. Two people may know a lot about seventeenth century England and yet not know the same things. Furthermore, learning about something is very personal and reflects a philosophical conundrum, i.e. only the learner knows for sure what he or she knows.
Teachers assess and tests record which algebra problems you solved correctly, and whether the steps you took are appropriate. Neither teacher nor test can determine how much of algebra you actually know. The view offered here is simple—of course it is—but it is not simplistic. What makes it useful is that it reveals how the two modes of learning interact. reinforcing one another. A student learns about Algebra when he or she learns to do algebra.
You can know about something and not be able to do it—I know how to play the piano in the sense of knowing what my hands and fingers must do to black and white keys, but I can’t actually play the piano. And yet, conversely, if you can do something then you know about it and the better you are able to do it the more you are likely to know about it.
The primary mode—learning to (verb)—is practical, the other—learning about (noun)—is formative. The primary mode implies the formative, but not visa versa. On the philosophical level they parallel the body-mind duality as well as the controversy between learning for some practical purpose and learning for its own sake.
Conclusions: Employ the primary to achieve the formative. Students can, with and sometimes without help, train themselves to perform to the satisfaction of their teachers. The leap from what a student can do to what a student has learned has no sound logical justification.
A teacher can conclude that you got 90 percent of the problems right, give you an “A”, but it would be foolish to interpret that to mean: You learned 90 percent of Algebra.
Poised between the marketplace and the ivory tower, the system we want is neither at one extreme nor the other. It follows, therefore, that neither learning to (verb) nor learning about (noun) is sufficient alone.
Neither mode should be prized above the other. Like yin and yang, they need one another. The system we want, the system we deserve ought to deliver both.