In Retrospect

I have to confess that I was skeptical of “learner-centered” teaching when I began the semester. I imagined unproductive classrooms where nothing was really learned. I heard rumors that the over-arching philosophy of the class was “the student is ALWAYS right.”

It seems that I was wrong.

First, I’ve come to see the hypocrisy of my orignal position. My wife and I have long planned to homeschool our children. Why? We’ve seen the inability of the current mainstream education system – public or private – to reach many kids. Teaching to tests. Standardization. One-size-fits-all. All are aspects of industrialized education rather than true learning. We want our children to be allowed to explore in their interests, as they are ready, without the artificial constraint of the school system. We want them to take responsibility for learning from an early age. We want them to experience learning by doing and service. I somehow separated these beliefs about primary and secondary education from my thinking on higher ed. As the semester progressed, it became obvious that my philosophy of education must be coherent. Similar problems exist at all levels of education. I have the responsibility to address these problems in the university and change my practices just as I have responsibility to provide my children with an education tailored to their needs.

Second, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the tone of GRAD 5114. The needs, cares, and thoughts of the student are held in higher regard by the methods presented in this class compared to those in many traditional pedagogies. At the same time, the students’ responsibility for their learning and actions are also emphasized more.  Rather than regarding students as automatons in which to ‘download’ knowledge, we must help our students grow as intelligent agents of their own education.  Learner-centered teaching is not about pandering to spoiled brats and making everybody feeling warm and fuzzy.  It is rather a journey toward teaching our students to be responsible and capable adults of the next generation.

Wise Use of Technology

In last week’s reading The Myth of the Disconnected Life, Farman highlights growing trends to disconnect from technology and reconnect with people.  Interestingly, he too argues from history, just like Nicholas Carr, that people have always been afraid of new technology and the disconnection it supposedly breeds in society.  Both claim via these arguments that the technology was not bad, or at least more good than bad.  They are implicitly assuming first that the all of the previous historical technological breakthroughs listed are obviously good things for society.  Thus it must follow that the current technology really isn’t as bad as we are making it out to be.  While I don’t want to argue every point, I don’t think that this assumption can be made blindly or without consideration.  Remember that much is lost as well as gained through technology.

While I don’t purport to know much about the Digital Sabbath movement, Farman exaggerates the claims of the Digital Sabbath proponents while making his argument against them.  Saying that we need to take breaks from digital media – pick your reason – is not equivalent to calling all media evil.  So the mere presence and usefulness of cool technologies like [murmur] and the Museum of London app does not disprove the need to rest our minds and lives from the digital blur around us.

Electronic technology used wisely and in moderation is an amazingly powerful tool but used wrongly is a horrible master.  Just read E.M. Forster’s The Machine Stops.  We can stay in touch with friends, explore the world, learn new things, etc.  On the other hand, we can abuse it or worse yet disrespect other people or ourselves through it.  The key is distinguishing between the two.  Maybe the concept of disrespect is a more appropriate way of differentiating wise use of technology than disconnectedness.  The latter is hard to judge, when we can interact and connect with people all over the world in productive ways through our electronics.  In contrast when electronic interaction leads to isolation or neglect of responsibilities, we are disrespecting ourselves. When we ignore or interrupt others for the latest text or Twitter, we belittle the importance of the people who are present with us.  As technology mushrooms around us, we must make a concerted effort to avoid disrespect and must learn to exercise the self-control to use technology appropriately without abusing it.

Industrialized Learning??

I was struck by the comments Nicholas Carr made in Is Google Making Us Stupid? about F.W. Taylor’s industrial philosophy.  While I obviously benefit from the countless ‘cheap’ goods produced by an economy operating under this framework, in principle I do not agree that such an economy is a good thing.  I agree with the grumbling Midvale employees that industrialization tends to create a demeaning and dehumanizing philosophy of work.

The idea that Google wants to apply Taylor’s concepts of “one best method” and “systematizing everything” to the search for knowledge is incredibly scary.  Humans do not thrive on systematized tasks, no matter how efficient the results are.  As an example, consider the fate of farming over the past century as it has been hijacked by the same industrial philosophy.  Already in 1939, Steinbeck aptly critiqued this travesty in chapter 11 of The Grapes of Wrath

And this is easy and efficient.  So easy that the wonder goes out of the work, so efficient that the wonder goes out of the land and of working it, and with the wonder the deep understanding and the relation.  And in the tractor man there grows the contempt that comes only to a stranger who has little understanding and no relation.

Because of ‘easy and efficient’ thinking, we live in a land where it is very difficult to thrive as a farmer who truly wonders, understands, and relates to the land.  We have a precarious food-system that survives on fossil fuel and is controlled by a few huge, bullying corporations.

If aims of Google (as characterized by Carr) – not to mention those of our mechanized, standardization-driven, fast-food style education system – come to fruition, we could easily replace three words in the preceding quote and end up with the following truth about the state of ‘learning’ in the 21st century

And this is easy and efficient.  So easy that the wonder goes out of the work, so efficient that the wonder goes out of the knowledge and of learning it, and with the wonder the deep understanding and the relation.  And in the student there grows the contempt that comes only to a stranger who has little understanding and no relation.

I, for one, don’t want to go there.