You Don’t Get Something for Nothing

The evolution of public education.

February 5, 2014

In a previous post I shamelessly described the learning technologies we are creating in the Advanced Learning Technologies Lab of the University of Toronto Scarborough as “Stairways to Heaven”.

Specifically, I described the philosophy that guides us, one that involves building technologies (i.e., stairways) that can take us from where we are – an education system that primarily stresses memorization skills and content – to where we want to be – an educational “Heaven” in which our students regularly engage in learning activities specifically created to exercise and develop the core learning objectives that distinguish scholars and leaders from mere databases of knowledge (e.g., critical thought, creative thought, reflective thought, expressive communication, receptive communication, etc.).

I was asked if I would continue my blog with a clear description of the stairways I was alluding to, and I will, but not yet. First I wish to strike at what we see as the heart of the problem with respect to how public education has evolved.

Understanding the problem will enhance our ability to tackle it in useful ways and, thus, to recognize the value and practical use of given stairways – umm, I mean educational technologies. And since I’m shameless framing issues in terms of kick-butt rock and roll songs, here are some lyrics from one of my favorite bands, RUSH.

You don’t get something for nothing
You can’t have freedom for free
You won’t get wise with the sleep still in your eyes
No matter what your dreams might be

With this quote in mind, let’s begin by considering the romantic notion of all the great things that happen in a small class, and by small I mean less that 12 or 15 students.  In such a context it is possible to seamless integrate the transmission of content with the exercise of cognitive skills.

Teachers can ask questions in a socratic manner, forcing students to think and communicate. Other students can be encouraged to respond to ideas that arise, exercising receptive communication and critical or creative thought. Personal views can be queried, exercising self-reflection.

Thus by mixing passive one-way lecturing with active well-structured discussions, a fantastic and holistic educational context can be created and sustained.

However even in this context this rich learning experience does not just happen on its own. It requires a lot of work, planning and orchestration on the part of the instructor and, far too often, the exercise degrades into one of trying to get the 5 most enthusiastic students to stop contributing as we beg, buy or otherwise coerce some level of interaction from the remaining students.

So the romantic notion of a Socratic style interaction is already hard to foster in a 15 student class, largely because the students are not always the inquisitive, somewhat confident, extraverted students that we think of in Socratic contexts.

Of course this problem gets much worse as the student to teacher ratio grows.

The teacher no longer has the possibility of including every student’s live interactions, and attempts to provoke thought in assignment contexts (e.g., essays, short answers) become increasingly difficult given the resource and logistic demands of these assignments as the class size grows, especially when funding does not grow in step with student growth.

As a result, many classes slowly evolve into a state that is primarily, if not exclusively, defined by two characteristics; lectures and multiple-choice tests.

We need a term for this state, in my opinion a somewhat derogatory term. Yes a well-designed multiple-choice test can provoke some level of critical thought, but not much, and it certainly is difficult to exercise any of the other learning objectives aside from enhancing content knowledge. It is also true that a fantastic lecture can provoke thought, and clearly it exercises receptive communication.

But still while thought may be provoked “in the moment”, students are not asked to do anything with respect to the thoughts or ideas they might have.  They may stimulate the mind at the time, but how much of a mark do they leave when the lecture ends?

Thus, in the end, this context boils down to the transmission of knowledge … content knowledge … but the core cognitive skills highlighted above are barely exercised. It’s like going to the gym and watching other people exercise, and seeing the products of their exercise.

Students learn what exercise can produce, what benefits it can have, but without exercise yourself only the information is being transmitted when what students really need to become future leaders is to build their own cognitive skills.

Here is a core problem with this evolutionary path. Without deep thought about this issue, faculty and students can walk this path without angst.

Faculty, most of whom clearly understand the benefits of writing, verbal interactions and thought, can simply point to the constraints they face. When classes consist of hundreds of students and funding remains low, what else can one do? And students?

Well, exercising thought is like exercising the body, and while we all would like the benefits of working out three times a week, few of us are willing to actually put in the effort. Similarly students sometimes dislike courses that require them to “work,” preferring those in which the assessment is primarily multiple choice.

So as they walk down this path together, the faculty feel it is the only path possible, and the students don’t complain.

Perhaps more sinister is the belief they share or co-construct that, despite the impoverished learning environment relative to the romantic small class described earlier, the “best that we can do” is “good enough”.

That somehow, despite direct provocations from the instructor, students are gaining experience with the core cognitive skills. We may not structure this exercise, or require it, but somehow it happens. To which I echo the words of Lee and Peart “you don’t get something for nothing”.

In order to develop intellectually students cannot simply walk a path that treats them like tourists in the intellectual world. They learn to think and express themselves well by seeing how others have done it.

Yes that’s a good first step, but the next step involves them “doing something”; active learning as we like to call it. They must move from being a tourist to being a resident and, in the current economic climate, that requires stairways that lead from where we are to where we want to be.

Stairways that faculty see the value of, and stairways that students also appreciate and perhaps even enjoy traversing. So what are these stairways?

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