Comm Eye Health Vol. 13 No. 34 2000 pp 30 - 31. Published online 01 June 2000.

Teaching and learning

Detlef R Prozesky MBChB MCommH PhD

Professor of Community Based Education, Faculty of Medicine, University of Pretoria, South Africa

Related content

This article is the second in a series of eight, dealing with ‘Teaching Eye Health’. Almost everybody who is involved in community eye health is also a teacher – but many have never had any training on how teach effectively. The aim of the series is to stimulate readers to teach and learn more effectively, and we will be working through important topics related to teaching and learning in a systematic and practical way. This article sets the scene by examining some important concepts related to ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’.

Words we use to talk about teaching and learning

People use different words when talking about teaching and learning. Sometimes the same word will mean different things to different people, and sometimes different words will carry the same meaning. For example, Americans tend to use the word ‘evaluate’ to describe testing students to see if they have learnt, while the British often use the word ‘assess’. Here are some other examples of words with related meanings:

  • ‘educator’, ‘teacher’, ‘trainer’, ‘tutor’, ‘lecturer’, ‘facilitator’

  • ‘student’, ‘pupil’, ‘learner’, ‘scholar’.

What do these words mean to you? There will never be full agreement about the ‘real’ meaning of each of them. If people appear to misunderstand us, we have to explain what we intend them to mean.*

* Please also see the glossary compiled by Sue Stevens


All of us understand things in the light of our past experience. This is also true of ‘learning’ – we get our ideas of what ‘learning’ means from what happened to us in the past. So, for example, we may think of ‘learning’ as something which takes place in a school or college, in a classroom. We may think of it as a person sitting alone at night, trying to memorise a lot of facts so that s/he can pass an examination. However, a bit of reflection will show us that ‘learning’ is much wider than that. After all, children learn a great deal before they even get to school – they learn to speak, to walk. Educational psychologists tell us that any activity which leads to a change in our behaviour is ‘learning’.1

Here are some more ideas about ‘learning’:

  • Learning can be formal or informal. We learn informally from what we experience day by day: things which happen to us make us change the way we think and act. We may not even be aware that we are learning, which may cause problems – for example, health workers may learn bad attitudes from the example of others. Of course, learning may also be formal: we attend a course which is planned in a structured way, in a school or college.

  • We don’t just learn knowledge and facts – we also learn skills and attitudes. This is especially important for health workers, since it is in our practical work that we have an effect on the health of the people we serve. Interestingly, we learn knowledge, skills and attitudes in different ways – for example, we may learn a new idea from a discussion, but we learn skills by practising them and getting feedback.

  • People learn in different ways. Researchers have identified different ‘learning styles’.2 Some people are ‘receivers’: they like to memorise what is given to them. This is a very common style, and it is reinforced by teachers who expect students to memorise, and reward them for it. Other people are ‘detectives’: they like to investigate what they are learning themselves, to get to understand it. Yet others are ‘generators’: they like to decide themselves what they want to learn, and then look for opportunities to learn those things.

  • Learning can be superficial or deep.3 If knowledge is only memorised (superficial learning) it is soon forgotten, and may never affect the way that person does her/ his work. If the learner is made to use the new knowledge actively, the learning becomes deep. The learner connects the new knowledge to the concepts that s/he already has, and understands how it can be used practically. It is, therefore, much more likely to be remembered and used.

  • Motivation is important for learning.4 What is it that makes people want to learn? Some learn because they want to do a better job – they get satisfaction from the feeling that they are competent. People are also very strongly motivated by the hope that they will be rewarded – for instance, by gaining a qualification, leading to a promotion and better pay. The need to pass exams is therefore a very strong motivator.

  • Learning continues throughout a person’s lifetime – at least informally. We all know that health workers should continue to learn throughout their careers, because new information about health is constantly becoming available. However, many workers do not have access to formal in-service training. This means they themselves have to take the responsibility for staying up-to-date – they have to become ‘life-long learners’.


Once again, our understanding of what ‘teaching’ is, is based on our past experience. Our earliest experience was in school, where the teacher was also a ‘master’ or ‘mistress’, standing in front of the class, telling us what to do and what to learn. Some of us experienced the same kind of ‘teaching’ at college. Others may have experienced teaching where the ‘teacher’ is more of an equal, who takes account of the learner’s experience and even learns from the learner. That is why Abbatt and McMahon say: ‘Teaching is helping other people to learn’.3 They go on to say that the job of ‘teaching’ health care workers has four elements:

  1. The teacher has to decide what students should learn. The students may take part in this decision, but all are guided by the same principle: it is the job that people have to do, that determines what they should learn. They have to learn all the knowledge, skills and attitudes that they need to perform a specific job. They learn what they ‘must know’ and ‘should know’, not what is ‘nice to know’.

  2. The teacher has to help the learners to learn. This does not mean that the teacher ‘spoonfeeds’ the students, as if they were babies. It does mean that the teacher’s first concern should be that the students should learn as well as possible. Teaching sessions or classes have to be planned carefully, taking into account the learning styles, the language, the background of the students. In short, the teachers must be student centred, not teacher centred.

  3. The teacher has to make sure that the students have learnt – s/he has to assess them. Assessment helps teachers and students to see how well the students are progressing, so that they can attend to any weaknesses. It sets a standard, so that society is given people who are competent to practice. Assessment must be carefully planned so that it supports the learning we want to see – we know that students learn what they believe they need to pass the exams, and leave out the rest …

  4. The teacher has to look after the welfare of her/ his students. Students who are stressed and unhappy do not learn well. Good teachers try to ensure that the general living conditions and environment of their students are adequate. They also provide opportunities for personal counselling for them. Teachers need to cultivate an open and trusting relationship with their students.

In the next article in this series we will start applying these ideas and principles, by considering ‘Communication and Effective Teaching’. Stay with us!


1 Stones E. An introduction to educational psychology, London: Methuen, 1966; 50-1.

2 Harris D, Bell C. Evaluating and assessing for learning, London: Kogan Page, 1986: 118-26.

3 Pedler M. ‘Learning in management education’, Journal of European Training, 1974; 3 (3): 182-95.

4 Handy C.B. Understanding organizations, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1976: 31-47.

5 Abbatt F, McMahon R. Teaching health care workers, second edition, London: Macmillan, 1993: 15-21.