- Ada, Oklahoma

June 19, 2013

Teaching, learning and experience

Bobby Winters Guest Columnist

Ada —

If you are a teacher, you need to be a learner.  Go back and read that sentence again so I don’t have to repeat myself.  You need to read it at least twice because it’s that true. Teachers have to be alive as learners. This is true especially if you are going to be teaching introductory courses — you need to keep learning things than are completely new to you.

I’m working on Spanish again.  I’d run through the Rosetta Stone course last year and got some basics.  Then in March I went to Paraguay and I won’t say that I did badly, but I will say I got plenty incentives to learn more. 

Then the last week of April and the first week of May I was in Brazil.  In Brazil, they speak Portuguese, not Spanish, but Portuguese and Spanish are both romance languages.  Romance in this context does not have to do with the wooing of women, but the fact that they are both derived from Latin, the language of the Romans.  Romance, Romans, it kind of makes sense.

In Brazil, when you go up to someone and ask, “Usted habla espanol?” (“Do you speak Spanish?”), they are going to say no, but if you just speak to them in Spanish, they will understand you.  God help you when they talk back.

I also discovered I could read Portuguese about as well as I read Spanish. I don’t say this to brag; it is more of a comment on how little Spanish I know. In any case, I was able to navigate around and eat.  God forbid I should miss a meal.

These experiences convinced me that I needed to learn more.  When you are in a foreign country, this is about as independent/helpless as you are going to be. While speaking English slowly and loudly and waving 20-dollar bills will get you quite a ways — I have done this proudly — throwing in a few words of the native language here and there will get you farther, and you might not have to wave the 20-dollar bills. Just saying.

As a teacher, this has been most instructive for me in so many ways.  While I do like to learn really weird things for no reason at all, learning is actually easier when I do have a reason.  When I know — when I really, really know — that something is going to be useful, not only the sitting down and putting myself to the task of learning is easier, but the learning itself comes more quickly.

Teaching students that they are “going to use this one day” is a perpetual challenge.  When you are 14, you don’t know the sorts of things you are going to need to know when you are 24 or 34. Heck, when I was 40, I didn’t know the sort of things I need to know at 50. Our crystal balls just aren’t that good. A “good student” will go through the motions just to make the teacher happy and they will learn a lot, don’t get me wrong.

But when you’ve stood in a pharmacy and have mimed to a pharmacist that you have bronchitis, it has an effect on you.  When you go to a fancy restaurant and order a mixed grill and they bring you blood sausage, tripe, and bull-testicles, you remember.  It is truly motivational. 

I guess what I am trying to say is that experience can be an excellent foundation for learning.

Not only does experience provide motivation, it provides context. It’s one thing to read in a book or see on a computer screen that a “parada” is a taxi stand, it’s another to read the word above the taxi stand, see the taxis, hear the traffic, and smell the exhaust.  

This is true beyond the learning language.  The more we as teachers can connect what is in the book to things students can touch with their hands, that they can taste, feel, and smell, the better they can learn.  Having received that reinforcement can help them realize that learning, even for its own sake, is a good thing.

(Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, is Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Mathematics at Pittsburg State University. He blogs at and You may contact him at We invite you to “like” the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook.)