Ackoff: Confusing learning with teaching

“The objective of education is learning, not teaching,” emphasized management science pioneer Russell Ackoff in a 2008 book with Sudbury Valley School cofounder Daniel Greenberg, Turning Learning Right Side Up: Putting Education Back on Track.

Published a year before Ackoff passed, the book complies their pithy email exchanges on educational reform. From Ackoff’s opening section (emphasis in original):

Traditional education focuses on teaching, not learning. It incorrectly assumes that for every ounce of teaching there is an ounce of learning by those that are taught. …

After lecturing to undergraduates at a major university, I was accosted by a student who had attended the lecture. After some complimentary remarks, he asked, “How long ago did you teach your first class?”

I responded, “In September of 1941.”

“Wow!” The student said. “You mean to say you have been teaching for more than 60 years?”


“When did you last teach a course in a subject that existed when you were a student?”

This difficult question required some thought. After a pause, I said, “September of 1951.”

“Wow! You mean to say that everything you have taught in more than 50 years was not taught to you; you had to learn on your own?”


“You must be a pretty good learner.”

I modestly agreed.

The student then said, “What a shame you’re not that good a teacher.”

The student had it right; what most faculty members are good at, if anything, is learning rather than teaching.

Recall that in the one-room schoolhouse, students taught students. The teacher served as a guide and a resource but not as one who force-fed content into students’ minds.

There are many different ways of learning; teaching is only one of them. We learn a great deal on our own, in independent study or play. We learn a great deal interacting with others informally — sharing what we are learning with others and vice versa.

We learn a great deal by doing, through trial and error. Long before there were schools as we know them, there was apprenticeship — learning how to do something by trying it under the guidance of one who knows how. For example, one can learn more architecture by having to design and build one’s own house than by taking any number of courses on the subject. When physicians are asked whether they learned more in classes or during their internship, without exception they answer, “Internship.”

In the educational process, students should be offered a wide variety of ways to learn, among which they could choose or with which they could experiment. They do not have to learn different things the same way. They should learn at a very early stage of “schooling” that learning how to learn is largely their responsibility — with the help they seek but that is not imposed on them.

The objective of education is learning, not teaching.

Many of these themes dovetail with those of John Seely Brown in, say, 2008’s “Minds on fire” or the more recent “Global one-room schoolhouse.”

For more on Ackoff, see also: “What’s a system?” a.k.a “If Russ Ackoff had given a TED talk.”

  • Peter V Mathews 22 Feb 2013, 1:03 pm

    ‘Similarly’, if toddlers could only ‘learn’ by being taught through the judicious use of verbally based rules of instruction they would never progress mentally or physically. Yet they do through the exercise of curiosity, mimicry and repetition in the context of interaction and feedback.

    I have to agree with your pedagogic world view and wonder why so much education policy focuses on teachers and teaching rather than on ‘models’ of learning. Stephen Pepper’s (con) textualist world view best encapsulates this with the three verbs: doing, enduring and enjoying!

Leave a Comment