Thursday, September 15, 2011

Does Education Need a Digital-Age Upgrade?

Virginia Heffernan provides an article in The New York Times that answers the question in the title with an enthusiastic "Yes!" Her thoughts on the matter seem to be derived from the work of Cathy N. Davidson who has written a book: Now You See It
Davidson believes that the classroom structure of the past is inappropriate for the age in which we are living.

"The contemporary American classroom, with its grades and deference to the clock, is an inheritance from the late 19th century. During that period of titanic change, machines suddenly needed to run on time. Individual workers needed to willingly perform discrete operations as opposed to whole jobs. The industrial-era classroom, as a training ground for future factory workers, was retooled to teach tasks, obedience, hierarchy and schedules."

Davidson appears to be open to almost any other approach to teaching on the assumption that it would have to be better than the one we inherited. She shares this view with us:

"A classroom suited to today’s students should deemphasize solitary piecework. It should facilitate the kind of collaboration that helps individuals compensate for their blindnesses, instead of cultivating them. That classroom needs new ways of measuring progress, tailored to digital times — rather than to the industrial age or to some artsy utopia where everyone gets an Awesome for effort."

The direction in which Davidson would like us to move becomes clearer with this revelation.

"Ms. Davidson herself was appalled not long ago when her students at Duke, who produced witty and incisive blogs for their peers, turned in disgraceful, unpublishable term papers. But instead of simply carping about students with colleagues in the great faculty-lounge tradition, Ms. Davidson questioned the whole form of the research paper. ‘What if bad writing is a product of the form of writing required in school — the term paper — and not necessarily intrinsic to a student’s natural writing style or thought process?’ She adds: "What if "research paper" is a category that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledygook’?"

Davidson seems to be saying the students do a good job when they are performing a task that is fun and easy, but when you ask them to do something hard, they fail—therefore we should stop asking them to do hard things? A research paper requires that one assemble a set of facts and assumptions into a coherent form that can be used to support a conclusion. The content of the paper must present a sustainable argument that will be convincing to the reader—a reader who is generally not a peer. If the student cannot write a coherent paper on a topic then he/she doesn’t understand the topic. She suggests the form invites "gobbledygook." If gobbledygook is what is turned in then blame it on the teachers not the form.

This suggestion that discipline in writing is somehow out of step with the "digital-age" segues to my major complaint with her outlook: the notion that "solitary piecework" should be deemphasized. Learning is a solitary exercise. You can introduce a subject to a student in a classroom setting, or in a small seminar setting, but the student has to go away and work with it over and over in order for the knowledge to be imprinted and become part of who he/she is. That is how math and science are learned. The language equivalent is the writing of the essay, or term paper, or research paper. If you cannot write a convincing essay on a topic, you do not understand the topic; if you cannot write a comprehendible essay on a topic, you, in addition, do not understand your language.

We should not forget that the ultimate aim of education is to learn how to learn—by definition, I maintain, a solitary process.

Davidson seems to suggest that group activities in schools are more consistent with the workplace of the future when, presumably, people will sit around and brainstorm all day. Such sessions are useful up to a point, but they are not the equivalent of a focused, concentrating individual.

Having spent a lot of time working in groups, I came to cherish a poster I stumbled across. It had the heading "Groups: No one of us is as dumb as all of us."

No comments:

Post a Comment

Lets Talk Books And Politics - Blogged