Sunday, November 05, 2006

The fear of learning

Since my dissertation directly addresses teaching and learning with technology, I'm constantly thinking about what the implications are of teaching in news ways.  Will Richardson's post earlier this weekend got me thinking more about what I'm doing and what I think teaching and learning should be.  Will expressed some disgruntlement about the fact that people just don't get it, that the Internet--and specially tools like blogs and wikis and podcasts--are changing the way people learn.  Teachers, he thinks, should model what they're teaching. They should, in essence, learn right along with their students: blog with them, collaborate with them, etc. And I agree with that.  I expect my students to contribute as much as I do. I never go into a class with all the answers. I expect, as a class, for us to discover them together. I expect that we'll explore, together, other issues on our class blog. But I find it hard to convince students that this is an acceptable way to approach teaching. I sometimes think that they expect me to have the answers and while it's true that I am older and have more years of schooling than they do, they are extremely intelligent people with different points of view, different ways of seeing things, and much that they can bring to the table.

When I'm feeling that students aren't living up to my expectations, aren't contributing, aren't bringing new ideas to the table, I start to get fearful instead of frustrated. And then I often lapse into old methods of teaching, of just talking at them or something.  And this has definitely happened over the years and I think that it happens to a lot of people who have good intentions. I think at the college level, when we use new technologies that bring with them new methods of teaching and learning, we're learning along with our students and we're often having to convince our students that this is okay, that there is value to this, that, in fact, in may be more valuable.

Alex Reid, puts this a bit more succinctly, suggesting that most people see the point of education as determining who has authority, of imbuing our students with that authority, so that when they go home with their B.A's, they will be seen as having been filled with knowledge that grants that authority.  But, he says, new media and networks disrupt that sense of authority:

The ongoing development of media and networks requires us to keep moving. It doesn't mean that what we've learned has no value; it means that it cannot establish us as authorities. . . . I know public school teachers often cite the limitations of testing requirements as a roadblock to innovation. However I think the limitation is more fundamental than that, closer to their own sense of professional identity. As much as the tests may limit teachers, they also secure them within a defined space of authority.

digital digs: the threat of the network

Teachers and professors are seen as "experts," as people who have a certain kind of knowledge. If we take that away, if we say that that particular kind of authority no longer qualifies one as an expert, then what do you call yourself. What was all that education for? I would argue, however, that someone with a Ph.D. didn't just absorb a bunch of facts; they learned how to find facts and analyze them, to question them, to present their questions to others, to find and create new knowledge. It's not about the content; it's about the process. And that's what I try to focus on in most of my classes; it's what I try to convey when I talk to people about using new technology, about using blogs, wikis, Flickr,, etc. to make the process more visible, to help students learn how to learn, how to participate in a broader conversation instead of spitting out information on a test.

If K-12 environments are resistant to change, Alex points out that higher ed might be even worse. At least with public education, there could be a new administration that might enact some kind of sweeping change, but that rarely happens in higher education. However, in both cases, changes from the outside might force people to change. There's already, as Alex points out, a tension between higher ed and the "outside" world:

I mean the tension between academia and the mainstream culture is heavy enough as it is based strictly on ideological differences. What happens when academics continue to insist on providing an increasingly irrelevant education and charging more and more for the privilege?

digital digs: the threat of the network

I think Will and Alex are both right. There are shifts happening outside of educational institutions that those insitutions seem to be stubbornly ignoring.  I think that they ignore them because they're afraid to learn; they're afraid to model learning, as Will says, and they teach instead. I understand that feeling. It does feel a little scary to look vulnerable in front of your students, but imagine how much more vulnerable they feel in front of you. I think this is a difficult time to be a teacher. But it's also an exciting time, if one can embrace some new ways of doing things and have a willingness to learn. Isn't that why most of us got into this in the first place? Because we enjoy learning?

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