The most recent example of this was my Education: product or process? post. At least two parts of the conversation that resulted from this post made me think more carefully. Firstly David Warlick picked up on my post and pushed my thinking a bit further along the direction I was already going. I have complained before about the dangers of reducing teachers to the level of technicians who simply deliver stuff but perhaps I have never fully articulated what I want them to do instead. There is nothing wrong with being a technician, we need technicians, but we also need teachers and I think teachers do something different... but what? David comes to the rescue in his response to my post:
It is not a time for teacher-technicians, trained lab clerks who observe a deficiency, and prescribe a scientifically researched strategy. It’s a time for teacher-philosophers, who love their world, love what they teach, love their students, and who love what their students will be.A teacher-philosopher! I like that, but I'm still thinking about the implications...
The second part of the conversation that pushed my thinking, this time in a different direction, comes from a comment left by Kenneth on my original post. He started me thinking about the value of knowing things. Do we have a utilitarian view: knowledge is only worth knowing if it is useful in some way? Or do we believe that knowledge is somehow intrinsically valuable: put crudely, that it is better to know stuff than not know stuff! I think I incline to the latter view and did not intend to suggest the former in my first post.
The problem with taking the view that knowledge has to be useful is how do you decide what is useful? In particular, how do you decide what knowledge will be useful to our students in the future? As David Warlick often reminds us, "We are preparing our children for a future we cannot even describe". It may be helpful to revisit the example I gave of knowing the codes for an Epson dot-matrix printer. Was that knowledge useful at the time? Yes! I had to know how to do it or my worksheets would have been even more boring than they were. Is that knowledge useful now? Not directly. It is knowledge that has gone off, but the process of embedding codes in a document to change the way things look is still useful knowledge.
So am I saying that we should only look for generic, widely applicable processes? I don't think so. As I said above, I think knowing things may have an intrinsic value whether or not I can see an application - specific, generic or otherwise. For example, I was born in Ayrshire and was brought up in the west coast of Scotland, so inevitably I was introduced to the poetry of Robert Burns. I had to learn some of it - rote learn it! I could recite some of it word perfect but had (and still have) very little appreciation of what the poems are about. I can still recite chunks of Burns' poetry to this day - is that useful knowledge? It was certainly valuable at the time. I won a prize for being able to recite a poem from memory. (The prize was a book of Burns' poems!) I won applause and congratulations for getting all the way through Tam O'Shanter at the school Burns' Supper. But is it still valuable now or will it be valuable at some point in the future? Is it knowledge that has gone off? To be honest, the main value to me now is that I can embarrass my children by bursting into a recitation at inappropriate moments (and embarrassing your children is a very important part of being a father) but I find it hard to say that knowing these poems is in some meaningful way useful to me today. However, am I glad I know these poems even though I still have little understanding of what they are about? Absolutely! But putting my finger on why I think this, and why I respond with such an emphatic "Absolutely!", is a bit trickier.
I think the best I can come up with so far is, as I said above, knowing stuff is better than not knowing stuff! At a recent tutorial I said that it was too simplistic to state, "Rote learning bad. Meaningful learning good." but would I get away with saying, "Rote learning OK. Meaningful learning better."?
Please help me think some more about this so that I can work out what I think I think!
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