“What Really Matters is Inside the Learner’s Head”

I came across a wonderfully thought-provoking quote. It was in a video created by Derek Muller entitled This Will Revolutionize Education. Early on, Derek critiques frequent claims that each new educational technology, whether it be the SmartBoard or laptop, will “revolutionize education.” He argued that such predictions rarely come true. What consistently does make the difference? According to Muller, it comes back to a couple basics: quality teachers and what takes place in the brains of each learner.

“Well, if you think that the fundamental job of a teacher is to transmit information from their head to their students, then you’re right, they [teachers] are obsolete. I mean, you probably imagine a classroom where this teacher is spewing out facts at a pace which is appropriate for one student, too fast for half, and too slow for the rest. Luckily, the fundamental role of a teacher is not to deliver information. It is to guide the social process of learning. The job of a teacher is to inspire, to challenge, to excite their students to want to learn. Yes, they also explain and demonstrate and show things, but fundamentally that is beside the point. The most important thing a teacher does is make sure every student feel like they are important, to make them feel accountable for doing the work of learning…The foundation of education is still based on the social interaction of teachers and students. For as transformational as new technology seems to be…what really matters is inside the learner’s head. And making a learner think seems best achieved in a social environment with other learners and a caring teacher ” – Derek Muller video on This Will Revolutionize Education

I’ll admit that my eyes start to roll when I hear and read the “teachers are what really matter” statements, not because I think teachers are unimportant. It is because the statements don’t seem to be backed up with any substantive philosophy or explanation. “Put a teacher in a room and magic happens.” I’ve been in enough classes to know that is not true. I suspect that you have as well.

So what is different about Muller’s statement? I see three things.

First, he places his comments about teachers within a philosophy of education that believes in the value and importance of social interaction. It is amid complex social exchanges that we see rich opportunities for learning everything from science to social studies, a new language to exploring the meaning in a new text. I don’t happen to think that this is the only way for high-impact learning to take place, but I’ve seen enough true learning communities and I’ve read enough scholarly research about the subject to know that social interaction is indeed a powerful force in education.

Second, he starts by explaining what he does not mean when he talks about the importance of teachers. He doesn’t mean lecturers. He does not mean people who think that content distribution is their greatest gift to students. He doesn’t mean people who teach an entire class as if all students think and learning in the same ways and same pace. He doesn’t mean people who ignore the unique needs, challenges and opportunities of each learner.

Third, he doesn’t just talk about teachers, and this is what makes the quote so rich and thought-provoking. Instead, he also devotes time to learners, what happens in their brains. As I’ve stated many times and in many places, the only essential ingredients of a learning learning experience are a learning and an experience. Learning happens in the brain. Students learn when they think…when they think deeply and persistently. When learners brains are working hard, neurons are firing and wiring together, creating memories, resulting new the acquisition of new knowledge and skill. For Muller, this best happens through social interaction between a student and caring teacher. However, even if one doesn’t accept that claim, the learner-centered statement stands on its own.

What if learning organizations only focused on this one critical factor, making it an unavoidable school-shaping concept? Learning happens when students are thinking deeply and persistently about something. Much of the work about instructional design, classroom management, and motivation is connected to this single concept. Get students thinking deeply and persistently about the subject and they will learn. This challenges the concept of lectures, but it doesn’t demand that we get rid of them. Instead, we ask if the lecture is getting each student to think deeply and persistently. This guiding question can inform how we go about blended and online learning, high-tech and low-tech learning, independent learning and collaborative learning. Is it getting students to think…to really think?

I don’t want to oversimply things. There are many other aspects of a high-impact learning experiences. At the same time, this statement gets to the heart of the matter. Learning happens in the brain, but it doesn’t happen unless that brain is active and focused on the desired knowledge or skill. It doesn’t come out of nowhere, but from thinking and doing hard things, and the teacher that matters is the one who focuses upon doing what it takes to gets students thinking.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, host of the MoonshotEdu Show, professor of education, AVP of Academics, and Chief Innovation officer. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education, educational innovation, alternative education, and nurturing agency and curiosity.

2 Replies to ““What Really Matters is Inside the Learner’s Head””

  1. Bernard Bull Post author

    Thank you for the comment, Doug. I agree with you. It comes back to what is happening in the brain of the students. The only two essential ingredients for a learning experience are a learner and an experience.

  2. Doug H.

    “And making a learner think seems best achieved in a social environment with other learners and a caring teacher”

    I work for a large public online school. There is virtually no ‘social interaction’ with other learners. In fact, we had to drop the requirement for collaborative assignments, because it was so hard to get them to do it (and they and their parents complained loudly and consistently about them).

    And yet, our students consistently beat the state average on AP tests, End-of-Course exams, and other state assessments.

    There *is* social interaction with the teacher, but many of my students eschewed even that. They have to do a required verbal assessment with the teacher before each test, but many had no interaction beyond that, and many of those were among my best students. Frankly, they could have done just as well without me.

    My belief is that what is most important is the p*motivation* of a student. This is mentioned in passing in the article, an aside of “making them feel accountable”. This is what grades are for, to externally apply that force of accountability, but if it is not internalized, it seldom matters. And this usually has to come from home. Rare is the child who has recognized that their parents don’t care about their future, but the child has decided to care, and is motivated and working beyond any meager support they receive at home. Occasionally a teacher can help fill the gap, but at a heavy personal price, and usually only with a concerted focus on one or two students, maybe a handful, for a truly gifted teacher. Doing it for 150 students a day is nigh impossible. Unfortunately, in today’s environment, that is what is called for all too often.

    My assertion: I am a teacher. I am a *good* teacher. My students consistently score higher on their semester exams than those of the other 10 teachers in my subject, by a substantial margin. (And students are randomly placed, so there’s no ability grouping at play.) But I reject the oft-repeated cry that the teacher is the most important link in the education chain. We are not. The *parent* is the most important. They must provide that motivation, until the child is old enough and mature enough to internalize it. The students who think “My parents are going to kill me if I don’t do well in school!” are always the best students, and it’s obvious within the first few days of class which students have that. We can try to fill the void, but we will never truly be able to do that. It must come from home.

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