Learning by doing

I watched a fascinating film recently called ‘The Physician’. As the name suggests, the film is based on the life of a, and by extension, an entire colony of 11th century physicians. The Master physician was a teacher. He taught medicine to his students and was considered to be the finest physician and medical teacher in the world. However, the Master had never actually seen what mechanism contained the human body and allowed it to function. Never having performed an autopsy himself, his teachings were hypothetical and rooted in predictions and uncertainties. His students in turn followed the same course.

 In the 11th century, physicians may have been restricted from learning by experience because of religious reasons. What motives or reasons do we have in the 21st century for not teaching and learning from experience?

 In November 1899, John Dewey published a book called ‘The School and Society’. I’m quoting an extract from one of his chapters: Some few years ago I was looking about the school supply stores in the city, trying to find desks and chairs which seemed thoroughly suitable from all points of view – artistic, hygienic, and educational – to the needs of the children. We had a great difficulty in finding what we needed, and finally, one dealer, more intelligent than the rest, made this remark: “I am afraid we have not what you need. You want something at which the children may work; these are all for listening” (Dewey, 1899: 31-32).

The “intelligent dealer” and Dewey’s point is that ‘traditional education’ thrives on ‘teaching’, where a teacher goads his/her students with information, perhaps beneficial, perhaps thought-provoking, but which do not give them the means to function autonomously in a real-life situation.

Let us take the example of a language class. How many of us teach our students the conjugations of base verb forms like to be, to have, to do? And where do our students actually use them? Textbooks are strewn with vocabulary that has no use in the real world where a foreign language may be practised. How then do we deal with this cultural and linguistic gap?

And I answer, through ACTION. By action, I mean, task. The communicative approach that came to life in the 1990s infused new life in language teaching, forcing the teacher to give up speaking and start listening instead to communicative attempts of the learner. Learners were taught language through situations resembling life-like situations: buy a rail ticket, shop for groceries, write an email apologising for something, the list is endless.

With the advent of the Internet and the countless tools at our disposal, more possibilities are made available for learners to indulge in real-life situations demanding native-like competencies. Projects can be put in place for learners to learn from their own experiences, by doing, rather than by listening. Of course, they would need to collaborate with each other since a sole learner may not necessarily possess all the skills required for accomplishing a project.

Reference : Dewey, J. 1899. The School and Society, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press. Online version