“I Taught It, They Didn’t Learn It.”

Teachers complain. They complain a lot. No, really. You can’t imagine the things teachers say about students, students’ previous teachers, colleagues, administrators, parents and society, and everyone else. After more than three decades of hearing it, I may nod, but it is like white noise to me; with one exception. When I hear, “I taught it, but they didn’t learn it” I pay attention. I want to know who said it; I want to remember that person who has blamed the students for not learning (the blame is always implicit… sometimes explicit) and I accept the challenge they unknowingly made to me to help them better understand what it means to teach. 

I also want to interrupt those complainers and let them know they have underestimated their students. I want to convey the message, “Humans—even the ones in your classroom—are curious creatures; they are learners. The students about whom you complain did learn. They may not have learned what you wanted them to learn or as quickly as you wanted them to learn it or they may have learned it then promptly forgotten it. It is also entirely possible they learned what you expected them to, but you didn’t know who to get them to prove it.” If this book is to make any sense, then you must join me in the assumption that, in the right circumstances, humans (including those who are your students) are learners. You must also join me in the second assumption that it is the teacher’s job to create the circumstances in which learning happens and is demonstrated. 

There is, of course, a paradox when there is discord between teaching and learning. We know that learning requires effort, so it is entirely likely that students deserve blame because they did not exert the effort required to learn the material. A complaining teacher may argue the students were told the information they were expected to learn, and it was told to them in a well-organized manner with a slide show that included learning objectives and they were even given a study guide at the end, but still they did not learn. I argue that what passes for teaching does not usually create the circumstances that leads to learning, so the teacher is likely to blame when “I taught it, but they didn’t learn it.” 

We should not be concerned with assigning blame, however. That only ensures the next cohort of students will also be taught but not learn, because the blameless party (be they the teachers or the students) may continue as they did previously. In general, students do need to be more engaged and active in their learning than they typically are; but this requires curriculum and instruction be delivered in a much different manner than we typically observe. If we are to teach in a manner that students learn, we must update our practices. 

I believe, also, there is a shifting sense of what it means to “learn it.” For generations, students who could remember what they were taught long enough to pass a the test were considered to have learned. While many complaining educators would stop complaining if students did pass the test, that is no longer sufficient. Our students must be able to integrate new ideas so they perceive the world differently than they did when they started and they use their new knowledge to solve problems.