practical teaching and learning

Saturday, January 22nd, 2005

I like this. The group is generating good spreads of discussion on games, teaching, learning, pedagogy, history, and new media essentials. Coonce-Ewing links to this article from W-M, Susan Gibb is digging into Silent Hill and Suttree (in my mind one of the great American novels next to Twain’s Huck Finn), and Professor Timmons is digging it too with this post.

As concerns the broad issue of learning, education in the United States supports different kinds of life narratives, the most fundamental being “I’m born, go to school, get a job, retire, and die” with a wide variety of variations. Along the way, I have a few choices to make and sometimes choices are made for me. I may be 15 and not know what I want to do when I grow up so I do what the friends do or take the advise of a wise councilor and become a lawyer. Education supports–and needs to support–the institutions of a given time and place. In the US we have a legal system that helps the country stay its course, thus some piece of the education pie must provide space for the instruction of lawyers and some space of the cultural pie must give them a place to operate. The space where the lawyer and the judge operate needs an architect and a carpenter and all of these people need some means of getting to their jobs and thus the cultural hypertext grows and grows and grows. Everything is connected.

Along the narrative, I might have an inclination to become a game programmer or a snowplow driver.

When we talk about education as a phenomenon, we need to talk context. The Great Lettuce Head tells me, though, that I need to watch out and take care. GLH says that everyone is a student of something. Perhaps there’s someone trying to learn to roll a joint. This is an act of learning. Or, perhaps this is a better example, a person needs to learn how to clean the carburator of their snowthrower in order to get the thing started. They could 1. read the manual 2. call the mechanic 3. watch someone else 4. approach the job by trial and error 5. use a shovel and fantasize about the wonders of technology in all its shapes and sizes. Some people would say that this kind of education is “training.” I could learn how to use photoshop and that would be the same as knowing how to work with machines. Some people know how to build the machine from scratch, though, and this kind of learning is “education,” the kind you have to pay big bucks for. Some people might claim that these two definitions are different. I don’t.

Context is important for almost everything. The education institution reflects the culture. In this view, systems are interpreted using metaphors of order, such as that of the body politic or the well-oiled machine. We need engineers so there’s a School of Engineering at the University. We need people to know Milton . . . oops, cut that one out. Or should we leave that example in? Anyway, when someone alters the system, say, proposes that we aren’t going to do homework anymore, other “react” to that change as an element of disorder, and disorder is bad. But is “order” realistic in the human context.

Of course, all of this is pretty macro and general because it doesn’t take into account other types of system disruptions, such as discovery and natural disaster. Education throughout human history has served many masters: prophets, kings, shamans, deans, fathers, gods, mothers, bullies, managers, politicians, theoreticians, students, and madpeople. In college, we see how programs evolve, fail, or just disappear. We see the thought process behind new courses and new hires. We see things change and we see things stay the same. We have seen the teacher who uses the same syllabus for thirty years and when called on it simply shrug off the critique as if they know best. We see the teacher in constant flux, that one over there with hair like wire and eyerims red as a fresh rash. We see fads come and go. We see reintroductions of ideas thought long dead.

I put approaches into two broad classes, both of use in context: “procedural education” and “improvisational education.” I don’t think these classes should be taken all that seriously, but I see a major conflict in education these days with how we deal with learning communities in spaces that are rigid and categorical. This doesn’t mean that nurses or lawyers shouldn’t be taught how do to do their important work in a rigorous “rote” based curriculum, since procedural and fact recall in these areas is critical. But it does mean that problem solving is becoming more and more necessary for more and more numbers of people. Malcolm McCullough in Digital Ground writes it this way

By now it is common knowledge how recombinant communities of knowledge workers remake older chains of command. The postindustrial conception of design has promoted a more interdisciplinary approach to the building of information technologies.

In particular, an emphasis on communities of knowledge has legitimized more emphasis on context . . . .This is because knowledge workers do not follow procedures so much as expertly play their contexts. Without an ability to improvise in context, people who are merely following official prescriptions are utterly lost as soon as they stray from known conditions . . . (150-51 italics mine; see original for notes)

Professor Timmons knows that this “improvisational approach” is inherent in games themselves, i.e., chess and, I would hazard to say, Milton reading, both in their development and in their contextual use, and much commentary on games in education is “about” this rich quality of solid hypermedia to involve complexity, surprise, and discovery at many levels.

How to teach Milton using the techniques, environments, and analytics of new media? Well, that’s a good question. Why teach Milton using blah blah blah? That’s another good question.When to teach Milton with blah, blah, blah?

Should I ask these questions or just freakout?


2 responses to “practical teaching and learning”

  1. susan says:

    Ask away. There is no doubt that education should be in a constant evolutionary state. After all, what is being taught is constantly changing: law, medicine, literature, geography, science, history, all of it either being added to or correcting formerly held tenets.

    I think that one of the most important things to be considered in changing teaching methods is that while someone asks, “why this, it doesnt work for everyone,” it must be considered that it does work for some, and so a broad change would help some, while putting others in the back row, a trading places of sorts. One of the things you said here, “They could 1. read the manual 2. call the mechanic 3. watch someone else 4. approach the job by trial and error 5. use a shovel and fantasize about the wonders of technology in all its shapes and sizes.” is an example. We all learn differently. I would say that while homework is boring or useless in some ways for some students, for others, it serves the purpose of #1, #4, and #5. It is learning by doing, which is one of the more common and best methods of learning with hopes of recall.

    Freak out if you’d like–sometimes that can be quite fun. But ask the questions anyway.

  2. Christopher says:

    I think that in an ideal world, each student would be able to identify what methods work for them and then be taught in that fashion. Those who learn better by reading would be encouraged to avoid lectures and read more. Those who are lecture driven would attend more and be assigned fewer texts.

    I myself am the kind of person who only looks at an instruction manual as an act of final desperation when I can’t figure something out for myself.

    How does one teacher offer these options (and more) to 25-30 students? Currently they don’t. Instead the lowest common denominator is chosen and that is how the class is taught (this is not done everywhere).

    I won’t have my education classes until the fall semester but I look forward to hearing how they teach the future teachers.