learning to teach | teaching to learn — a blog on pedagogy by emma stamm
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  • Infrastructures, Mental and Digital

    Posted on October 24th, 2017 emma No comments

    In A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for A World of Constant Change, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown write: “the relentless pace of change that is responsible for our disequilibrium is also our greatest hope.” They move on from there to embrace fundamentally the same mindset that underscored last week’s readings. Even though I want to engage this material with as much sincerity as my teaching practice deserves, it’s a bit frustrating to have read this.

    I say that  after a lot of consideration… really, I don’t come at this from nowhere. My Master’s capstone project was on an organization devoted to independent video gaming; I’ve designed and coded video games; I’ve showed my students TED talks on the power of gaming, and pretty much all of my good friends are internet / game nerds. The phenomenon of gaming — and, more broadly, play and creative in a networked environment — is cultivated by a technologizing society. Manifestoes like this one tend to position themselves as coming from outside the mainstream. Often they begin with a reference to “traditional” education or societal conventions, the framework which would mark texts like this as ideological outliers — but this is not unconventional by any means.

    A more radical move is to indicate that the unscrutinized acceptance of these technologies necessarily precludes critical discourse about them. Facebook (which Thomas and Brown reference right at the beginning, lumping it in with the very different technology that is Wikipedia) has become a significant part of many peoples’ lives in the last decade. The sheer magnitude of its role in society means it needs as much constructive skepticism as social sciences and humanities thinkers have accorded to phenomena whose impact took centuries to work toward. But the newness of digital phenomena does not mean that their embrace is in any way unusual. That understanding of them, which is sort of intuitive, is wrong — it just conveniently fits the authors’ ethos. The truth is that in the twenty-first century, with the rate of technological change quickly accelerating, accepting what is new is much easier than thinking critically about it. That’s opening a can of worms that education of all sorts is unprepared to deal with, especially as “digital education” receives a lot of outside attention and funding. “Digital humanities” is more attractive for venture capitalism than non-digital humanities, but I digress…


    I don’t want to keep on this angle for too long. Really this is a recapitulation of last week’s blog. My soapbox isn’t strong enough to hold me up that long.

    My favorite article from this week’s batch was Robert Talbert’s “Four Things Lecture Is Good For.” As a humanities instructor with under forty students in my class, I have the luxury of being able to deliver lectures where I encourage students to raise hands, ask questions, and (if they’re excited enough) even interrupt me as I speak. Nobody has to wait until the end of a twenty-minute diatribe about Virginia Woolf to make a remark about a very specific bit of information mentioned at the beginning. That sort of thing bothered me a lot in high school and during my undergrad years.

    Lectures can be awfully boring and pointless, and I think Talbert hits the nail on the head when he notes that they’re bad at transferring information. If I want my students to absorb facts about a writer — and, although I tend to de-emphasize informational learning in general, sometimes I want them to know where Woolf  lived when she wrote “A Room Of One’s Own” — I’ll assign them to read certain pages and refer to slides I upload to Canvas. Lectures should contextualize and make lessons “come alive” (if I can use a cheesy cliché). The speaking style of an instructor can convey a sense of purpose and excitement around the course material that’s impossible to give through homework assignments alone.

    Having said that, what he meant by “mental models” and “internal cognitive frameworks” was a bit confusing to me.  I guess I’ll just assume that my hunches about them are accurate. “Internal cognitive framework” just sounds like one’s way of making sense of information. I agree that it’s important to share this with students. In fact I wish my own instructors had been more transparent about how they as students had made sense of the same content they then went on to teach. The thing is — this requires a fair amount of self-knowledge and self reflection. Most people (including professors) can’t articulate how they learn, at least not in a way that can easily be modeled by others.

    Some of my own best learning has come from talking with fellow students. I’ll never forget when my best friend in college, a philosophy major, described to me how she made sense of some of the most notoriously abstruse writers (Derrida, Heidegger and Kant — oh my!). That advice has stayed with me for years. I think about it as I work on the earliest stages of a philosophical dissertation project today.

    And — one of my favorite things about programmer culture (and hacker culture in particular) is the bootstrap, DIY approach to learning code. Despite my critique, something from techno-culture I can usually support is the moxie it takes to learn a new programming language. The fact that there are still few established conventions for teaching programming, at least outside academia (most of what I’ve learned about code is self- or friends-taught), means that learning how to learn is always part of the deal. Thus you can’t help but explicate “internal cognitive frameworks.” I’ve come up with my own way of practicing coding skills that would be pretty easy to teach someone else, because I know exactly how they work.

    Actually, I’d be interested to hear what folks with a more of a traditional academic background in computer science think about that.


    Here are the readings I’m responding to:

    Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, A New Culture of Learning (2011), pp. 17-38 (“Arc of Life Learning” and “A Tale of Two Cultures”)

    Robert Talbert, “Four Things Lecture is Good For

    Mark C. Carnes, “Setting Students’ Minds on Fire

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