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Category Archives: Education

“Why history and geography? Why not cybernetics and ecology? Why economics and algebra? Why not anthropology and psycho-linguistics? It is difficult to escape the feeling that a conventional curriculum is quite arbitrary in selecting the “subjects” to be studied. The implications of this are worth pondering.”

“What’s worth knowing? How do you decide? What are some ways to go about getting to know what’s worth knowing?”

– a couple of the many questions asked in the chapter “What’s Worth Knowing” from Teaching as a Subversive Activity

Neil Postman

As I’ve been “learning how to teach” for the past six months, I’ve been reading a number of Neil Postman books in my spare time. Postman has been called a media theorist, cultural critic, and a teacher, to name a few. He is the author of 18 books and over 200 articles or essays, many of which were concentrated on the role of education in society, such as 1995’s The End of Education, 1993’s Technopoly, and 1967’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity (co-authored with Charles Weingartner). I read The End of Education and Technopoly back-to-back (you can read a bit about them here) a short while ago, and have now started to read this older book, written over 40 years ago.

As I’m reading Teaching as a Subversive Activity, with all of its references to the Cold War, these new machines known as computers, and the new education (aka education reform), I’m taken aback by how relevant the book still feels. Many of the questions Postman ponders, the critiques he slams down, and the suggestions he makes are still entirely applicable to the world of education in 2011.

Why is that? I think that many of the suggestions made in Postman’s 1967 work were so radical for their time, they are just now seeing the light of day in North American classrooms. It takes time for change to occur.

The Historical Perspective

The Historical Lens (from DeviantArt's ami46)

Neil Postman has a countless number of ideas about the role and process of education. One of the ideas that has stuck with me is that he believes every subject should be taught from an historical perspective. That is, the content of the course should be given context by examining it through an historical lens. One should learn and teach some history about the subject, rather than just teaching the basics of the subject. For example, in Science class, if your goal is to teach high school students about the stars and planets, you have to guide them to discover what people used to think, and how they discovered what they know. You might want to teach students that for thousands of years, humans thought the Earth was the center of everything, with the Sun, moon, and “wandering stars” (the planets) moving around the Earth. It wasn’t until the 16th century that this idea was formally turned on its head by Nicolaus Copernicus (among others) and it would be much later until the general public accepted this idea. By approaching a topic such as the solar system with an historical approach, students would see that science is a ongoing process and realize that what we know now is not the end of the line. There are still many discoveries to be made, and understanding the past can guide us towards understanding the present and perhaps more importantly, the future.

Exploring the past helps us to understand how we got here, which in turn assists us in comprehending where we’re at in the big picture of Earth’s history, and can ultimately help to direct us to where we’re going. I think that this historical approach can be used effectively in any subject, from Math and Science to Art and PE.

The McLuhan Connection

One thing I recently discovered is that Postman was good friends with perhaps the most well-known media theorist, and cultural critic of all time, the man Wired magazine named its ‘patron saint’, Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan was a Canadian educator, philosopher, and media critic. He was perhaps most famous for coining the phrase “the medium is the message”, in attempting to explain the influence that our media have on us. I’m just recently discovering McLuhan’s writings, and am eager to get reading them. I recently had some good finds at used book store, picking up McLuhan’s most well-known book, 1964’s Understanding Media (for $4.50!) and Donald Theall’s analysis/biography, The Virtual Marshall McLuhan. And the new Vancouver Public Library site has lead me to The Gutenberg Galaxy and Douglas Coupland’s biography of McLuhan. Hopefully I can find some time to read them during my practicum.

Is this what learning should look like?

Villemard's 1910 prediction of schools in the year 2000. Yeah, mash those books up!

In the year 2000, every classroom will have a giant blender. It’s a smoothie machine for learning, if you will. But the ingredients aren’t fruits, they’re books! Throw some books in this magical blending machine, and the knowledge is fit to be pumped out, travel through pipes, and enter the minds of school children.

This picture comes from a collection of illustrations from a French artist named Villemard, showing the year 2000 as he envisioned it in 1910.

I’m sure Ray Kurzweil has made a similar prediction actually, but it would look more like this:

Will we have computer chips in our brains one day? Who knows? But it sure is fun (and scary) to think about. I think that some talented artist should make an update to Villemard’s collection, with images predicting what the year 2100 will look like. Too bad I’m not a talented artist.

Thanks to @strombo for the link.

“Public education does not serve a public. It creates a public.” – Neil Postman, in The End of Education.

What’s the point of school? Why do we educate our youth? Postman explores these questions and much, much more in his thought-provoking look at our systems of learning, in the cleverly titled The End of Education (1995). The title certainly implies a double-meaning, but leans much more heavily towards the use of the word “end” as a goal, rather than a conclusion. In analyzing why we teach, Postman suggests five narratives that educators may use “to provide an end – that is, a purpose – to schooling.” Postman points out that we all have narratives in our lives, whether they’re religious, scientific, or something else altogether. He clarifies: “By narrative, I mean a story of human history that gives meaning to the past, explains the present, and provides guidance for the future.” The narratives (each of which is given its own chapter) he suggests are:

  1. The Spaceship Earth – “The story of human beings as stewards of the Earth, caretakers of a vulnerable space capsule.” As an astronomy major, this chapter was particularly interesting to me, as Postman describes astronomy as “the subject that most explicitly depicts our planet as a spaceship, and its study inevitably raises fundamental questions about ourselves and our mission.” In thinking of the Earth as a spaceship in a vast universe, Postman argues that archaeology, anthropology, and astronomy should be stressed in our curriculums, as we attempt to better understand our spaceship’s past, its crew, and its relative role in the grand picture of the cosmos.
  2. The Fallen Angel – A religious metaphor explains that as humans, we make mistakes, but we are entirely capable of correcting them. Teachers should be encouraging students to find mistakes – in the teacher’s words, the textbook’s writings, any voice of authority – and analyze them through discussion. This narrative goes on to suggest some radical ideas, such as getting rid of all the textbooks in order to make the subjects less boring, and express more human personality through the passions of the educators. In fact, Postman goes on to describe textbooks as “enemies of education, instruments for promoting dogmatism and trivial learning.” This narrative looks at education as a Great Conversation, and good conversations need to have more than one voice.
  3. The American Experiment – The idea that education is an experiment, “a perpetual and fascinating question mark” and that we should seek to “provide our youth with the knowledge and  will to participate in the great experiment”, that is, to teach them how to argue, how to question, and how to critically analyze those questions.
  4. The Law of Diversity – This narrative invokes the Second Law of Thermodynamics (which states, in its most basic form, that all of the energy and matter in the universe tends to ‘sameness’ as entropy increases) in that Postman contends that we must fight the effects of entropy and celebrate diversity. Postman demonstrates “how the vitality and creativity of humanity depends on diversity”, that we grow as humans through the “intermingling of different ideas”, and ultimately that the law of diversity “makes intelligent humans of us all.”
  5. The Word Weavers/World Makers – This last narrative is based on the notion “that we use language to create the world” and our ability to speak is part of what makes us human. We have continued to transform the world through language with the use of “surrogate languages” such as writing, printing, photography, radio, television and the computer – tools which have “transformed the world – sliced it, framed it, enlarged it, diminished it.”

Postman’s writings have made me acutely aware of the importance of the narratives which educators subscribe to, and how these are portrayed in the classroom.

Do we live in a society dominated by technology?

In Technopoly (1992), one of Postman’s earlier books, the prolific author makes the compelling argument that throughout human history, our technologies have increasingly dehumanized us, as each new technology “increases the available supply of information.” As we struggle to cope with the new influx of information, we use “control mechanisms that are themselves technical”, thus extending the supply of information. It appears to be an exponentially increasing spiral we cannot escape from. Postman’s cautionary advice in a world that functions as a Technopoly is to be aware of our technologies, and understand their histories, for “Without defences, people have no way of finding meaning in their experiences, lose their capacity to remember, and have difficulty imagining reasonable futures.”

One of Postman’s most powerful suggestions is that education should focus on each subject through a historical lens. Too often, we teach about the present without any mention of the past; we jump into math and physics problems without realizing where the formulas and concepts are derived from. Instead, by teaching each subject through the lens of history, we can give our youth “a sense of coherence in their studies, a sense of purpose, meaning, and interconnectedness in what they learn.” If we subscribe to the belief that “human’s destiny is the discovery of knowledge” (as Jacob Bronowski suggests in the Ascent of Man), then this historical approach will help immensely in our understanding of the world we live in. Teaching every subject as history will help students to begin to understand “that knowledge is not a fixed thing but a stage in human development, with a past and a future.”

I’ve long held this belief about the need for stressing the history of each subject, and it felt great to hear it from a well-articulated voice such as Postman’s. Too often I’ve seen students question why they need to learn something, or they lose sight of the context of the questions they are asked to solve. By providing a look at the bigger picture, through the teaching of our subjects through historical perspectives, we are better able to grasp the nature of what is being asked of us. I think that students too often see school as something they need to do as a pre-requisite for the ‘real world’, and in doing so, lose sight of the beauty of learning for the sake of learning. People often come to this realization long after they have left public school, and then express frustration that they got so little out of their 12 years in the system. Perhaps my view is naive, and an historical approach will not solve anything at all. I will however, attempt to give it a try, sprinkling in a dash of historical perspective to my lessons whenever I can.

In our Social Studies class (EDCP 331), we had a guest speaker from the Critical Thinking Consortium give a talk about how to embed critical thinking into our Social Studies lessons. I think that this is increasingly important in a digital age where information is at our fingertips; where Google and Wikipedia are the new fountains of knowledge. The guest speaker, Roland Case, broke down the types of questions we can ask into three levels:

Level 1: Basic rote questions – Look up the fact and write down the answer. (eg. When was the original Super Mario Bros video game released?)

Level 2: Opinion questions – Give a response that’s about how you feel. (eg. What is your favourite videogame?)

Level 3: Powerful questions – Forces the responder to judge the merits of possible answers in light of criteria. (eg. Should children be allowed to play videogames?)

Case suggests that powerful questions can be asked and answered by students of any age; they just need to be taught how to do so. It’s the level 3 questions that really get the students talking, and it’s when the talking starts that the learning actually starts to happen. Most people can’t learn by simply sitting and listening.

The Relativity of Wrong

This talk reminded me a lot of a 1988 Isaac Asimov essay I read recently called The Relativity of Wrong, in which Asimov discusses the spectrum of “right and wrong”.

The essay is found in a book of the same title.

He argues that there are degrees of being right or wrong, and uses a child being asked to spell the word sugar as one example. If the child spelled it “pqzzf” we would say that he or she is more wrong than if it had been spelled “shuger”. “Shuger” is incorrect, but it’s more right than “pqzzf”. Further, a really bright student might write “sucrose” or even “C12H22O11“. How would a teacher grade that?

Asimov’s essay is fascinating and touches on many aspects of learning which are much less trivial than the spelling of the word sugar. Hundreds of years ago, people thought the world was flat, and it turns out they were wrong. Then people said the world was a sphere, which is almost right. But in actuality the world is not so perfectly round, with its deep valleys and grand mountains. So to say the world is round is more right than saying the world is flat, but it’s still not entirely correct. In Physics, we’ve seen this type of progression transpire countless times. For instance, Newton’s formulas have stood the test of time and work well on the macroscopic level, but in the 20th century our physicists have discovered the alarmingly strange world of quantum mechanics, which makes Newton’s laws look a little bit less correct than before. As humans, we’re always building on the ideas and knowledge of our ancestors, trying to come up with ideas that are more right than the ones before them. It’s a continuing process with seemingly no end, and ultimately I think it’s what drives us as human beings.

What does this have to do with teaching?

Roland Case’s talk got me thinking about the types of questions we ask our students. We bore them to death with facts and dates which they will not remember the day after the test, and which they can simply look up with their iPhones anyway. That’s not to say that all Level 1 questions are bad questions, but we should definitely be putting some thought into how we are asking our students to understand the curriculum’s content.

Level 1 questions involve right and wrong answers. You either know it or you don’t, and if you don’t, you can use the wonderful world of the Internet to look it up. Level 3 questions  require you to judge the merits of possible outcomes in light of criteria. There are many possible answers, some of which may be better or more advanced in their scope. Level 1 is Trivial Pursuit, and Level 3 is Scattergories.

I think that as you move from Level 1 to Level 3 questions, there is a large increase in the number of possible answers to the questions, and this contributes heavily to the power of Level 3 questions. For example, in a simple Level 1 question such as, “In what year did World War II end?” there is basically one right answer: 1945. One might argue that there are a few other possible answers if you were using a different calendar, but for the most part, there’s one right answer, and everything else is wrong. Conversely, in a Level 3 question such as, “Explain how the world would we different if the Germans had won World War II” there are many possible answers, and not a whole lot of wrong answers. Who’s to say if it’s wrong? As long as the response is reasoned, logical and/or well articulated, it should be awarded full marks.

It is these Level 3 questions, with their infinite amount of possible answers, which make the most powerful questions. Why is that? I would argue that it’s due to the nature of who we are. As humans, we like to socialize, and what is more social than debating and inquiring through conversation? Level 3 questions encourage people to defend their answers and analyze their thoughts against a criteria. These types of questions encourage conversation and deliberation. You actually have to think to answer them.

I really enjoyed this talk from Roland Case and it will definitely influence me in my long practicum as I design lesson plans for teaching the Renaissance to middle schoolers.

This New York Times cover story has inspired quite the debate. What effect is social media having on students? Are they too distracted by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and text messages to focus on their homework?

Don Tapscott, the author of Growing Up Digital and Grown Up Digital, had this rebuttal on the Huffington Post.

I think that this is a really interesting discussion, and from reading the comments on some of those sites, I see that it’s quite a polarized debate. We’re living at an incredibly interesting point in history, as our society shifts from a world of atoms to a world of bits. Everything seems to be going digital, and while there are obvious benefits to this digital revolution, there are also some serious limitations and potential pitfalls that we have to be careful of.

When we browse the Internet, opening tab after tab, are we really focusing on anything of any substance anymore? How does this fragmented and disjointed flow of information affect us? Do you know many people under the age of 30 who can sit down and read a book for two uninterrupted hours?

I’m about to start reading Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, which he adapted from his thought-provoking Atlantic article Is Google Making Us Stupid?

I just read the very optimistic Macrowikinomics recently, so I’m curious to see how these books compare. Tapscott and Williams mention Carr’s book near the end of Macrowikinomics, and agree that it raises some good points.

“Instead of focusing on the teacher, the education system should focus on the student.

Instead of lecturing, teachers should interact with students and help them discover for themselves.

Instead of isolating students, the schools should encourage them to collaborate.”

Don Tapscott, author of Grown Up Digital, on the education system.

This book analyzes the Net Generation, those who have grown up with the Internet as a daily part of their lives. I just finished reading Chapter 5: The Net Generation as Learners, and it’s really interesting to me, as somebody who has been tutoring high school math and science for the past year and a half. There are a number of great quotes in this chapter, including this one from a college president named Jeffrey Bannister about the state of his professor’s technological advancements in the classroom:

“We’ve got a bunch of professors reading from handwritten notes, writing on blackboards, and the students are writing down what they say. This is a pre-Gutenberg model – the printing press is not even an important part of the learing paradigm. Wait til students who are 14 and have grown up learning on the Net hit the [college] classrooms – sparks are going to fly!”

Some of the kids who are in middle school right now have had daily access to the Internet since the day they were born (or could type). These students’ brains have developed in a digital world, and the way they function is different than a boomer, for example. Tapscott often compares Net Geners and boomers, and how differently they have grown up. Today’s student grows up with a Facebook profile, an iTunes account, Youtube and the instant answers of Google. A boomer grew up with the neighbourhood kids, Leave it to Beaver on one of four TV channels, and the daily newspaper. Things are different.

Tapscott calls for a shift from individual to collaborative learning, but notes that this is a tough approach to sell to traditionalists. He tells the story of Chris Avenir, a first-year engineering student at Toronto’s Ryerson University, who set up a Facebook group called Dungeons/Mastering Chemistry. The group gained 147 students as members, and shared tips on how to solve the assignments that were worth just 10% of their grade. When the teacher found out, he was outraged, and the school nearly expelled Chris, but due to protests, he was allowed to stay. He did get zero on his homework assignments though.

I think this story is ridiculous, and shows how far off some professors and/or schools are. We learn by working with each other, and in the real world, every test is open book and subject to collaboration. Why isolate people in this digital age of information? Let them collaborate on assignments. Is there really anything wrong with 147 students discussing a particular assignment? Would it be okay if they discussed it in person? Did the act of making the discussions public and in text form make it wrong?

This reminds me a lot of the story about Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, who had a similar incident during his university career at Harvard. As the story goes, Zuckerberg had an art history exam coming up, and because he had been so busy building a little website called Facebook, he had forgotten to go to class. So he did what any computer geek would do: he set up a website that contained all the pieces of art that would be covered on his exam. He left spaces for other students to leave comments, and in a few days, he had a website that was filled with comments and discussions about the pieces of art that would be on the upcoming exam. Zuckerberg studied the website and aced the test. When the professor found out, he was (according to Zuckerberg) “really pleased”, and also noted that the entire class did better than normal, perhaps due to the online collaboration.

I personally think that approaches such as Zuckerberg’s and Avenir’s are certainly the ways of the future in education, and it’s up to educators to not only accept, but also embrace and encourage the change.