The Difference Between Instruction and Learning

While reading the many educational posts from the untiring Diane Ravitch, I read a response by a doctoral candidate that struck me with its clarity: there is a vast difference between instruction and learning. It’s a difference worth exploring.

A teacher is responsible for instruction, for preparing lessons that will lead to student learning. They outline what activities will occur during the class period, whether it’s fifty or ninety minutes, how the class will begin and end, and what reinforcements will be assigned in the form of homework. Good teachers take their years of experience and model the behaviors they want from their students, varying the level of difficulty for those students with myriad learning levels. They must also constantly monitor classroom behavior and minimize disruptions from students who are still being, well, students: young kids with short attention spans and likes/dislikes of fellow kids. This vigilance is equally as important as the lesson itself, because without classroom control, no instruction is possible. Along with this awareness is an alertness to determine if the students are grasping the concepts being taught, and if not, to spend more time on those skills.

A student is responsible for learning the material, for paying attention to the lesson, for copying down the examples, and imitating the processes presented in the class. They are responsible for doing the homework, bringing it to class, going over it in class, and turning it in. They are responsible for preparing for the assessment when it arrives, and that does not mean cramming the night before the test, but absorbing the material a little every night by practicing just a small portion every evening.

The path between instruction and learning is precious and perilous. Many things threaten that journey. Sickness often puts children at a disadvantage, especially when they miss more than a single day but several due to a lengthy illness. Economic situations often force young adults from high school to take on a job to help the family, even though it robs needed time for homework and test preparation. Social situations—single parent families, homelessness, moving from parent to parent—also make stable home situations less likely, and some of those youngsters have to take on the role of raising their younger siblings. Students going through puberty have erratic sleep patterns that make staying awake during school a challenge, and some just don’t see the point of school. Never-ending technology in terms of computers, phones, and gaming devices suck away precious time to reinforce the day’s lessons. All these factors can block the path between the teacher instructing and the students learning.

Standardized tests like End of Course tests (EOC), Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC), and Graduate Exit Exam (GEE) all test one thing directly: student learning. They gauge if the student has learned the material presented in the class. These tests do NOT measure the quality of the instruction. They do not take into account all those threats to student learning mentioned above. They wrongly assume that if students failed to learn, then the teacher failed to instruct. That is a false assumption and a false correlation.

People in power use that false assumption to say that if a student has failed to learn, then the teacher failed to instruct and should be fired. According to this narrow-minded thinking, schools with a large number of failing students should also be closed. This is most pernicious in New York State: Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor Andrew Cuomo have shuttered several low-performing schools and have threatened teachers based on their students’ test scores. Louisiana under Governor Bobby Jindal and Education Superintendent John White have reinforced this false connection by having any teacher rated ineffective losing their tenure and become an at-will employee, capable of being terminated with little due process. Instead of encouraging teachers to be their best, to strive for greater excellence, teachers are demoralized, depressed, and worried that despite their best efforts, they could still lose their jobs. What an unhealthy way to promote education.

Common Core Standards, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and Race to the Top all promote this fallacy that poor student learning must equate with poor teacher instruction. Thanks to NCLB, we must test our children every year to see if they learn, where many countries that outperform us on international tests never barrage their students with yearly tests. PARCC tests require more sophisticated computers, so we will spend billions on computers, forcing spending cuts, firing teachers, and increasing class sizes. All this emphasis on testing and on blaming teachers is just wrong. It is fraying the fabric of public education, the foundation of our future, for the sake of instant gratification, of trying to look like we’re doing something significant.

This is a complex problem not fixable by this simple, short-sighted solution.

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