Saturday, April 16, 2011

rethinking educational paradigms

I argued in a thread at Dr. Hodges's site that lecturing is the worst teaching method out there. Despite some polite disagreement from another commenter, I stand by my original contention. Perhaps the two worst things you can do as an educator are (1) lecture, and (2) give multiple-choice quizzes and tests. These are the marks of someone uninterested in the actual state of his students' progress. Lecturing may be a great way to disseminate information to many people at the same time, and it may also require a certain measure of "active listening" to be of benefit to the student (or audience member: I tend to think of lectures more as performances than as actual teaching), but in the end, it demands little of students. To my mind, it encourages passivity: mental passivity among the lazier students, who will make a show of taking notes; and a sort of emotional passivity that occurs when students realize they won't be called out to demonstrate they've been paying attention.

That said, I do think the traditional classroom-- i.e., a teacher in a room with a bunch of students-- still has a place in modern education. Other, more "forward"-thinking people, however, believe it's time to let go of the traditional model in favor of education systems that are more closely tailored to individual needs, and that often dispense with the traditional classroom format in favor of tech-heavy pedagogy that bridges long distances and allows students to explore and master topics at their own pace. I suspect that this movement is driven by the same basic impulse that makes us modern folk complain about having to attend staff meetings when an emailed memo will suffice: why force everyone together at a certain time to disseminate information that can be mass-distributed instantaneously and read at the recipient's leisure?

This article, "Gales of Creative Instruction," makes much the same point in discussing the panoply of educational options now available:

...suffice it to say that you and your iPod (or desktop) can listen to the smartest people in the world give interesting lectures on the most important topics for free, or you can pay lots of money to hear an inarticulate and resentful grad student ladle out early 1960s French intellectual fads in one of collegedom’s cavernous freshman lecture halls at a time of his, not your, convenience.

I find that I'm torn by this new vision of education's future. There are obvious advantages to a form of education unfettered by constraints like distance and the need to keep pace with one's classmates. But part of me resists the class-as-diaspora paradigm because it strips away some of the more pleasant social aspects of being together and learning, such as when students have the chance to push or inspire each other to achieve. It's easy for me to imagine a bleak scenario in which millions of students sit at home, learning joylessly at their own pace, corresponding with their teacher and classmates in a sporadic, nonlinear manner with the aid of technology. Distance learning is distant learning.

I also resist this vision of a brave new world because I feel there are many subjects that don't lend themselves easily to this sort of hyper-individualized instruction. Foreign language comes immediately to mind: no matter how "interactive" a programmed FL course may be, there's no substitute for speaking in the target language with fellow students, or receiving immediate feedback from the teacher. To date, no computer can track the shifting subtleties of human social interactions accurately enough to provide the same sort of feedback. Koreans believe they've invented a useful English-teaching robot that can replace human teachers; I seriously doubt it'll produce decent English-speakers. Moving on to other fields: can wood shop or lab sciences be taught in the super-personalized, do-it-at-home, Khan Academy style? I think not. How about theater and other performing arts? Even courses that might seem to lend themselves to this new vision of education, like history, turn out to be difficult to adapt to the new curriculum. What would a history course be, especially in its more advanced levels, without an environment of discussion in which to parse events and their meanings? How well can a student learn history from a set of videos without access to the professor's (and the classmates') on-the-spot insights?

The new paradigm also comes packaged with its own painful irony: for all its supposedly forward-thinking cachet, it still favors video lectures. I found myself thinking about TED talks recently. I admit I find them as fascinating as other people do, but it hasn't escaped my notice that these talks are almost all good old-fashioned lectures. Because they're lectures, they don't challenge me to retain them: there's no sense of immediacy or urgency that accompanies my viewing of an avant-garde thinker. I've probably watched around twenty TED talks, and would be hard-pressed to highlight five salient points from any of them.

Even Sir Ken Robinson, a man who has made a career out of insisting on massive paradigm shifts in education, delivers his messages in the antiquated form of lectures. We implicitly buy into this approach because of our predisposition toward passivity. To watch Sir Ken on YouTube or on the TED website is, essentially, to watch TV. Without a teacher there to prod your ass with a hot poker, I guarantee you won't remember much of these TED talks if I quiz you on them next month. Not even the compelling talks given by Sir Ken.

I'm also discomfited by the new paradigm because its advocates seem to think that it's time to do away with most teachers: just make a series of videos for a self-paced curriculum, and put them out for free, say the advocates. Teachers are, the argument goes, an over-unionized drag on the economy,* and as the above-quoted text contends, students are constrained to meet for class on the teacher's terms, not their own.

Oh, for a world with fewer teachers! How much more streamlined our education would be! Play the same series of videos over and over, year after year, and everything will be just fi-- what? The state of human knowledge is always changing? Good God, that means we have to update those videos, don't we? And we'll have to do it every year to reflect changes in various fields, such as law, medicine, history, biology, chemistry, physics, comparative literature, sociology, psychology, religious studies, foreign language, etc.? Heaven forfend! How will this be different from just having actual teachers instead of videos?

I'm not as much an enemy of lectures as I've made myself out to be. As I noted in that thread over at Dr. Hodges's blog, I have my own tendency to lecture (as I'm doing now, in a sense), and I do find many lectures compelling. But that doesn't mean I consider them good teaching. Actual teaching is more than lecturing: it's getting the student to participate in her own learning, to take ownership of her own future, and to stop acting as if she were a passive, empty vessel into which knowledge is poured. Lecturing doesn't demand much of students, who can do little else but sit, listen, and take notes while the lecture is going on. It's only after the lecture is over that any real engagement with the course material can take place, and to my mind, that's too late in the game. Active listeners certainly derive some small benefit from lectures, but as I mentioned above, even those astute folks would be hard-pressed to provide concrete answers were I to quiz them about a given lecture several weeks later. Without the urgency and immediacy of an interactive classroom, lectures accomplish little.

As an antiquated technique, lecture may still have some place in the classroom, but that place should be severely limited. In the meantime, the "forward"-thinking people who want to rescue the world from all those curmudgeonly, money-grubbing teachers should reconsider touting lecture as the wave of the future. Far from being a step forward, it's a big step backward. Student-centered, task-oriented activities are, in my opinion, the way to go. Real teaching doesn't just disseminate information: it promotes learning. For teachers, that means doing the tough work of checking student progress, challenging student insights, and pushing students ever forward. It means managing the classroom, allowing the students to work with each other, tolerating noise, and putting aside the desire to see a passive audience seated in neat rows. The fact that a lecture doesn't even have to be live to be considered a lecture is quite telling, don't you think?

*I actually agree with the "over-unionized" part, but if you think teachers' salaries are pulling the economy down-- because we all rake in millions, right?-- I want whatever you're smoking.



John from Daejeon said...

I don't know about millions, but $300,000 for one teacher not to teach is pretty disgusting for hard-working tax payers to stomach.

I'm with you about needing a flesh and blood teacher for certain job-related vocations which we need to focus more on, such as electricians, plumbers, repairmen of all sorts, nurses, etc., especially for those who aren't "book smart" and need something to fall back on or into on their life's journey. But can you imagine if you had the opportunity to progress at your own level back in the day as opposed to the current, slow 13-year group approach that still leaves many behind and hinders those that could cover years of material in just a few months? I know I am truly envious of my young nephew. He just started his first year at a tier one, top 50, university studying engineering and is already a junior thanks to AP testing. He is also saving his proud parents tens of thousands of dollars due to his bypassing a big part of an antiquated system.

SJHoneywell said...

"Distance learning is distant learning."

Hmm. I'm not so sure I agree. I teach both in a classroom and in an online environment. There are ways to make the online environment work as a classroom. The real key is not thinking of it as a traditional classroom, because it isn't one.

Students still need enagement. They need feedback. They need questions answered. They need to feel that there is a live, flesh-and-blood person on the other end of the keyboard. Spending time actually responding to students, holding office hours and chats, making sure that there are (to use the parlance) synchronous activities built into the structure--all of these allow for online student engagement.

Kevin Kim said...


I should have been clearer. I was actually thinking of the sorts of distance learning that don't involve real-time interaction with a teacher, e.g., message board forums, old-school "correspondence" courses, etc.

You make good points, and I agree with them. I'm hoping to do some online tutoring in that very spirit, actually.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the link, Kevin.

Jeffery Hodges

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Kevin Kim said...

Thanks for your fine blogging! And my thanks to Dario, as well, for his comments. I apologize if I sounded like a jerk in my responses to him. I hope I made clear that I do, in fact, enjoy sitting through interesting lectures; I simply can't see them as an effective teaching technique.

John from Daejeon said...

You never hear about great classroom teachers getting deals like this. I don't even know what to say about education in the U.S. after reading this.