Real learning happens indirectly

“We do not teach directly, but indirectly by means of the environment.” –John Dewey, Democracy and Education, 1916

Close your eyes, and think of the best teacher you’ve ever had. He or she doesn’t have to be an academic “teacher,” but can be a parent, a coach, a pastor, a sibling, or anyone else.

Now, think of the most important thing that person taught you. Again, this can be anything. You might say calculus or writing, or you might say self-belief or discipline. You can choose anything.

Have those two things in your head? Good.

I have run through this exercise with quite a few groups of adults, and there is one consistent pattern: the person chosen has never once been employed to teach the most important thing learned. Never!

I’ve never had someone tell me: “My best teacher was my algebra teacher, and the most important thing she taught me was algebra,” or “My best teacher was my basketball coach, and the most important thing she taught me was how to properly shoot a basketball.”

I frequently hear, “My best teacher was my calculus teacher. She taught me to believe in myself,” or “My best teacher was my mother. She taught me to get back up when someone knocked me down,” or “My best teacher was my father. He taught me how to be vulnerable.”

These lessons are similar in that they are considered “soft” skills, but more importantly, they are similar in that they are taught and learned indirectly. The calculus teacher may actually say, “Believe in yourself!” but that’s not the important part. She is not coming to school each day and teaching classes on self-belief, she is teaching classes on calculus. Indirectly—through her own belief in their abilities and her refusal to let them quit—she teaches her students the real lesson: how to believe in themselves.

This indirect learning holds true in every area of development. We do not (primarily) learn empathy by taking empathy classes, we learn it by being around empathetic people and living in environments where empathy is both practiced and expected. We see it around us, we reflect on its existence, and we begin to incorporate it into our own personalities and value systems.

Cognitive development works the same way. Over the last 40 years, cognitive scientists have developed a sophisticated understanding of how growth in reasoning capacity occurs. Our reasoning does not improve when we listen to a lecture on reasoning. It improves when we engage in appropriate cognitive challenges, then reflect on our thinking processes. These cognitive challenges can occur through any discipline: through mathematics or literature, history or music.

Early childhood educators seem to understand this principle much more intuitively than their primary and secondary school counterparts. They do not try to get 3-year-olds to memorize (directly learn) either cognitive concepts like “conservation” (that water poured from a short, wide glass to a tall, narrow glass is still the same amount of water) or character skills like resilience. They understand that the process of playing indirectly teaches everything they need to learn. So they worry less about specific content and more about setting up an environment that will encourage the most important learning and assist the children in the reflection processes necessary for real learning to occur.

When we get to primary and (especially) secondary school, our teachers too often forget this core idea. We assume that the most important lessons are the lessons we directly teach our scholars, which is never the case. Only when we get to graduate school do most of us rediscover teachers who are happy to let us explore our own interests.

Regardless of the age of the student, the best teachers are conscious and intentional about the indirect lessons they are teaching—as these are the lessons that will stay with their students for life.