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Tag Archives: neil postman

On Saturday, I attended my first ever Ed Camp at Garibaldi Secondary School in Maple Ridge. Ed Camps are often called un-conferences, in that they are similar to the more traditional professional development conferences teachers have attended for years, but have a less rigid agenda and are much more user-driven. The agenda is decided upon on the day of the event, and as far as I know, anyone can present or facilitate a discussion if they have a good idea. Think of it as a crowdsourced professional development day. For an overview of the process, watch this short video, and read a more thorough description of the day’s events here, on presenter Tyler Suzuki Nelson’s blog.

Rather than rehash all of the events of #edcampfv (as it was referred to on Twitter), I’d like to post some thoughts I had in response to the discussion facilitated by Tyler concerning the issue of Knowledge vs Skills.

Loosely put, the Knowledge vs Skills debate concerns the issue of how much emphasis educators put on the content to be learned in comparison to the process and skills required to learn that content. During the one-hour session, there was some debate as to how we define knowledge, as well as what we actually mean by skills. In my opinion, the two are not at all mutually exclusive, and shouldn’t really be pitted against each other from opposite ends of the spectrum. For aren’t skills often just acquired knowledge of how to do something? If you’re a student and your teacher teaches a lesson on the basic Trigonometry functions (Sine, Cosine, and Tangent), and then stays after school to show you how to use your calculator’s SIN, COS, and TAN buttons, are you acquiring knowledge of the trig functions, skills to compute them, or a little bit of both? I understand the need to differentiate between knowledge and skills, and it certainly makes for an interesting discussion, but I don’t think it’s as black and white as many seem to imply. Like most seemingly black-and-white distinctions in life, it turns out there’s much more grey.

Knowledge is more than just a book or two.

In the digital age, the grey area of the definitions and uses of knowledge, memory, and intellect is more murky than ever. Countless times I’ve heard from students, colleagues and friends alike, “If I can Google it, why should I memorize it?” and while as a smartphone early adopter and Android fan I can relate, I worry about the dangerously slippery slope this may lead us down. If all of our memories become externalized, what will our brains be good for? I’m not exactly worried about this generation or even the next (okay, maybe I am a little bit), but thinking slightly longer term and wondering what the Googles, Wikipedias, and Twitters mean for our long-term futures, centuries down the road. Keep in mind that Google, Wikipedia, and Twitter are just 13, 11, and 5 years old, respectively.

I think we need to be aware that knowledge is more of a process, and not just a thing. Sure, we can Google anything we want and find answers, but do we really understand where it came from or what it means? Simply equating knowledge with facts removes the process and history of the accumulation of knowledge from the equation, ignoring the shoulders of giants we’ve slowly been building upon. In The End of Education, Neil Postman calls this history of learning and knowledge the Great Conversation, illustrating the importance of tapping into the dialogue by quoting Cicero (p. 124): “To remain ignorant of things that happened before you is to remain a child… What is a human life worth unless it is incorporated into the lives of one’s ancestors and set in a historical context?”

I think that by relying on the instant information of the digital age, we run the risk of losing much of the process that our ancestors have developed in refining and acquiring knowledge. We need to be careful not to equate information, which is little more than a message comprised of symbols, with knowledge, which is much more all-encompassing and ultimately more valuable.

Postman goes on to explain the importance of the process of education and the evolution of knowledge, and why we must acknowledge the role our ancestors played in its accumulation and development:

“When we incorporate the lives of our ancestors in our education, we discover that some of them were great error-makers, some great error-correctors, some both. And in discovering this, we accomplish three things. First, we help students to see that knowledge is a stage in human development, with a past and a future. Second, we acquaint students with the people and ideas that comprise “cultural literacy”—that is to say, give them some understanding of where their ideas come from and how we came by them. And third, we show them that error is no disgrace, that it is the agency through which we increase understanding.”

In a digital age, if students are taught that knowledge is what Google tells them it is, where’s the room for error? Are we aware of where the knowledge—or more aptly—the information, came from?

The book's cover (left), and two pages expressing the idea that "We look at the present through a rear-view mirror."

In the past month, I’ve stumbled across a couple of great finds at Pulp Fiction books on Main Street. First, I found Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage (1967), which is the more accessible follow-up to his landmark book, 1964’s Understanding Media. The Medium is the Massage is unique in that there is very little text in comparison to graphics.It was co-created with graphic designer Quentin Fiore, and it’s a pleasure to hold in your hands and flip through the pages. It dawned on me that this book simply could not work as an e-book, and that the physical nature of the pages was every bit as important as the text and graphics scattered throughout.

A couple of weeks later I found Douglas Coupland’s Souvenir of Canada 2, which, like McLuhan’s Massage, is dominated by graphics rather than text.

The cover and a few pages of Coupland's Souvenir of Canada 2.

I’d estimate that both books’ pages are comprised of about 20% text, and 80% graphics or white space. Coupland’s collection of Canadian artifacts is humorous, simple, and understated. It’s the kind of book you leave on your coffee table, to have your friends and family mull over the images of Nanaimo Bars, hockey sticks, and a hunter’s workbench.

If we all shift to reading e-books, will anyone leave books on their coffee tables anymore? The book’s charm lies partly in its physical nature, and its mostly white cover with the Canadian goose begs for it to be picked up and skimmed through. Can you skim through an e-book? Could this book even exist as an e-book? Would anyone want to publish it? Would anyone want to read it?

Perhaps authors and publishers are well on their way to figuring out how to make unique graphic-heavy books come to life electronically. The next generation of tablets looks promising, and I’ve seen children’s picture books look incredible on an iPad, complete with crisp graphics and even animations. Who knows what the future of reading looks like? History has shown us that media is full of surprises.

Sure, we’re getting great new mediums to tell stories, but a part of me is wondering what we’re giving up in the process. Neil Postman, a friend and advocate of Marshall McLuhan, built upon many of McLuhan’s ideas in his countless books, essays, and lectures. He noted that when new mediums take over, “the result is not the old culture plus the new medium, but a new culture altogether.” What is our new culture of reading going to look like? Are books still extensions of the eye, something more, or something less?


Four consecutive pages from McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage.

“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.

“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.