What is Collateral Learning?

While taking a Christian Education course in Seminary I was given the task of going to church and view my home church through the eyes of a visitor. I went to church the following Sunday with my notepad in hand ready to take notes. Upon entering the church (late as usual) I saw trash cans in each corner of the fellowship hall, bags of trash beside the wet bar (yes, we have a wet bar in our fellowship hall, doesn’t everyone?) and the nearly empty parking lot told me very few people were at church. Upon closer examination, what I had thought were trash cans were in reality empty kegs of beer left over from a huge wedding that had lasted until nearly five in the morning (which explained the lack of attendance in the church). This seemingly small task had a lasting effect on the way I’ve understood education and my role as an educator. Just as the results of a sacramental celebration led to me being very weary of writing up a report on my home church through the eyes of a visitor, we, as educators, should also examine the environment of our classrooms.


Learning is often more indirectly rather than directly related to the instruction in the classroom. Collateral learning, conceptualized by John Dewey, describes the accidental learning that occurs in and outside of the classroom. Collateral learning is the lesson students walk away with from the accidental experience with the lesson rather than the intent of the instructor. For example, if our anthology of American Literature fails to include the works of post-Antebellum southern writers, mid-twentieth century women, or 20th century Latino poets, what do we teach our students about the value of these voices? What do the posters and pictures hanging on our walls say about the learning that happens in the classroom? If we shift the curricular focus in a radical redirection from the arts and literature and focus only on science, technology, engineering and mathematics how might that negatively impact the importance of reading and literacy skills and the future funding of the arts due to their unintentionally diminished importance? The environment- everything from the materials within the textbook you are using to the way the desks are arranged to the “Stupid People Suck” coffee mug on your desk- what does this say about the learning that is supposed to go on? How might a visitor view your class upon first inspection and repeated exposure? How might the overall experience of the learning influence the lessons that a student walks away with? It is our job as educators and leaders to examine how the whole experience of the learning process defines the lesson we want our students to take away.

dewey_pic_britannica“Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only the particular thing he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned. For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future. The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning.” (Dewey, Experience and Education)

We must remember what our students take away from the classroom is not always what we intended them to take away, but they are the lessons they will remember for many years to come. Remaining mindful of the diversity of our classrooms or even attempting to introduce a range of ideas and philosophies into our classrooms when the student body lacks diversity are key to preparing our students for developing effective communication skills in a growing global society as well as learning to respect and understand ideas that may be different from their own. The world is far from monochromatic or uniform, it is an inclusive web of differences we must learn to navigate culturally, politically, and socially and the lessons on how to do so begin in our classrooms.

Bryan M. Berretta


Credits for images:

Gouinlock, J. S. (2010, January 11). John Dewey: American Philosopher and Educator. Retrieved from Encyclopedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Dewey

Pappalardo, G. (2014, January). Classroom-Management Strategies for Elementary Teachers. Retrieved from Edutopia: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/classroom-management-strategies-elementary-teacher