A Teaching/Learning Lexicon: To Instruct, to Show, to Lead

Summary: A return to fundamental constructs of teaching and learning.

All this talk about NCLB (last week’s post), and how directives from the feds may or may not be successful in steering the educational ship of state, leaves me wandering around in my head, much as excessive intellectualizing can separate the head from the real life around us. So occasionally I feel a need to go back to what I know, or think I know, about teaching and learning.

It is important to have fundamental concepts against which we evaluate NCLB, or skills testing in general, or whether a new initiative is likely to lead in a direction that will expand the minds and opportunities of our students.

Periodically in this blog I have taken refuge in the language of teaching and learning, which in turn reflects the deep tissue of what I have learned in my years of interacting with students, and from my own experience as a learner. Here be my earlier introduction of my first entry in what I have called a “lexicon” —

“More by whimsy at first, but later by design, a number of years ago I began examining the derivations of words such as “teach”, and “learn”, and followed their origins into associations themselves derived from my experience teaching, and from what I have read and discussed with others.  The result is a modest and idiosyncratic “lexicon”, nonetheless an expression of a long tradition of teaching, and one by which the conduct of teachers and students – the progress of learning and growth – can be measured. No doubt, the lexicon will be incomplete; some of it may seem as fancy. I, at least, find these definitions useful to remember in this current era of skills testing when there is a danger of missing the forest for the trees.”

So, to continue. The curious could check previous posts in this vein by clicking on “A Teaching/Learning Lexicon” in the right hand column of the blog.

INSTRUCT – from roots meaning to build, toward building; akin to spreading out. Toward growing and branching out, instruction shows the way toward the construction of frameworks or pathways to new conceptual terrain. Instruction facilitates whatever internal logic the student might use to explore and organize new territory, relate the new to the old, and by which she might find his way back and froth from the new to the old, further integrating the two along the way.

The prefix in-,“toward,” implies activities designed for a further end; here again the distinction appears between the teacher and the learner. The instructor brings toward the point of building, and perhaps guides along the way, but in the end only the student can build interior understanding. As Piaget would have it, the student either assimilates the new information to schema that define previous understanding, or accommodates his current conceptual frameworks to the new information.

Looked at another way, the prefix in- can logically imply within, and hence “within building.” The word instruct thus asserts that true instruction leads not to the building of facades, but to the logic of an integrative internal cognitive structure, and hence to the strength of understanding, rather than to the show of appearance. Again, Piaget is implied.

(Thus, the question in our contemporary educational environment, do good test scores pursuant to NCLB represent understanding of the material, or a more superficial manipulation of symbols as required to do well on the test?)

LEAD – From roots meaning “to go”, which implies destination, a journey from one place to another; so, in the context of a teacher to a learner, a demonstration, a taking to something to be learned. The word “lead” implies knowledge on one part, ignorance on the other, and a service provided on the part of the former for the latter. However, a limited service, implying a willing following; to lead does not mean to shove. In an educational context, the service ends just before the destination, similarly to “instruct,” and the traveler/learner places her own last tracks, and absorbs the arrival point in her own unique conceptual integration. Again, Monsieur Piaget.

SHOW – from Latin, among others, meaning to look, to look at. The metaphor is a visual one, a placing before the eyes or, more broadly, before the senses, which initially interpret reality. To bring to attention, to notify the conscious mind of the existence of something. To show implies purpose, the intent on the part of one to demonstrate to another. Again, to show requires a complementary reception. I, a teacher, cannot “show” something that someone else, a student, does not see, hear, feel, touch, or otherwise communicate with and interpret to cognition in some way.

Show also derives more obscurely from the Latin, to be on guard, and hence connotes caution. Thus the teacher, as a guide, must remind himself, and his student, that that which is to be shown may harbor danger, and must be handled with care. We are reminded that to learn can be dangerous to previous ways of thinking, and that learning is open ended and can lead in unpredictable directions.

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