The Curious Behavior of People in Institutions

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

Again, the Connecticut Mirror has a report on the state of new rules in Connecticut education. It has a ring of the Keystone Cops. It’s really about how to do proper division. But as Neruda writes about in his poetry, what is proper is almost never understood

And so I left, keeping my silence.

That quote comes from Neruda’s poem Sobre Mi Mala Educacion. The article also illustration the friction that exists between administrators and teachers, whose aims are different.

Thomas’s piece is an interesting companion to this post by Marie Bjerede at O’Reilly on Do It Yourself culture in education, which, I would argue, is befuddling for lack of concreteness. Most people I know working with the Web are self taught. In the old days of Flash, most people learned Flash on their own. DIY is nothing new. In the absence of a school system, people learned what they needed to to get by. But getting by wasn’t that easy for the shoe maker or black smith. And my son wants to make a go-cart. We have an old lawnmower whose engine beckons. He’ll probably be watching lots of Youtube videos. I’ll be reading up on dangerous things that throw flames. DIY, writes Bjerede,

. . . puts us on the path to personalized learning. It weakens the requirement for students to learn together in lockstep, covering the same material at the same pace at the same time by listening to lectures in the same room and turning in the same homework on the same morning. It invites tinkering with different ways to break apart building blocks and put them back together while creating room for new building blocks to fit into those emerging structures.

This may be true. But a frequent critique of media types is the way people use them. We watch and listen to Sesame Street. We watch and listen to a lecture. Or I can watch and listen to an MIT lecturer at Open Course. I’m not quite seeing the difference yet.

Some subjects are best learned by doing them, practicing their known components. Poetry and programming share this characteristic. People have learned to write poetry for ages. People have learned to program for many years. If I sit in a room and listen to the teacher illustrate compositing, I have to take that info and objectify it myself. I have to do it. It’s another given of learning that “knowing something” is NOT a reference to someone else’s opinion on objects or of affective word order. Inside class Poem somewhere inside my Java interface I can call any number of already determined objects if they’re available, like a new stanza:

Stanza myFirstStanza = new Stanza();

We could change if we don’t like the way Java does it and go to Ruby or Python. The concepts travel, just as they do in poetry. DIY seems to be about assisting people learn what they are inclined to learn.

People will learn things for all kinds of reasons. Some people will learn a subject because they want to (very few people in my college experience wanted to learn Texas history); they enjoy learning and doing the thing they learned, even if it isn’t profitable (some people did want to learn Texas history. I say: GFT). Some people want to learn things that are profitable. People interested in learning will always try and figure out how to make a subject more accessible, to people who want to learn and to those who don’t. Currently, games are fashionable in education because they provide another means of access and on the assumption that games do teach. They can be used to trick people who don’t want to learn a thing into swallowing a superficial serving. Maybe. In my opinion, games teach critical intangibles, like how to lose and how to persist. A problem in any institutionalized program will always be how to learn if someone does indeed know what they should know, like brain surgery. Standardized tests can only approximate this but they can’t indicate motivation or the pull of an incentive. Connecticut’s obsession with these tests is cynical.

Institutions can be defined as big roomy places crowded with people who would rather be somewhere else. They could also be defined as big roomy places filled with people who do want to be there but are there for incredible or false reasons.

I’ll end with more Neruda:

Todos los que me daban consejos
están mas locos cada día.

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