Monday, November 6, 2017

What is teaching? What is learning? Why Physics? Professional philosophy of a STEM teacher.

In this short essay, I will try to summarize my view on 
what is teaching, what is learning, 
and why everyone should learn physics these days.
Since I am not so special, every STEM teacher can use a similar set of views

What is teaching?

Below is the quote from Google search on: “what is teaching” (the top answer):

The second meaning of “teaching” is transparent: “teaching is a synonym for philosophy”. But the first description does not really say much what teaching is. “Teaching is what a teacher does”.
Everyone wants to be healthy and successful and no one wants to be ill and poor. The only difference is how we want to achieve our success. There are people who use other people as a tool for climbing the social ladder. I would not recommend people like that going into teaching. Children feel when they are being used and always find the way to escape – one way or another. Anyone who wants to be a teacher (or an educator of some sort), should do it to help children to succeed in their life, and they will return the success.
Teaching is an important human practice. Many people think that teaching is simply telling students “do as I say”. This very approach is built in our DNA. Our parents used this approach when teaching us. Animals use this approach when teaching cubs, pups, baby birds (they rather use the “do as I do” version, which is also very popular among humans).
If teaching was indeed merely “do as I do” or “do as I say” practice, then of course everyone could do it! Teaching would not be much different from training animals (“a stick and a carrot” would do the trick).
Clearly, teaching is something more complicated than just “do as I say”. Not everyone can become a good teacher. Everyone can cook at home, or drive a car. But not everyone can become a successful chef or a racecar driver. And when we say this out loud, it does not sound controversial – because it’s obvious! Yes, we know that some people are a better fit for some practices than others, and some people are not a good fit for some practices. In particular, some people are just not fit to be teachers (which is not their fault), and one of the goals of every teacher preparation program should be identifying those people and helping them to find another professional path.
So, what is teaching, or, what does it mean to be a teacher?
I think that the answer to this question forms a fundamental basis for the whole professional philosophy of a teacher and for the practice built on that philosophy. One of the first indicators of a true teacher is that he or she has a certain answer to this question. I also believe that there is no single correct answer to this question. I believe that every teacher should search for and find his or her own answer (although the answers might sound very similarly).
In this essay, I want to share my answer to the question “what is teaching?”.
To me, teaching is guiding students through a specifically designed set of learning experiences (a.k.a. student activities) to help them to develop or advance desired skills and knowledge – this is my formal definition of teaching (hence, a teacher is a person who teaches in accordance with this definition; this link leads to short statements about teaching which I call “Laws of TeachOlogy”;
A teacher might not be the one who designs the whole set of student activities, but should have a deep understanding of the reasons for the activities and measures of the success or failure of the activities.
We all know the old saying that one can bring a horse to water but one cannot make it drink. Well, a teacher cannot make a student learn unless that student wants to learn. Unfortunately, too often students start to learn only to avoid some kind of punishment. This kind of teaching might happen when a teacher does not care much about students, but just functioning to avoid being fired (mimicking/faking teaching). On another hand, a teacher might be very forceful on students (“It is for your own good”) to become being praised. I believe, no matter what a teacher does, students should not have any psychological damage (like, “feeling stupid”).
Teachers - like doctors – should take “a Hippocratic Oath” of a Teacher and promise “never do harm to anyone”, because there is always something more important in teaching than merely transmitting knowledge or training skills. A true teacher knows the limits.
Ideally, parents should be the first true teachers.  The best gift a parent can give to a child is good habits and love for learning. The same is true for a teacher.  Look at infants and little children – they always try things and want to learn something new! Now look at school graduates – so many of them do not want to learn anything new anymore (or cannot learn anything new, which is even worse). If children have lost their curiosity and desire to learn, that only means they did not have a true teacher in their life.
A true teacher is not the one who just loves teaching (“do as I say”), but the one who also loves learning. The art of teaching is based on love for education, and passion for sharing this love (and also on the science of learning).
Every student has his or her own learning style. Every classroom is different from another. Teaching constantly presents challenges: students do not act the way a teacher expects, parents or officials put pressure on a teacher. If a person cannot withstand challenges, that person should not go into the business of education in any form; she/he is not going to be a good teacher, or administrator or a researcher in the field.
No one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes (the difference is what we do after we made it). Mistakes are an inherent part of our life. Mistakes are inevitable and unavoidable. Especially when people learn something new. A teacher should understand that students will be making mistakes. Learning is based on continually overcoming mistakes and learning from them. If a student did not learn something, which he or she was supposed to learn, chances are that it was because a teacher made a mistake. A true teacher never stops learning (mostly because no matter how good we are there is always a room for improvement: new students are different from the former ones, world changes, a new year is never the same as the previous one). And a true teacher is always open about mistakes he or she has done, even (especially!) if it happens in front of a class.
To summarize, what does make a teacher to be The Teacher (or a Teach-Smith, so to speak:
Patience, love of learning, understanding and accepting personal limits, genuinely caring for students (they intuitively feel if for the teacher they are just pawns in his/her game for personal success), constant professional development – including, but not limited to – having deeper knowledge of the content of the subject he or she teaches, deeper understanding of the fundamentals of the knowledge development within a specific science (each school subject is a projection or a simplification of a certain science), deeper understanding of the fundamentals of the knowledge development in general, understating of human behavior in general and behavior of a child, understanding of the fundamentals of human learning and teaching. From a procedural point of view, the simplest model of teaching is “teaching = motivating + demonstrating + instructing + explaining + assessing”, hence a teacher should have personal qualities, knowledge and skills which will allow to be able to motivate, demonstrate, instruct, explain, and assess (within the limits placed by “do no harm” rule).
A true teacher is not always the one whose professional description says so. A teacher is a person about whom other people say that they have learned something important from that person.
There is one controversy I would also like to address. Many people (including policy makers, parents, business representatives) think that to be a good teacher one just needs to know the content. But, that is not true. The content knowledge is one of many components of a good teacher, and not the most important one. Firstly, I have met people who had excellent content knowledge but were terrible teachers. I had professors who were at the top of the achievement list in academia, but who could not teach at all (they were very interesting storytellers, though). Clearly, they knew how to do difficult science and they did it. But they could not explain what they did, and why. Secondly, content knowledge is just a result of a certain amount of effort. Any reasonable person who spends a reasonable amount of time can obtain content knowledge in the amount sufficient to teaching at a reasonable level. Personal qualities like willingness to learn till the first day of the retirement (at least), patience, etc. are also very important for becoming a true teacher. A teacher is - first - a person, and - second - a knowledge storage, a skill presenter, a guide, a trainer.

What is learning?

A dictionary tells that learning is:
* the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study, or by being taught.
* knowledge acquired through experience, study, or being taught.
For a teacher, this definition may be a starting point for reaching a deeper understanding of how people learn.
The first fundamental notion is that learning is a basic need, like food, or oxygen. There is a “slight” difference, though. With no food or oxygen, a person ceases the biological existence (a.k.a. dies).
Without learning a person ceases the social existence (the reason for all dictators to micromanage education - they are scared of free thinking which comes with true education). Learning - as a process and as a result - is solely responsible for the prosperity of a society (even if the prosperity still is very uneven).
Secondly, learning is a process; it has phases, it has stages (that is why a college does not accept middle school graduates). Learning stages might differ in length and difficulty, depend on many parameters (subjective like age, race, brain development of a student; contextual – what science is this subject about; social – culture, traditions, economics), but they are as objective as stages in the seasons we observe every year. The existence of these stages results in the existence of the specific patterns of learning, which must be reflected in the specific patterns of teaching.
We cannot jump from a spring right into a winter; similarly, we cannot jump into learning quadratic equations right after learning the addition within a hundred (the normal process of giving a birth requires 9 months and should go through well-established phases - from an embryo to a baby: the process of “giving a birth” to an educated person– from having no knowledge and skills to having them - also has specific stages). If despite our best efforts a student did not learn how to solve a quadratic equation, it means that his/her learning path had missed in the past some of the important stages (assuming that students’ learnability is adequate).
Thirdly, learning is a result, it is an achievement. There are many achievements in our life, which – kind of - just happen; learning how to walk, learning how to talk. Achievements like that happen usually in a natural way, they do not normally require special prolonged management, do not have to be controlled, assessed, regularly measured, at least if everything happens as expected.
However, reading and writing, adding and subtracting, solving equations, etc. are skills; and to learn those skills a special and longitudinal effort is required, and hence, these skills have to be assessed. What needs to be assessed, how, when and by whom, however, are some of the most controversial questions of the contemporary research on education.
True learning never happens by just watching and listening (i.e. by merely attending lectures), it happens by doing. One can observe every cycling tour; interview every famous racer, that will definitely help the one to understand the theory of biking, but to learn how to ride a bicycle one has to ride a bicycle. One can watch for hours other people swimming, but if one wants to learn how to swim, the one has to get yourself into water and start trying. In the latter case, it would help having around someone who could explain what one does wrong and how to correct it (a friend screaming “you can do it, you can do it” would not be much of a help).
Active lectures help to boost motivation, develop vocabulary, give a perception that things are not as hard as they seem. Reading (and watching, and listening) also helps to form a vocabulary, to strengthen some relationships between the current knowledge and the upcoming one, to ignite curiosity, to boost imagination, to reinforce self-discipline, to advance mental capacities.
However, skills are only formed by doing.
For example, if the only exercise students had been doing for 12 years is squats, they will not be good at push-ups and pull-ups. If we want students to develop a certain skill, we have to give them an opportunity to practice that skill (ideally – as long as they need to master it).
Our brain is acting in a way similar to how our regular muscles act. Memorization is a mental activity very much different from creating new images, searching for new meanings, describing new phenomena, or developing new approach to solving a problem (during different mental activities a brain does a different work). Hence, if for 12 years in a school students only have been memorizing facts, it is not reasonable to expect from the graduates an ability to think critically, or to be creative.
Thinking critically is a specific mental activity, which requires comprehensive methodology, meticulous planning, detailed procedures, and designated time (much more time than just memorizing and retrieving facts).
Our brain is a powerful pattern recognition machine. As soon as it recognizes the task, it retrieves from the memory the sequence of the actions, which has to be performed to succeed. Of course, we assume that that particular brain is capable of storing and retrieving the information and governing the actions required for fulfilling the task (otherwise we have to discuss a case of learning disabilities). If a brain does not recognize the task, we have two options: (a) the task is the same but due to some features it is camouflaged as a different one; (b) the task is different and is really new for the brain and the brain does not have the solution (at least in full) in its storage.
Every teacher has to teach students to two different practices: (a) how to perform specific tasks (the set of those tasks should be specified by a curriculum); (b) how to create a solution to a problem which has not been solved in the past (by that person); the latter practice, in turn, requires a practice in making a conclusion regarding the familiarity of the given assignment - is it the same as one from the past (a task) or different (a problem)? Development of that skill also requires specific practice.
Teaching thinking critically (a.k.a. creatively) means teaching how to create solutions, invent actions/procedures which have not been presented/trained before.
In general, the answer to the question “what is learning?” depends on the interpretation of who is asking this question. For example, one can believe that learning is …
1.      memorizing facts and excelling in performing certain task (actions).
2.      obtaining knowledge and developing skills which will allow to create (a.k.a “construct” – for those who loves constructivism, as I do) solutions to problems which have never been solved by the person in the past.
3.      from a procedural point of view, the simplest model of learning is   
Learning = goal making + memorizing + reiterating/practicing + thinking/analyzing + self-assessing (reflecting on the actions done during the problem-solving process).
My personal definition of learning is a combination of all the three above.
I believe that teaching how to think critically, teaching how to create solutions to new problems is the most important goal and the most difficult task of the contemporary education. If a person cannot solve any new (for that person) problem, it is hard to expect this person would generate some knowledge (or product, or business) new to the society. However, if a person can solve problems which he or she has not solved in the past, there is at least a chance that that person would give us something absolutely new and unexpected (good or bad – that is a different conversation). We should keep in mind, though, that critical thinking cannot be learned without a solid foundation in facts and skills.

Why Physics?

It has become a common place to say that American schools need to attract more students into STEM related fields (
I believe that physics represents a door into STEM education ( If students get confidence in physics class, they will feel confident in any science. Physics is one of the oldest and most developed sciences, hence it has a very clear logic and a straightforward learning methodology. Also, nowadays physics or physics based approaches can be found far beyond physics itself, for example, in medicine, in business and finance, even in sport (more at:


Dr. Valentin Voroshilov
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