Two Teaching Mindsets. Which One Gets Superior Results?

What is your mindset when you create a course – what do you see as your primary job?

Are you there …

… to share your knowledge with students?

… or to make it easier for students to figure things out?

At first glance, this may seem like a nonsensical question. Because of all of our years in school, we have been conditioned to believe that we teach so that people can learn, and people learn because they are taught. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

In fact, research shows that how you answer that question has much deeper implications: your assumptions about what it means to teach have a direct impact on the success of your students – and your course.

Which mindset do you need to adopt, in order to ensure you’re getting the best possible results? Let’s find out.

How Deep Is Your Learning?

Before we can dive into the question of mindset, we need to first take a quick look at a study conducted in the 1970s (and repeated, updated and analyzed since then). This study, conducted by Marton and Saljo, introduced the world to the difference between deep learning and surface learning, two concepts that have had ripple effects on learning theory ever since.

In their research, Marton and Saljo asked students to do something relatively straight forward: read some content from a textbook, and then describe it. When they reviewed the students’ descriptions, they noticed that some students were able to clearly understand and articulate the meaning of the article, but other students were only able to recall the barest of facts.

Digging deeper, they found that these differences had nothing to do with the relative intelligence or capabilities of the students; it did, however, have everything to do with how the students approached the reading task itself. Here’s a comparison of the two major approaches:


Reading for Memorization: Surface Learning

Students in this group…

  • Focused on memorizing ‘the facts’ from the reading
  • Only remembered a few details from the reading
  • Could not articulate the author’s position (or why the author held that position)
  • Saw the reading task as a waste of time

Reading for Meaning: Deep Learning

Students in this group…

  • Focused on relating their reading to what they already knew
  • Organized, structured and made sense of the material
  • Were able to fully understand the author’s position and the evidence for it
  • Saw the reading task as valuable learning experience

For the students in the first group, they experienced what came to be known as surface learning: while technically their knowledge did increase, their understanding of the world didn’t change.

The second group of students exemplified deep learning: not only did they acquire new knowledge, but they also experienced a measurable change in how they saw, experienced, understood and conceptualized the world.

Here’s another way to think about the difference between deep and surface learning. Think about how you learned history. The saying goes, “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.” But there is a big difference between being able to recite names and dates (surface learning), and understanding the history so that past mistakes aren’t repeated (deep learning). Deep learning is what makes a difference.

Encouraging Deep Learning

So deep learning is the ultimate goal, but it’s dependent on how the student approaches the material. What does that mean for us, as course creators? How can we make sure that students take the ‘right’ approach to our curriculum?

That’s exactly the question tackled by Kember and Gow in a 1994 paper. They wanted to figure out if there was a difference between how instructors approached teaching that would impact whether students took deep or surface learning approaches.

Their first step was to develop a questionnaire about approaches to teaching, which they circulated amongst adult education faculty. From this questionnaire, they were able to identify which faculty had a more “knowledge transmission” orientation, and which saw their role as primarily about “facilitating learning”. Then, they looked at how deep students’  learning was with each instructor and within each department, to see if there was any relationship between the student results and the instructor’s approach to teaching.

Not surprisingly, they found that the instructor’s mindset about what teaching ‘is’ had a significant influence on their teaching methods, including the sorts of learning activities they had students do, the sorts of assessments they used, and the workload for the course. Those approaches naturally filtered down to the students; here’s how Kember and Gow described the resulting relationship:

“[W]here the knowledge transmission orientation predominates, the curriculum design and teaching methods are more likely to have undesirable influences on the learning approaches of students.” (p. 69, emphasis mine)

In other words, if you go into creating your course by saying “these are the things I want to teach, these are the topics I want to make sure they learn, and this is the knowledge I want to impart”, you negatively impact your students’ approach to learning, making them less likely to experience deep learning. In fact, later in the same paper, the authors go so far as to say:

Meaningful approaches to learning are discouraged when lecturers believe that their role is restricted to transferring the accumulated knowledge of their discipline to the minds of their students” (p. 71, emphasis mine).

What does it all mean?

If you are trying to build a business based on teaching, you need to make sure you are really clear on what that actually means.

We’re surrounded by a culture that tells us that the job of the teacher is to be the expert; to share what they know with their students. This is how I was taught, and probably how you were taught, too. From grade school through to grad school, the teacher stood at the front, writing on the board or talking through overhead slides. We sat in a group and took notes, asked the occasional question, did our homework and got our grades. Even online, this didn’t change much. Sure, the content was delivered as text or maybe a video, but the teacher’s job didn’t change. They were there to teach us what they knew.

Most of us teach the way we were taught. Most of us probably have an invisible script telling us that our job is to share our knowledge with others. But the research is clear: when we have that script running through our heads, our students suffer for it. When we teach like we were taught, we end up discouraging students from doing the things that would actually help them learn.

[Tweet “If you want to help people learn, your job is to facilitate, not teach.”]

That is the power of your mindset.

If you’ve made it this far, I’d love it if you would leave a comment.

What is your teaching mindset?