Learning vs. teaching

IMG_20170702_165122Learning and teaching have a lot in common, such as the –ing form or the fact that both activities as we usually know them happen at school. Well, now that I think about it, I’m not so sure. While teaching does indeed mostly happen at school, a bulk of learning may well happen outside the classroom even though it originally started there.

While in the context of education teaching usually means the process of carrying instruction on a regular basis, learning is defined as the process of gaining knowledge or skill by studying, practicing, experiencing, or being taught.

We can look at both activities as processes stripped off the results they usually yield, i.e. in the case of teaching, hypothetically, you can be giving lessons without a single student learning anything at all (still, you are teaching), and learning can be seen as an attempt to remember information or learn a skill without actually making it (but you say you were learning).

However, to teach somebody something may also mean that you’ve been successful as a professional, i.e. that thanks to you, your student has actually acquired some knowledge. And when you learn something (such as the skill of riding a bike), it means that you can actually do it now.

We EFL teachers are lucky because, as a quick Google search reveals, there are plenty of methodology books which tell us how to teach English well. But do they always tell us how our students learn? One of the best publications I’ve ever held in my hands is called Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. It is a detailed survey of research and theory on the teaching and learning of vocabulary with the aim of providing pedagogical suggestions for both teachers and learners. Although this publication embraces both concepts (learning, and teaching) and thus it may well have been called Teaching and Learning Vocabulary in Another Language, the title indicates that the author chose to zoom in on learning. My guess is that the reason behind this is that we, teachers, primarily need to know how students learn if we want to teach effectively. 


There is a question I often ponder: I teach English as a foreign language to students in the IMG_20170627_100516State sector of education here in the Czech Republic, but does it mean that it was me who’s taught them something when they finally prove they can communicate fluently in English? In other words, did they learn from my instruction or did they learn most of the knowledge/skills on their own, outside of my classes (through watching movies, playing PC games, listening to music, etc)?

The reason why I’m asking is that four lessons of English a week seem to be too little of exposure to a foreign language for somebody to be able to use it the way some of my students do. So it may sound a little crazy but I sometimes wish I could measure the amount of knowledge/skill they’ve learned (or I should probably say ‘acquired’) as opposed to the amount I’ve taught them.

To conclude, I should stress that teaching actually means enabling learning to happen. So these two activities overlap to such an extent that it’s impossible to make them measurable in the way I indicated above.


About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for almost 25 years and I still love my job. You can find out more about my passion here on my blog.
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3 Responses to Learning vs. teaching

  1. Pingback: Learning vs. teaching – TESL PLUS

  2. geoffjordan says:

    Hi Hana,

    You make some interesting points here. May I recommend Long’s new article in the new ISLA journal, where he says:

    “the direct effects of instruction are limited to manipulations of the linguistic environment, with only indirect effects on learning processes. The learner’s use of this or that cognitive process can be intended by the instructional designer, but cannot be stipulated or guaranteed. For example, explicit instruction is designed to invoke intentional learning – a conscious operation in which the learner attends to aspects of a stimulus array in the search for underlying patterns or structure. Intentional learning usually results in explicit knowledge: people know something, and know they know. But students may learn some things incidentally and implicitly from the input used to deliver the explicit instruction”.

    On the other hand,

    “instruction can be designed to create optimal conditions for incidental learning, but that does not guarantee that incidental learning will transpire, or that if it does, the result will be implicit learning, or if it is, that implicit knowledge will be the end-product, or if it is, that it will remain implicit only”.

    Long, M. (2017) Instructed second language acquisition (ISLA): geopolitics, methodological issues, and some major research questions. Instructed Second Language Acquisition, 1,1.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hana Tichá says:

    Thanks for commenting, Geoff.

    “instruction can be designed to create optimal conditions for incidental learning, but that does not guarantee that incidental learning will transpire, or that if it does, the result will be implicit learning, or if it is, that implicit knowledge will be the end-product, or if it is, that it will remain implicit only”.

    What a beautifully complex sentence. If I understand the issue correctly, the best thing I can do as a teacher is to try to manipulate the linguistic environment in a way that it invokes intentional learning. More importantly, I should try to create optimal conditions for incidental learning. Then I wait and see what happens.

    Some more questions are popping up in my mind now: what is the most effective way for a teacher to manipulate the linguistic environment in order to invoke intentional learning and what are the optimal conditions for incidental learning?


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