Monday, November 10, 2008

Learning With - A Teaching Paradigm

This is a video clip that highlights the gap between old educational structures trying to reach a new generation of students. See the video first, then read my comments below.


Teaching is my passion. In my heart, education matters have progressed from homework toil to examination fears; from tussling for excellent grades to jostling for good jobs; from concern for my children’s learning to yearning for meaningful living. It has been said that the longest journey in the world is from the head to the heart. Increasingly, after more than 40 years, I find myself shuttling constantly between the mind and the heart, between theory and practice; and between what the world deems ‘realistic and achievable’ to what I deeply desire in terms of hopes and dreams. Having struggled so hard in my early educational years, there is a sense of nostalgia, that I have practiced tonnes of past-year papers and scored distinctions in my grades. I remember the different teachers who tries to pass information down to me so that I can ‘learn.’ In those days, the Internet did not exist. There were no Facebook users but paper notebooks. No mouse or keyboards but pen and paper. Email communications were unheard of. I wrote love-letters, lots of them, complete with envelopes and stamps. Little encouragement cards were frequently exchanged, many of them becoming bookmarks for my large collection of books. Alas, these things are rare nowadays.

Education has come a long way, but the structures that took many years to put up, will need a longer time to take down. It is not the same as clicking the ADD/REMOVE icon, and removing the program from the operating system. This is because the bulk of the administration lives and survives on such an infrastructure, no matter how archaic it may be. I came across this video clip a couple of months ago. When it was first made, it attracted more than a million hits on Youtube. Interest continues to grow as even the creator was surprised how many educators identified with his message. That is why, watching the video developed by Professor Michael Wesch gives me some sadness amid the many valid concerns he highlight. Yet, I feel there are more reasons for hope than despair.

How valid are the statements made in the video?
Somewhat. I do not question the legitimacy of the words that describe what they do. A quick glance reveals that these are simply estimates of what the students are attending to, in this contemporary age. It does not necessarily reflect their way of learning, even though it may be a large part of their daily lives. Most of the tools like iPods, Facebook, Emails are part of the social networking excitement that is all the rave that is dominating Internet headlines. They are very much a recent phenomenon, and it is difficult to conclude that they will continue to dominate even in the future. It could be a fad in passing, especially when some other things later becomes more exciting. We will also need to ask, why are these students spending so much time on such electronic media? It has to be driven by a need. This echoes a large need to connect and to be linked to a wider community, from a secure distance. The statistical numbers may reflect that of a particular poll, but they do not necessarily mean that the student concerned WILL fall into that category. In summary, while the statements are helpful insights into the changing lifestyles and choices young people are making, they do not necessarily mean they are the BEST choice for them in this age. Educators however can learn to appreciate where the students are coming from, and incorporate part of this new environment into their teaching curriculum and styles. Abandoning old proven structures overnight and replacing them with new unproven techniques/technologies would be like throwing away our reliable compass in favour of a first generation unproven navigational device. Simply put, keep the best of the old and the most appropriate from the new.

Why Are Students Feeling That Way?
  • Students are losing the ability to pay attention; For instance, society is being educated by commercials rather than good reading material. We can sing the latest cola jingle or McDonald's quip, but struggle to recall a quote from a serious book.
  • Many students are getting increasingly frustrated that they have not been well understood by the institutions and general teaching population;
  • Teachers have not kept pace with changes, fast enough. Most of them do not know how.
  • Technology has captured the imagination of many. However, we cannot put blind faith in what technology can do

My Comments on the clip:
1) Firstly, do not despair. Things are not as bad as they seem, although the clip is filmed from a cynical angle of gaping holes in the current educational system. This is because the best hope for the future requires an honest appreciation of the past. Teachers have part of that past and can be a bridge to the present. Otherwise, without a proper knowledge of our history, we risk repeating the mistakes of the past needlessly. This is what I call the retrospective need. In other words, only by understanding where we have been, can we truly answer the question: “Where do you want to go today?” Published in 1995, Bill Gates book, ‘The Road Ahead’ is more about Bill Gates’ history rather than any prediction about the future. According to the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, foresight is largely an understanding of hindsight. Hence, for those of us who are beneficiaries of an archaic system, that some will even call a ‘dinosaur’ era, do not despair. Our understanding of the present changes is more profound, given our familiarity with the past. We have much to teach the young. Memorizing mathematical timetables is still a practice that produces rich dividends. For example, recalling from memory the answer of 11 times 11 is faster than getting the answer from the computer/calculator. Being able to link delicate information of logic, deduction and discernment is something that no supercomputer can ever accomplish. Machines excel in the sciences but are found wanting when dealing with the arts. We are not mechanical devices but human beings. Technology can help accelerate information flow but can never replace actual learning.

2) Secondly, education is not simply about information. That is the trouble with my old way of learning, that I can ace exams simply by cramming information into my head, and then spilling it out cold when the questions appear in a 3 hour long test. I have heard umpteen times that what students learn in their classroom have no practical purposes in the real world. In many ways that is still true in many areas. I have no practical idea how the math logarithm tables are converted into actual reality. Neither do I know how meaningful is memorizing the chemical numbers of sodium or potassium and how to use it to solve problems in the physical world. Perhaps, engineering calculations like stress analysis of beams and structural tolerances are critical in building design. Or medical know-how of what medications are appropriate for certain ailments. However, the wisdom and the ability to know WHEN and WHAT combination to use on the projects is not easily transmitted. Wisdom is not taught but caught. Attitude is not obtained in the classroom but attained with humble and honest discipline. Moreover, there are many things the schools cannot teach. It has to be learned at a personal price in the institutions of life and hard knocks.

3) Thirdly, I am concerned about the declining rate of attention span. Even adults are not spared. For instance, people are stimulated more by visual images rather than the plain text. That is one reason why movies/DVDs are far more popular than the traditional books/print media. I spoke with a librarian in the downtown public library and was told that the DVDs are practically ‘flying off the shelves.’ He couldn’t say the same for books. The decreasing popularity of the printed word however does have a silver lining. Book lovers like me can easily find the books that I want. I presented a paper at a focus group at Regent-College last year, entitled: “Windows of Mass Distraction.” In it, I lamented the rise of a generation of ‘attention-deficit’ individuals, community, congregation and society at large. Advertisements tempt us to buy things we do not need. The idea of ‘multi-tasking’ can falsely make us think that we are achieving more when we are doing less of each. I dare say that in many cases, multi-tasking is a form of being a jack-of-all-trades-and-master-of-none. Take Microsoft Windows technology, for example. We can open multiple windows and do different tasks at the same time. However, the more windows we execute, there is a payload cost to bear. Certain processes in other windows will have to suffer in performance. Everything comes with a cost.

Humanly speaking, we are not meant to be multi-tasking people, even though our ability to do many things at the same time can be trained. Try to draw a circle with your left hand and a square on your right hand at the same time. With practice, you might probably have some success. At some point, you may notice that the ability to do two different tasks at the same time will require some mental detachment skills. Will that remove some humanness in us? Perhaps.

4) Fourthly, many societies have turned education simply into a job-seeking enterprise. A higher degree from a famous institution seems to be twin formulas in the resume of successful employment. This is increasingly unhelpful for the young person’s education. While it is important to train oneself up for the workforce, it is even more important to become responsible members of society, not mere workers to add to optimistic GDP statistics. Yet, education remains a profitable enterprise. Many are willing to fork out big bucks to buy degrees to enhance their employability. This current recession will come as a rude shock to many who maintains such a mindset. I remember reading one angrily written graffiti at a Vancouver café that reads: “I have a good degree, an MBA and a PhD and I am now a mere newspaper delivery man!

We may or may not end up in this same situation. However, to put all our eggs of hope into a single basket of educational qualifications is hazardous. Very risky. Education is not simply about finding jobs. It is a full-life journey of discovery, of engaging our potential and helping others do the same.

5) Fifthly, it is the attitude, not the aptitude that determines one’s learning altitude. Stuff like discipline, tolerance and the ability to faithfully complete a course of study is part and parcel of education. One cannot learn discipline simply by opening windows according to one’s whims and fancies, or check emails incessantly like drug addicts who are helplessly dependent on their quick-fix injections. One cannot learn tolerance with other people simply by locking oneself in a room alone, even though he/she may have an Internet connection to the world. One cannot understand what faithfulness means if one readily jumps to the next latest-and-greatest fad. There are many things in life that requires time and concerted effort. For example, learning to master languages will require resources beyond the classroom. One needs to use it regularly in writing and speaking. The best way to learn languages continues to be via immersion in conducive surroundings. The Internet may work wonders, but language remains very much a human-led endeavour, not a machine-dictated maneuver.

6) Finally, educators need to remember that learning contexts is constantly evolving. Good teaching means being able to identify the context (environment), and know what kind of students they have (people) plus the wisdom to bring them together. If there is one positive take-away from the video, it will be that we need to move away from a 'Me-Teacher-You-Student' mindset, and to recognize that all of us are learning people. Students must continue to learn FROM their teachers who have considerable knowledge and experience. Teachers need to learn WITH their students in terms of appreciating their study environment and their home contexts. A learning community is much more profitable for all if in the process, one develops good friendships and camaraderie. In other words, the quality of education is largely measured not by the quantity of information we stock up in our heads, but by the quality of the relationships developed over the years. Internet social networking is a useful start to any relationship. However, its usefulness in terms of relationship building is limited.

As I think back about my years at Regent-College, I remember many papers I wrote, and the excellent classes I attended. None of them ever come close to the quiet, private conversations I have with the professors and fellow students, especially those that teaches me how to grow to become the person God has made me to be. What we learn about is important but it is from WHOM we learn, and the PEOPLE we learn with that underline the quality of the education of any one person. This is not necessarily restricted to the academic pursuit of a professional degree. In our workplaces, such an adage holds true for the workplace as well. One ex-colleague of mine had advised me: “It is not what you know, but WHO you know that is more important in the workplace.” On a pragmatic basis, this is very true. However, I have a better version for the Christian worker.

It is not what helpful things you know in your head, or the inspirational stuff in your heart; but it is HOW you use them to help people around you that cultivates meaning at home, at work and everywhere you go.” Life is made more meaningful when we do not focus on earning money but building networks of friendships. Let me end with a poem, written by Mary Oliver, quoted in the book of a well known education activist, Parker Palmer: “A Hidden Wholeness.” This poem had been quoted in full in one of my previous posts. The last statement is especially poignant.
When Death Comes (excerpt)
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.

~ Mary Oliver ~
Be mindful that as Christians, we remember that whatever we do, we work at it heartily as for the Lord, not for men. This applies the same in the educational arena. We teach, we learn, we help one another as to the Lord.

"Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men," (Colossians 3:23)


1) Michael Wesch website (Mediated Cultures)
2) Britannica blog
3) “Vision of Students Today” (youtube)

1 comment:

Dr. Sanford Aranoff said...

Teaching is a passion. Information passing. Let's get to the bottom line: We must understand how students think, and build from there. See "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better" on amazon.

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