Monday, July 6, 2015

Tyrannosaurus Dan

I am a dinosaur. Not the kind that makes it into movies, or into Far Side cartoons. I'm just the kind that refuses to change because change leads to things like extinction level events and the rise of mice as the dominant species. And mice, though cute, are not nearly as cool as dinosaurs.

I'm especially a dinosaur in the classroom. Now, please understand -- I'm no Azendohsaurus or even a Mussaurus. That'd be crazy. I am much more a Chinshakiangosaurus or maybe even an Ampelosaurus. [note, though probably lost on everyone but the 10 year old boys who follow my blog hoping for dinosaur references, my point is that I am not an early dinosaur, but a later one, reflecting some allowance of change and adaptation but still afraid of big rocks falling from the sky] I still enjoy school bells, I still take attendance, and often present material. I give all sorts of assessments and try to encourage my students to explore in the classroom. I'm a teacher. Sometimes a facilitator, sometimes a mediator, even occasionally an observer, but always a teacher.

The issue of technology, therefore, is one with which I have had to wrestle. How much can a dinosaur embrace change in the classroom and still be a dinosaur and not some psammobiid bivalve? I know, right? So I have, indeed, adopted certain methods. I have a laptop in the room with a projector and a Smart Board (TM, no doubt). Students use computers to take notes, write essays, watch the NCAA March Madness games and shop for sneakers during class. I post homework on a website, along with salient complementary material and messages to students, and I keep an online calendar with due dates and test times. But I am still the teacher. Yes, whenever I say something, students double check my facts and then shoot more back at me. Yes, when I teach something in print, it is helpful to present audio, video and crowdsourced background to the masses so that they can ignore the text in a variety of ways. But I am the teacher.

So what's my job, that I hold on to the title so dearly? I try to effect learning. That's not so easy sometimes, and when I get it right, it feels great. So when new pedagogical models are presented I assess whether, simply put, they stand a better chance of accomplishing effected learning than I would (not than I do, just than I would).

I have written about bits and pieces of this in the past (and will resist the temptation to link to earlier can look for them; trust me, they are there) but some new issues popped into my mind. Let me start off by copying over something I posted on someone else's blog about tech in education (I will delete the parts not relevant, but trust me, they were awesome):

Learning is what it has always been — a combination of various orders of thinking to acquire facts and skills and the sense to know when and how to use or not use those facts and skills. It is impacted by interest, relevance, utility and necessity. It does not need technology to be effected. And if it is still within a system of established curriculum, standardized testing and a higher education model which seems to be working (and which parents want their children to continue in) a divergent and disruptive approach seems like so much curmudgeonly narcissism...[G]ood teaching is good teaching, and, we hope, what might inspire some measure of learning (which is, ultimately, out of our control).

Learning is about building knowledge. It is about making memorization stick and mean something. It is about turning recall into application. It is a complex process which can be shepherded through the active process of teaching. Sure it can happen without a guide especially when one of the other motivators is present, but it cannot be checked against an established norm that way. Formative assessments (formal and informal) give the teacher the ability to provide the proper guidance.

One things which therefore is not so necessary is the frontal lecture. Reciting a fixed text so that students swallow it and can spit it back is not, in and of itself, about learning. It is all about teaching, regardless of outcome on any level beyond the lowest regurgitation. Which is gross. Because I am, as I speak with my class, constantly assessing the learning via body language, responsiveness, questioning and eye contact among other things, my content is always changing. Handing the reins over to a canned lecture available online (via Khan Academy, or even a lecture which I create for my class) is still subjecting students to that lecture without the benefit of dynamic spontaneity which makes my classroom a classroom. Flipped classrooms miss out on what turns teaching into learning. Their pedagogy is no different from assigning students to read from a textbook -- no questions, no explanation, and no one making sure that the student isn't actually asleep. A computer and a teacher can teach a rule, but a computer can't figure out when it is proper, appropriate or necessary to break the rule. When I walk around through my classroom and discuss literature, I am performing 25 different classes/videos at the same time, each one changing depending on the background, momentary needs and environmental exigencies of each student and the class as a whole which cannot be predicted. That's what good teaching is.

So technology cannot replace the teacher in the class (and the bedroom/livingroom/other place cannot replace the classroom), but then what is the power of technology in terms of access to facts? Technology does present facts to students -- anything all the time. Anything. Right or wrong. Unlike students 100 years ago, our students can get misinformation, or incomplete knowledge 24/7. What a joy. Who vets the data? Who selects the data which will be useful for the class discussion the next day or two weeks later? Who selects facts which reflect a tangent the class went yesterday? Who changes the data set midstream if the student interest moves in a different direction? That's what good teaching is. Students have had access to myriad facts for a long time. We called the repositories "textbooks" or "encyclopedias". A student could go home and open a book up to a topic the teacher said he was going to cover, read the entry and all related entries and know pretty much nothing and everything at the same time. The good teacher, knowing that drinking from the fire hydrant is a bad idea, doesn't hand agency over to the technology. Do we just let the outside source be the teacher? English teachers wouldn't have to assign books, just Cliffs Notes and let them present the plot, the symbols and the characters, present suggestions for discussion, and then assign an essay. Done. The good teacher knows that a video, a -pedia entry and any thing else can't watch for signs of thinking. Yes, a website can have a quiz that can change based on right/wrong answers but it cannot watch to see the student's eyes and get a sense of comprehension; it can't know the student's mind. The good teacher can.

I think that one important notion can be imported from Jewish law. In many cases in Judaism, a person who has an obligation to perform a commandment can be exempted when another performs the action, and keeps the first person in mind. This can happen, though, when the one actually performing the action has the same obligation. Somehow, this imports a sense of empathy and a connection, bilaterally. In the same way, the most effective teacher is the one who can understand how a student learns because he had to go through the same process, himself. A person who knows his material intuitively and naturally might make a bad teacher if he cannot understand that students struggle with what he thinks is easy. He cannot break it down and re-present it in a way which will accommodate different modes of learning because he "got it" automatically. The internet is that person. It never had to learn. It just knows, so it cannot bring about learning in others unless its single more of presentation happens to resonate at a particular moment with a specific student. Very often, the most successful websites in terms of 'teaching' are the ones programmed by people who had trouble learning so the programmers/writers can infuse one dimension of empathy, anticipating a limited range of difficulties. But it still pales in comparison with a teacher or teachers who can know each student and respond in kind. In a sense, this is why taking a class in a Jewish school, and studying Talmudic texts is often called "learning with a rabbi" not "learning from a rabbi." The rabbi is an active learner at that moment also. The experience of discovery and enlightenment happens to all participants.

I was asked if I thought that the internet (and its ilk) is the biggest change in education since the printing press. I don't know -- I think that each has advantages. When the entire Talmud was printed up, it didn't mean everyone had a full copy. And when everyone had a copy, it didn't mean that people suddenly knew everything or could open it up to get the answers quickly, and on their own. If you plop a student down in a medical library, he won't find his way out after 3 years having become a doctor and yet all the data are right there for the taking. You can't drop someone off in the middle of a library and say "study what you like" and expect him to be a well rounded person able to exist with others after 4 years. You can't drop someone off in the middle of Rome and expect that after 4 years, he will be a scholar of Roman history.

Teaching isn't learning. Doing isn't learning. Watching isn't learning. Learning is a guided tour with plenty of stops along the way and effective teaching is being an active tour guide who knows when to present and when to shut up, based on insight into each person in the tour.

So, sure, I am willing to go as far as becoming a Lophorhothon and maybe, maybe, someday, be a Nimravid but this dinosaur doesn't see any computer being able to guide that tour just yet.

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