We tend to think of learning as something that happens to students. This is too bad because thinking in this way sells teaching 11 short of a dozen in terms of what actually happens. Consider the following. You are the student; I'm the instructor, and I set out to teach you that learning is a reciprocal process in which both the student and the environment (including me as the teacher) are changed. How can this be, you wonder, since you expect to learn while I already know the stuff I'm teaching?

It's true that I have a grasp of both what I want to teach you and how I expect you'll respond to the material. In fact, because I've already taught this to others like you, I even have a pretty good idea of how you'll respond to what I present and to me as the teacher.

Nevertheless, teaching changes me, too. Let's say that you learn what I teach just as I anticipate you will. You ask questions on difficult issues just as others have in the past, and you ruminate on interesting things just as others have before you. You even realize the same insights as have former learners who've encountered what you're learning. All very predictable, all quite satisfactory. But what have I learned as the teacher?

What I've learned is that the ways in which I'd researched and determined what I planned to teach you were probably appropriate to you. I was probably correct in my assessment of what you needed and wanted to learn, and in the ways in which I proposed to engage you and so provide you opportunities to reflect on what you were learning. Was this a lot for me to learn? Probably not, since I suspect that most experiential learning of this sort follows a steep learning curve the first few times a teacher presents something new, and then it reaches a plateau.

Unexpected Insights

So here I am on the plateau, and then you ask a question or find some problem in what I've been teaching that I hadn't expected. Now I have to reflect more carefully on what is taking place so I can better respond to the interesting situation you've created. This kind of reflection in the heat of action often results in new insights — both for me as the teacher and for you as the learner. I don't know about you when you teach, but this kind of thing makes teaching really fun for me.

Pursuing this a bit further, part of the mythology of teaching is that you never know anything as well as you do after you've taught it to someone else. I'm not certain that there are evidence-based studies supporting this wisdom, but that's OK; some things don't really need to be rigorously tested to be useful.

And this little bit of mythology is a motivation for teaching. Teachers can and should have the expectation that planning instruction, observing students as they work with the educational materials, and then reflecting on what took place afterwards provides insights of the most fundamental and delicious variety. When this fails to happen to me, I'll know it is time to stop teaching.

Nothing New? That's OK

An example of the kind of insight I have in mind occurred years ago when a student told me he'd learned nothing from a presentation I gave. When I told him I was sorry and that I felt bad that he had wasted his time by attending my session, he smiled and said that I shouldn't be. “What I got from the session,” he explained, “was that the things I knew were up-to-date.” And what I got from my conversation with him was the realization that people attend learning activities not only to gain new skills and knowledge, but to increase their confidence in what they already know and can do.

Take-home message? Teaching and learning are reciprocal activities in which both student and teacher are enriched through their mutual efforts.

Henry B. Slotnick, PhD, PhD, visiting professor, University of Wisconsin Medical School in Madison, conducts research on how physicians learn. He has been recognized by the Alliance for CME with several awards for his contributions to CME. You can e-mail your questions or topic ideas to Slotnick at hbslotnick@facstaff.wisc.edu.