I’ve spent the past 10 years in education. Two years in Uruguay co-teaching small groups and large congregations with living conditions well beneath the poverty line. Five years in public secondary education with 35-40 student teenagers. And the past six months working with adults at a software development bootcamp in Utah.

I’ve seen many learning environments: Groups of all sizes. Students from all backgrounds. Teachers with all kinds of experience. Learning environments of all types.

In all of these different scenarios, I’ve found two essential ingredients for high-level learning:

Both the teacher and the learner must have a clear understanding of what the learner should know, and what he/she actually knows.

The teacher needs to know what to teach. The learner must know what she is trying to learn. Both should know when that learning has occurred.

Missing this ingredient causes learning to break down in 3 ways. The teacher works toward the wrong goal. The learner ends up distracted, discouraged, or bored. Both end up disappointed with the unsuccessful results.

Assessment is required. It can be formal or informal, but the teacher and the learner need to know what is missing. Great assessments don’t summarize achievement, they drive instruction. Great teachers use assessment data to direct the next learning opportunity.

Teachers and learners must be working towards the same goal.

The learner needs a willing and able mentor to bridge that gap.

Sometimes this mentor is the teacher. Unfortunately, one teacher doesn’t scale beyond a very small group. This is why people complain about large classroom sizes. This is why MOOCs don’t work. This is why a teacher can’t just regurgitate the same Powerpoint presentation for a decade and expect great outcomes.

In the most successful learning environments, a specific mentor works with individuals or very small groups. A great mentor knows what the student can do (assessment), where the student is headed (objective), and how to guide him there (teaching).

What This Means for Teachers

A teacher’s job is not to stand in front of a group and deliver content.

A teacher’s job is to craft a learning environment with clear learning targets, positive learning activities, reliable assessments, and mindful mentorship interactions.

It works in small groups and large groups. It works with students from all backgrounds. And it works in every learning environment. No one is excluded or excused.

What This Means for Learners

Learning is not a passive activity.

A learner’s job is to find an opportunity where teachers set clear learning targets, create positive learning activities, use reliable assessments, and fosters mindful mentorship interactions.

Furthermore, a learner’s job is to understand those expectations, participate in positive learning activities, self-assess progress, and foster mentor relationships.

A Two Way Street

I believe in the learning process. It is an essential element of a happy and successful life. We can all benefit from understanding how we can teach and learn better.

If you’re a teacher or a learner, consider the two essential ingredients to a positive learning experience. Make them an integral part of that experience. Do it, and I guarantee a positive outcome. Both teacher and student will leave better for the effort.