Monday, January 2, 2012

When content and conversation both miss the opportunity: Starting the new year off with some controversy

I'm a bit late to the fire, but there has been a fire. Through a series of articles: 1, 2, 3, 4, education gurus Larry Sanger and Steve Wheeler went to the blogosphere's version of the octagon with a few disagreements. I'm a little nervous about summarizing two such well-read, experienced minds, much less responding to them, but I'm going to give it what I can.

I think they both miss the point-  and the opportunity. Basically, they both invent their own straw men, Wheeler opening by arguing that we get too much "content" in school - to use his examples, too many students learn that Shakespeare died in 1616, what phrasal verbs are, and how to recognize a blue-headed wrasse as a thalassoma bifasciatum. To this extent I agree with him: If that's the sort of content students are learning, they are learning too much of it, and the wrong content. I also agree that they could learn more procedures - even cool procedures, from how to write well-formed code, to how to write a poem, from how to put together a suit to how to put together a car. Many of them are never taught, and especially not taught intentionally, how to put together a research paper, an experiment, or an argument. They are expected to osmosise these things from a few textbooks, having to write research papers, and watching experiments in science class - and some of them do, but that's not good enough. There should be more procedures taught.

  Larry Sanger responds by arguing that the content is vital to the conversation - essentially that so many of these procedures require background knowledge. In addition, he argues that learning Shakespeare, Latin, and Grammar, are valuable, because those things don't change. He has a point there - our procedures change all the time. The code my children (if I have any) are likely to write will be vitally different, and probably produced differently than any I will write. That's as it should be. Computing and computer languages are still in an odd sort of infancy - they will continue to grow, develop, and become more efficient. Computers themselves may change drastically. Good. I don't want to hold that back by teaching QWERTY keyboards as the proper way of interacting with a computer. I don't want to teach modern engines as the way all engines work - they may, and I hope they do, change. Besides that, markets and productions move. I've been thinking about how fortunate I have been to be raised in a fairly digital household - if my father had been a factory-line worker, I may have been a factory-line worker - and my recent job search could easily have been prolonged, drastically.

To an extent, I agree with both of them - but I also disagree. The point of teaching facts is not necessarily so that the students will learn those facts. That can be valuable - but the deepest value is in learning how to learn and research and analyze facts. If a student has experienced Shakespeare, they probably will be a better reader of a buisness case - because if they really know their Shakespeare, they know how language is used to manipulate, broadly how power functions in a conversation, and they have an emotional experience which helps ground and balance their experience in the current moment. An understanding of biology gives us valuable lenses through which to see the world - as does each language we learn that is not our own. Likewise, the point of teaching processes, or "conversation" is not the conversation or the process itself-  just because Python (to take one example) may not exist after I am dead does not mean there is no value to learning it now, because with each process learned, subsequent process learning becomes not only easier but more productive, rewarding, and creative. Learn enough processes, and you may find yourself improving the next one, because you brought something from the old skills that no one else brought.

I believe this is how creativity works - we apply unusual models or facts to contexts (by which I mean either processes or facts, or both) to which they are not usually applied. Then we judge the value of those contexts or facts. This is also how learning works - by associating the things we are learing with the things we know, we learn new things, and the more we can associate with, the more and faster we can learn. This is what I believe would be really valuable to teach our children - this is the opportunity. If we teach our children the facts of how we learn (and make no mistake, we must learn many of those facts ourselves) and the processes (which we need to refine) of how to use their brains, we needn't sacrifice facts, processes, conversation or content. We can teach those children everything - and we can teach more of them more than we have ever taught before. That is the point. That's the idea I'm giving away for free because it's too good to hold in.



P.S. - I can't help but note one last irony (and push one last button). At the end of his blog post "Conversation as Curriculum," Wheeler asks teachers to apply a "truely Socratic method" the irony is he didn't learn his facts. A careful reading of Socrates would reveal that Socrates' "conversational" learning wasn't really conversational at all. Socrates led his students on a bread-crumb trail of a few facts he picked out in order to prove his own cleverness. I'm thankful that to call Wheeler's methods Socratic would be a misuse of the vocabulary content of our group knowledge. I may disagree with him, but he's not as bad a teacher as Socrates.

1 comment:

  1. Good job of sharing your well-tuned thoughts. This is an interesting dialog and one I have wrestled with in teaching our children (and myself). I still have much to learn and it is great that I can learn from my children.

    One idea that needs to keep being addressed is that we are not dealing with empty buckets. The learners have much to add to the equation of learning. I think you understand that.