Defining Teaching, Learning, and Taking a Course

I recently decided to attempt to define the concepts of teaching, learning, and taking a course to see how well my definitions match what I have done for the past twenty years. Upon reflection, I have arrived at two important realizations. I realize now that what I spent most of the first ten years of my career doing was not true teaching. I realize now that no one ever taught me how to learn. I can’t honestly say that my definition of taking a course has caused any stunning realizations, but I think it’s necessary because it operationally combines the other two into something students may find useful. On second thought, maybe school administrators may find it useful too. So here are my definitions. They are still very much mutable and I welcome feedback.

Teaching is creating an environment in which students can freely immerse themselves in the process of gaining proficiency in, or mastering, a discipline by all possible means, using all provided resources, and by finding other resources. The environment will be free of barriers, intimidation, and outside distractions, and provides opportunity for exploration of intellectual endeavors without fear of failure, reprisal, abuse, intimidation, or punishment. Barriers, in this context, are things we use to relieve us of the responsibility for learning. Some barriers are unavoidable, but many are entirely avoidable, and it is the avoidable ones that teaching must minimize. Hopefully, this definition includes both scholarly classroom teaching and research.

Learning is the willingness to take advantage of your freedom to fully immerse yourself, free of distractions, in gaining proficiency in, or mastering, a discipline without fear of failure, reprisal, abuse, intimidation, or punishment. Learning can happen without knowing what your newly discovered knowledge may be used for in the future. Learning must happen without giving in to feelings of (intellectual) uncomfortableness. Learning never ends, but intermingles with periodic reflection. Hopefully, this definition includes both scholarly classroom learning and research.

Taking a course from an educational institution is an opportunity, indeed a guarantee for an opportunity, to (a) learn under the supervision of an expert in a discipline and/or (b) to earn a credential certifying that you have demonstrated proficiency in a skill or discipline. The expert creates the environment and students do the learning, and that includes deciding what is and is not relevant to the course contents. One depends on the presence of the other. This expert also provides constructive feedback throughout the process and provides a final professional, data driven assessment of a student’s performance. Learning can happen without taking a course, but taking a course guarantees you will have the requisite environment and increases your chance of success.


6 Comments on “Defining Teaching, Learning, and Taking a Course”

  1. […] If anyone ever says that one or the other or neither happened that day, I can point them to the definitions I gave everyone at the beginning of the semester and ask specifically for the part(s) that I am not upholding so I can make suitable adjustments at […]

  2. […] school policies that they can (or cannot) read for themselves, I instead present for discussion the definitions of teaching, learning, and taking a class that will be used in the course. I emphasize that these are the operational definitions I will use […]

  3. […] a previous post, I gave what amounts to my newly formulated teaching philosophy, informed by years of reflection […]

  4. Really thoughtful definitions, Joe. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to hear it’s taken you hours, days, even weeks to craft these 3 paragraphs.

    I’ve been thinking (more like struggling) recently with the relationship between teaching and the instructor’s control of the environment. I believe students must have agency — the ability to make choices about their learning. And yet, I believe it’s my responsibility as the instructor to sufficiently control the environment that students can reach the goals I have for them. I want to put up some “barriers” so students don’t unknowingly make choices that send them too far adrift.

    If this was a Venn diagram, it’s the overlap of “Student Agency” and “Instructor Control” that’s got my brain hurting. Hurting in a good way, of course 😉

    • Joe Heafner says:

      Thank you for the comments. It has indeed taken over a year to put these operational definitions into their current form, and I’m sure they will morph even further the more I reflect on them and get input from colleagues. You made me realize that I need to clarify my definition of “barrier” because some barriers are helpful for training purposes. The kind I have in mind are the barriers students, at least the student I serve, put up themselves in order to avoid the type of learning in which I want them to engage. It may be the first time in their lives they’ve had the freedom to engage, and I really want to get it right FOR THEM. My institution hosts an early college high school and I was a bit surprised to discover over the past eight or so years that most of those students have indeed experienced the type of environment I’m trying to create in my classroom, and their barriers are usually different from those of the “college” students. I will reflect on this and modify these definitions. Thanks for making me think about this!

  5. […] the first day of class, I show students my definitions of teaching, learning, and taking a class. Am I succeeding in adhering to these definitions? Am I right to do […]


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