Teachers as Learners, Learners as Teachers

In my previous post, I wrote about the ways teachers might engage with children during play. In particular, I highlighted Brent Davis’ explanation: “The teacher becomes a vital part of the action. Immersed in the play, the teacher too is a learner.” This post continues these ideas, with several specific references to readings that take up similar ideas.

Just this last week I reread some of Dewey’s work. In Experience and Education, Dewey wrote:

We can and do supply ready-made “ideas” by the thousand; we do not usually take much pains to see that the one learning engages in significant situations where his own activities generate, support, and clinch ideas—that is, perceived meanings or connections. This does not mean that the teacher is to stand off and look on; the alternative to furnishing ready-made subject matter and listening to the accuracy with which it is reproduced is not quiescence, but participation, sharing, in an activity. In such shared activity, the teacher is a learner, and the learner is, without knowing it, a teacher—and upon the whole, the less consciousness there is, on either side, of either giving or receiving instruction, the better. (emphasis added)

While resonating with Davis’ description of the teacher as a learner alongside children, Dewey’s particular reference to participation implies that teachers and students coexist in learning environments. In activity–such as children’s play–there is the potential to enter into a participatory relationship that brings about new ways of thinking and action. In their work on situated learning, Lave and Wenger described several ways learning as participation confronts prior ideas about cognitive learning

Learning as increasing participation in communities of practice concerns the whole person acting in the world. Conceiving of learning in terms of participation focuses attention on ways in which it is an evolving, continuously renewed set of relations… between…agent and world, activity, meaning, cognition, learning, and knowing.

The notion of participation thus dissolves dichotomies between cerebral and embodied activity, between contemplation and involvement, between abstraction and experience: persons, actions, and the world are implicated in all thought, speech, knowing, and learning.

Engaging with children during play can be seen as, again as Davis described, “a participatory sort of teaching” that forms a mutual learning experience for both teachers and students. Teachers become learners, and learners become teachers.


Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. Simon and Schuster.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge University Press.


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