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Invisible learning

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Voice of the Educator

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The kindergarten teacher, who I was supposedly coaching, looked at me and apologetically said, “Sorry, there is nothing to observe today.” It was the end of the school year, and she was pulling individual students aside to assess their reading skills. The other children were left to play on their own. I asked if I could stay and play with them. She shrugged her shoulders and said it was okay, but her expression indicated that I would be wasting my time.

The classroom, however, was buzzing with chatter and movement as I visited small clusters of children who had created their own play scenarios. One scenario was a restaurant, so a student approached me asking for help spelling items on a menu he was creating. Another group of students created a beauty salon and were designing different hairdos using a variety of art supplies. Another group narrated for me their dramatic super hero adventures using small plastic figures and blocks. Several other students were tucked away in a corner creating beautiful designs with crayons and markers.

After a half hour, I thanked the teacher and left the room. Later on as I reflected on that visit compared to my previous ones, I concluded that there was more learning going on that day, than I had observed on any previous visit; too bad that the teacher didn’t see it.

I also understood on a deeper level why my coaching failed to help this teacher: We had very different versions of the nature of teaching and learning. It was as if we spoke different languages yet thought we were speaking the same one. This difference was like an invisible, but impenetrable wall that blocked the possibility of a substantive discussion that could have lead to positive changes. That invisible wall was why I observed a type of learning that she viewed as regrettable down time.

On her side of the wall, she was a very competent teacher with little need of coaching and who was I to imply anything different. That kindergarten teacher had been taught as a student and then trained as a teacher with the basic, but unvoiced, assumption that she must first and foremost gain and maintain control of her students as a class. Failing to do so would make teaching and learning impossible and be a sign of her incompetence as a teacher. So in this teacher’s mind, she had learned and mastered the craft of teaching based on what I refer to as the “control to learn” assumption.

Here are some of the corollaries of that assumption:

  • Learning is dependent on teaching.
  • What should be learned is determined and defined by the teacher.
  • Teaching requires organization and management.
  • Teachers must use their authority and power to motivate students to learn.
  • Students must be assessed based on what they are taught.
  • Teaching is evaluated by how students learn what is taught.

Based on those corollaries, the teacher expected my coaching to give her some specific actions or words that would make the students more compliant and/or manageable. However, I coached her to adapt her teaching to the strengths and needs of her students. My view of teaching and learning was based a different assumption: People are born to learn and need the right conditions for their learning to flourish. Here are some corollaries to that assumption:

  • Students learn from everything around them and from each other, not just from a teacher.
  • Learning is not just a cognitive experience but involves emotions and the social context.
  • The teacher’s role is to provide the right conditions for learning primarily by creating a safe and supportive environment.
  • A strong and trusting relationship between student and teacher is the foundation of a safe environment.
  • A teacher needs to learn about the interests, strengths and needs of each student in order to create the right conditions for learning.

Assumptions and their corollaries, however, are not meant to compete for the claim of truth. One set of assumptions does not necessarily have to cancel out the others. What those children were doing in the classroom that day can and should be interpreted in different ways.

I am not recommending that schools solely become places of free play and exploration. I am suggesting that “invisible” learning at least be acknowledged and allotted some time and space in our schools. As teachers recognize this learning, they will improve their practice. Teachers can play, explore and learn with their students. They can use what they learn from those experiences to craft more engaging lessons that they can teach to their students. These lessons can be springboards to enhance students’ curiosity and desire to learn more. When students are engaged in meaningful learning in a safe environment, teachers are influencing students, not controlling them. They help them regulate their own behavior as part of the process of learning itself.

Too often these types of fundamental conversations are too threatening to those guided by different assumptions. Perhaps there is a fear of only exposing irreconcilable differences should the two versions of learning come to light. Moreover, most educators are also under too much pressure with too little time to feel that they can afford to have these discussions. Educators do need to talk and listen to each other about the nature of learning itself. It is the essence of their identity. As the words of Robert Frost remind us, “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.”

Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including 20 as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written three books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden), No Place for Bullying (Corwin) and Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities (Corwin). He writes a blog at

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