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:
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.”
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.)