best practice

Over the summer there isn’t much chance to have those long conversations about teaching and learning. Instead, friends and I are relegated to social media, posts of New York Times pieces onto Facebook threads, followed by comments with brief explosions of discussion. I post a few of these myself, and I reply to reactions here and there, but there’s no 20-minute conversation in the hallway that leaves me feeling like I’ve made some kind of progressive step in my thinking. Instead, I just feel like there are lists of partial understandings of one another, talking points that only partially respond to one another. And, we tend to more or less all agree with one another, anyway, and since there isn’t a real opportunity to figure out the details of what we all mean, we can’t really get at nuances, subtleties, or deeper philosophical foundations.

So, as a public service to all of you who may or may not have been a contributor or reader of such a thread, I’m providing you with both the questions and the right answers here in this blog post, a rough first draft of the world according to me and how I’m thinking about it right now.

Recently, the New York Times has gotten some mileage out of this Op-Ed piece:  The Trouble With Online Education, by Mark Edmundson, as well as a volley of readers’ responses. (Many of these seem to be more university professors, like myself, trying desperately to defend their position, both philosophical and faculty.) Similarly, there are pieces that make claims about what kinds of courses, subjects, or entire programs of study should be emphasized or cut . These discussions show up with such regular frequency you could set your watch by them.

It’s nothing new, it’s just a matter of what the most recent “trouble” might be: Power Point is a perennial favorite for critique, but even this is finding its place in the archives of these debates. Soon, once we get the binding finished, we’ll shelve it next to the great volume on the overhead projector, the chalkboard, and that especially thick one on print, paper, and writing. (“How will we document this debate we’re having on the use of books?” we imagine them saying, the answer to which likely settled the debate.) In other more specific circles we debate the use of group learning, inquiry learning, project-based learning, classroom flipping, and other varieties of teaching practices that all claim to be the great revolution. Alas, none of them really are, not even books, as today we still wonder why our students can’t (or won’t) Read The Goddamn Syllabus, not to mention engage in the text that we ourselves will often complain about. Today we continue to quote John Dewey and progressive educational ideals, even though he brought them up about 100 years ago. Not only are we not really talking about anything truly new, we don’t even change the nature of the discussion.

So, in response to the debate of whether or not any kind of online education method is better or worse or cheaper or more efficient or one of the seven signs of the apocalypse, I offer this response: You’re all wrong, even with partial truths and nuggets of wisdom everywhere. We can go over all the details of the rights and wrongs in all the arguments, but you can already imagine them (and we’ll continue to have fruitful conversations that work out details). Technology, whatever it is, from paper to Power Point to Prezi to prudent and purposeful online pedagogy, can have its benefits. And its weaknesses. That’s the short answer.

The problem is that no one is asking the right question. It shouldn’t be “What’s the best tool with which to teach?” It should be “What is the goal of this thing we’re calling “learning” in the first place?” There isn’t a “right” answer to this question. Instead, we get to decide what we want the answer to be, shape teaching and learning environments purposefully to aim towards the goals we set, and all the while continue to see if we’re getting the details right.

Too often, I think, we equate teaching and learning with transmission of information, disseminating knowledge, or (the one that really boils my blood) “delivering content.” If this is what you think and/or need learning to be — and this may be perfectly legitimate in many cases — then a book, video, or slide presentation could be exactly what you need to use. Put the material online, and if “knowing” something is the same as remembering what the words on the page or screen happen to say, then we can continue to strive towards better ways of getting other humans to store images of that which their eyes have seen, recordings of what their ears have heard. A lot of us scoff at this, but when faced with choices about what and how we want our kids to learn, we get drawn into philosophies and schools that “go back to basics.” This may or may not be a bad thing, but often these “basics” are about reading classic works, rehearsing algorithms, and collecting facts. It’s possible that this is exactly what we want for education. In such a society, online education could be ideal.  With mobile technologies, the delivery of information can be aimed not just at computer terminals on desks, but the handheld devices in our pockets.

Another possibility for learning and education is that it helps us to learn, through experience, the practical pieces of our lives, both in the here-and-now and the near future.  Dewey saw this as a goal, especially in the everyday experience.  If being educated is not simply to be able to know something, but to be able to do something, then the delivery of information, no matter how sophisticated or efficient, simply isn’t aimed appropriately.  The “trouble,” or challenge, perhaps, with online education could be that we haven’t sufficiently pushed for ways to help us do things.  Rather than knowing Newton’s Laws, we might have need to apply them to a novel situation; and it could be even more experiential and important to understand these in the context of driving a car or rolling a ball.  Even more promising might be the prospect that students could use their own problems to shape the nature of a course, developing need for specific pieces of curriculum as the problem is explored.  Dewey, while annoyed that we were about 100 years behind schedule on such a progressive education, would be just pleased enough to crack a smile.

But I still don’t think that this covers all the possibilities, nor even the best ones.  In my own radical musings, I think that the best learning is not about knowing or doing, but about becoming.  A really great education, and the one I think we should push for, is one that is deliberate in its goals to help our children and adults figure out who they are.  This isn’t just some kind of navel gazing, but a combination of reading fiction, doing some science, wrestling with musical forms.  To learn to “be” should be more than understanding the descriptions of it or the tools used.  It should be personal, reflective, and experiential — the self should have a chance to reflect upon the experience had while being something new.  In my own field in science, we do a good job of creating very thick books and continual re-creations of derivations on chalk (yup, we still use the stuff) boards; we do a slightly poorer job, probably, of crafting experiences in labs where students use some tools and mimic some techniques.  But we rarely give our students enough opportunity to be scientists, really.  Perhaps it’s logistically too much to expect, but in spite of the fact that we say we’re training scientists in our universities, we don’t give most students that opportunity to do original work until their senior year, if at all.  Most of us, myself and colleagues in the sciences and science education, will admit that they didn’t really understand the whole milieu of science — its communities, processes, philosophy, and the like — until we were engaging in the community, processes, and philosophies in graduate school.  And, it seems that it wasn’t simply because we were studying something at an advanced level, but because we were in the thick of the process of figuring out questions, working alongside peers and mentors, grappling with not just what to think, but how to think, do, and communicate.  An online education could help with this, but I can’t see it doing the job alone, just as I don’t see textbooks as being the sole tool for any piece of our educational system.

We should move this debate towards something that isn’t just talking about the tools we’re using, but the goals we imagine for education.  We probably all think that these are settled, yet it’s more likely that we all have different notions of what education is supposed to accomplish.  I think that we have inherited a school system, together with its implicit objectives, that has its own inherent goals, and these might not match up with what we really desire for our children or our society.  As we get ready for the 21st Century, a task I believe we’re procrastinating, we can embrace all of the fantastic tools now available to us.  We can transmit and communicate to a degree that’s unprecedented and until now unimaginable.  But is it helpful?  That depends.  If we want a spectacular 19th Century education, it might be perfect.