“Hey, Teacher! Leave them kids alone!”

Bassist Roger Waters may have been on to something when he wrote “Another Brick in the Wall” on Pink Floyd’s rock opera album The Wall. Although, some of the “working titles” of this song (“Reminiscing” and “Drugs”) wouldn’t suggest he was quite so insightful into what meaningful pedagogy is in higher education, he does have a point. I’m not talking about the laissez faire notion that has led to decapitations and political upheaval or even Alice Cooper’s take, “School’s Out,” but the kind that gives kids the wriggle room they need to learn in a way that makes sense to them.

I think that Welsh, although he doesn’t outline many of his teaching techniques in the article we read, has identified a basic way to go about it:

Identify a common goal that students can become empowered by.

Welsh does this with his “around the world” class room and assigning each student to a particle country, of which that student is the local expert. Then they all work individually, yet together to figure out “how the world works.” This fits into his framework of a grand narrative that motivates and guides us. You could do a very similar thing in an engineering class (See example below, if you’re interested…).  When doing a project like this, what I think would be most difficult is striking a balance between giving them enough direction (and motivation) to do the work while not hindering their progress. As with blogging, if you over-parametrize a long-term project, you end up killing it because you’ve stated exactly what you expect and, while maybe willing, students are unmotivated to seek out their own interests in lieu of satisfying yours.  Maybe it’s the anti-teaching attitude educators need to have where, while they probably have a more complete knowledge and mastery of subjects, they are on a learning journey with students; not providing a journey (or what they consider a journey) for students.

So I drank the koolaide; I can buy into this type of classroom. But at the same time, the PBS video of the schools that are revolutionary in terms of how they are educating students were a little too extreme for me and it totally freaked me out. There are certain things that were drilled into me as a kid – through repetition and practice (i.e. teacher dumping knowledge into an empty box) that I feel was helpful. Mathematical basics, basic US and world history, sentence structure (though I never did enjoy the Surely Method), etc. Is this type of learning totally absent in these schools? If so, how do they account for the type of knowledge an “average” kid has coming out of high school, ready in the forefront of the brain that is “common knowledge?” I feel these students would excel in obtaining inflammation and maybe processing it, but they would come up shot in terms of our societal expectations of their knowledge base.  Or maybe that frame of thinking is becoming obsolete in and of itself and we don’t need to hold that type of information at the ready anymore – after all, we’ve got google and wiki. In my eyes, though – and maybe I’m traditional, I think that it is a good thing to have some level of common knowledge about basic facts of human existence at the ready and we, as a society, still expect this type of knowledge that is gained through “traditional” methods. And I feel that this expectation will linger far longer than the obvious needs for education reform. If moving toward a newly developed curriculum based more on 21st c needs involves letting go of what I might consider a key value of 20th c. education, I’m not sure if I’m ready to do that, at least in some sense.  While it may be impractical to hold some types of knowledge now compared to 20 years ago, there are some things we do for posterity.


Example of water treatment design (undergraduate level) class

Common goal: Understanding basic concepts of water treatment, important design criteria, and maybe external factors that can affect and even override the ideal scenario from a design engineer standpoint

So how to empower?

A: Pair up with an operator from a nearby utility, town council, city engineer, and the like. Have these people share resources with the students that span a range of factors such as costs of design, city budgets, public demand/complaints, technical barriers, etc and allow small groups of students engage directly with the stakeholders. Then they can all come together and try to reach a decision about a design project with each group representing the stakeholder they interviewed/interacted with.

B: Assign each student an aspect of a design problem to investigate and allow them to take it as far as they can go.

Maybe in each scenario they present their views in a presentation, or we conduct a simulated town council meeting. Oftentimes, there is the “real” aspect of these classes that is missing, i.e. what’s the process of designing and building a new treatment plant actually like? Either way, it seem important, if one is going to adopt this group activity-type approach, to allow students to have the freedom to do what they want with it and not overload them with other things that this “extra” thing gets pushed to the side.

Thought-provoking quotes from the paper you may want to meditate on:

“Meaning and significance are assured only when our learning fits in with a grand narrative that motivates and guides us”



1 Comment

  • angie says:

    Enjoyed your post! I really like the idea of fitting in learning with the grand narrative that motivates and guides us. I pulled that quote out as well during my reading.

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