Three Things I’m Unlearning

How are my thoughts changing? Constantly, sometimes uncomfortably, but generally for the better, I hope.

Up until I became a teacher a few years ago, my views of knowledge, education – and by extension technology’s place in it –  were radically different. I think I amassed three or four erroneous “big ideas” about knowledge over the years which I’m even today trying to break free from. Fortunately I’ve been helped along my path of self-reeducation with the help of recent changes in tech which make my old “big ideas” even more obviously obsolete. Here are some of my biggest mental bugbears, in rough biographical order:

Oh, that Mr. Brainsley source:

The Fallacy of Total Recall

From elementary school on I always did pretty well on standardized tests, which I think encouraged me to take a certain point of view towards knowledge – that mental recall of large volumes of data, however obscure, is very important.

I think this fits with a certain old-school view of education that prioritized filling students with lists of facts. Being able to regurgitate a certain fact on command would mean that you had “learned” it. I think this might be similar to the idea of “cognitivism” as criticized by Siemens in this article. As anyone who’s familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy (revised or otherwise) knows, something that seemed like the Holy Grail to me in high school – memorizing enough vocabulary words to get a good score on the SAT – is really a pretty low-order cognitive task.

Now I try to focus more on overarching connections, concepts and analysis than trying to take in immense volumes of facts simply for their own sake, and I try to reflect this focus in my teaching.

Luckily for me, I think this shift in my own thinking has been pushed along immensely by the changes in tech over the past few decades. It’s increasingly clear, even to a trivia buff like me, that any cell phone can probably hold more facts than a person’s head these days, so brainpower should obviously be spent on “higher-order” tasks. Unless they’re stranded on a desert island, students in the future will be able to access collective knowledge any time, making the real task of education not memorizing facts but learning how to find, evaluate, connect and synthesize them.


The Futility of Hoard-Squatting

In college I studied literature and history. I think these studies encouraged me to unconsciously adopt yet another specific point of view towards knowledge – that knowledge is like a treasure that must be guarded. Literature and history are among the subjects that seem prone to lead to a kind of “Gatekeeper/Angry Librarian” mentality, producing experts obsessed with gathering, polishing, curating and above all retaining knowledge. In this view of things, professors, teachers and other experts should amass their hoards and squat menacingly on them.

Obviously, this model of the expert or teacher as gatekeeper of knowledge is becoming a thing of the past, and again it’s a shift that’s being helped along by technology. In this case it’s technology (like free e-books, wikis, translation software etc.) that takes the responsibility for safeguarding knowledge out of the hands of teachers and experts, and distributes it among the whole community.

I welcome the development, but since I went to school in the twilight era of teacher-experts, I think I do still sometimes struggle with my own mental concept of my role as teacher in this connected world, an open and shifting world of new types of connections and groupings which Siemens describes as “networks, small worlds, and weak ties.” 51EZXH604DL._BO2,204,203,200 PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_.jpg

The Folly of Rule-Following

After college I worked as an editor and proofreader, and I think that experience also encouraged me to adopt a certain point of view towards knowledge – that there are rules to proper communication.

For example, I was taught by at least half a dozen of my teachers to never use the word “I” in an essay. I sometimes find myself with the urge to tell this to students, then I remind myself that, while students should avoid excessive self-reference, that particular “rule”, as it was inflexibly taught to me, was pointless.

Again, tech has changed along with my thoughts, and advancements in things like auto-correct and the rise of new media and new forms of communication have helped me realize how petty some of these preoccupations were. In a parallel development, my amateur readings in linguistics have helped me realize that in most cases a prescriptive approach to the world is unhelpful. Any act of communication succeeds if it is successful in conveying its meaning to its audience. Everything else is irrelevant. Textspeak, abbreviated tweets, video clips, slangy facebook messages – these new, outside-the-rules, and constantly mutating forms of communication are as valid as any older and more established format, as long as they are communicating what the speaker wants to communicate.

The bigger lesson I take from these thoughts about language is that education in general should be flexible, open to change, responsive to alterations in the real world, relevant to students’ own lives, and always aware of the bigger picture. Nowhere in Bloom’s Taxonomy is the skill of “perfect spelling” or “never split an infinitive” praised, and I don’t want to be the kind of teacher who judges students’ work by meaningless and outdated rules just because it’s what I was taught in school. (But sometimes I still find myself telling someone that “I” doesn’t belong in an essay – so there’s still work to be done.)

10 thoughts on “Three Things I’m Unlearning

  1. I enjoyed reading your musings on fallacy, futility and folly. My immediate reaction to the first area to ‘unlearn’ was to think of how little I’ve retained of the rote learning and exam revision undertaken in my past schooling. Not so much ‘Total Recall’ as ‘Memento’…

    Your points regarding the Folly of Rule-Following made me grin. Certainly I agree that language in education should be flexible; one of the best things about my job as a language teacher is the daily exploration of new words and phrases. What’s key is both learning and teaching ways to adapt both language and register to the occasion. Rather than insisting on inflexible rules regardless of context, educators should empower students to make mature decisions about the words and phrases they use.

    I thoroughly recommend Julian Burnside’s book, ‘Word Watching’, which avoids a lecturing approach and instead delights in the adaptable nature of English. It includes a superb chapter on ‘New Words’ as well as slang. A talk Burnside made in relation to the book includes an anecdote on split infinitives (and grumpy lexicographers) from 4:30 – 5.25mins. (video at

    Postscript: I’ve been marking character studies this week which make minimal, yet effective use of the word ‘I’. An essay without some sense of a student’s personal response to a text is missing its soul, and often the use of ‘I’ is the simplest and most direct way of conveying this. Be a rule-breaker!

    1. Thanks for the comments and analyses! (By the way, did you notice the cute analogously-invented singular form for “X and Y axes” invented by the Australian students in Chris Betcher’s video earlier today? If more than one are “axes” [pronounced “axies”], one of them must necessarily be an “X axie”, right?) The single place I’ve read more sensible language writing than anywhere else over the past few years has been the Language Log , a blog manned (is that too sexist a term?) by people not afraid to tilt at sacred cows like Chomsky, the supposed evil of “passive” sentences, etc.

  2. I think I enjoy the ironic twist that most teachers probably became teachers because they had positive associations with teachers, having been duly praised by their earlier teachers for having performed well for said teachers. And of course, it now falls on us, who were successful under those taxonomically challenged pedagogies, to find ways to stare down our former successes, stick our necks out and try to reach out to those early peers of ours who spent so much time being exiled to the hall.

    Great post. Lots to think about.

    1. Nice formulation of what I think I was trying to get at! People who excel within the academic system of their day are quite possibly the worst people to oversee the academic system of the next generation. Oh well.

  3. I struggle with breaking rules in writing. I am way too attached to five paragraph essays and rules like avoid “I” and “you” and contractions. I think I’m really good at teaching that way, but they need to be taught others ways to communicate. I need to find new ways to teach writing in real world situations than is more than a vague instruction of write a blog posts.

    1. Agreed. I feel a bit overwhelmed at the idea of teaching the variety of techniques which are used in something like the Australian 12th grader’s video we saw earlier today. She’d obviously written something down, since she kept mentioning having prepared her response for 3 hours – but the urgency of her expression and the persuasive speech techniques she used made it seem SO far from an essay. The part of the video where she asked, “would this be the same if I wrote it down in an essay for a grade?” or whatever was quite powerful. And she didn’t even use music, animation, montage, lighting, poetic devices, or a bunch of other stuff that could probably be thrown into the mix. I guess in a multimedia world we have to teach our students to be not only persuasive writers, but also their own best PR person, drama coach, and speechwriter.

    2. Rebekah, I went and read your “Long Goodbye” post as well and you referenced the same struggle that I had while reading through this post. I’m teaching AP Literature for the first time this year. And every instance of “unlearning” that you’ve written here, Alex, is treasured by the AP College Board. To fully prepare students for the exam, I need to encourage copious amounts of memorization, the hoarding of knowledge, and THE RULES to writing an essay. And I’m struggling philosophically with this position. My desire is to balance these things with the love of being a lifelong learner…they won’t know it all by the end of this year but I pray that they’ll know enough to be successful on that exam that they (and their parents) see as the end-all, be-all.

  4. Alex,
    This post rocks. Your third point, in particular (The Folly of Rule-Following) resonates with me right now… and not just with regards to the personal pronoun. How does a classroom look and feel if students are not told/taught that the most important thing they can do during that 45 minutes is to keep their butt in their chair? It looks like learning! Thanks for this post.

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