Friday, September 08, 2006

I think this is what I think I think!

originally uploaded by radioeffect
I keep telling people how blogging is a useful aid for reflective practitioners. I quote the phrase, "Good enough to criticise" from Alan November and talk about the learning conversations that take place when you share your thinking in a blog. I also talk about how blogging can be a powerful thinking tool but I don't always see this in my own blog. Sometimes I just go off on a rant and very little thinking takes place. Sometimes I post fluff and nonsense (like the treadmill video). However, every so often I react to something, post my "thoughts so far" and find myself challenged to think more carefully by the conversations that develop.

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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Ulrich said...

Maybe learning might be about to learn how to apply knowledge for gaining insight, experience, new knowledge, and making decisions, ...

In order to learn to apply knowledge there must be some to start with. Perhaps the focus today often is too much on pushing that knowledge upon the students to have something to start with and too little on creating situations for applying it. It is like a car sitting at a gas station being filled up with no access to the roads to drive on.

Regards Ulrich

ab said...

Much as it pains me to say this, I think there is a place for rote - I have taught far too many students who have no idea about their times tables, yet I still remember them owing to rote.

That said, wouldn't it be great if we were in a far more constructivist learning environment - giving kids the tools to know how to know things? Primary to all of this, must be 'Know thyself', which I don't think is given the promience it needs in education at the moment. After all, dare I say in Scottish education, PSE is rarely given the same status as English or Maths for example?

David Warlick said...


I had a conversation a while back with the head master of a private school in Tennessee. He described how he was trying to affect the teaching in his classrooms by causing teachers to ask a different kind of question. The conversation condensed down, in my mind, to the idea that too many of our questions ask for answers. Instead, more of our questions should be asking for conversations. This, I suspect, is one of the differences between a teacher-technician, and a teacher-philosopher. The philosopher ask for conversations, not answers.

I'd happily agree with Andrew, that much rote learning is necessary. However, I believe that what children are learning must be done within the context of a conversation that is tied to the real world. As they are mastering the times-tables, they should be using there developing knowledge to solve problems and accomplish goals that they can identify with.

Two penny's worth!

Duncan__ said...

Knowing stuff is better than not knowing stuff!
Agree 100%.
As an M.A. Hons., I'm a great believer in Arts degrees. To my mind, the broader approach to learning creates a more rounded individual.
But in our current political climate, where everything must have a value, the Arts degree is scorned in favour of alternatives that "lead to a job".
In Secondary education, children need broader horizons than the ones currently circumscribed by the exam syllabus. (imho)

Paul Wilkinson said...

Ulrich is right when he says "there must be some knowledge to start with".
The point of this discussion relates to the value of the knowledge. As you have already described 'value' is a difficult thing to pin down. Times tables might remain high on the list as valuable and the ability to code epson printer commands or recite Robbie Burns might be falling down the list. This curriculum content is an ever shifitng target. The challenge for teachers is to move in the zone between knowledge that is (or should remain) at the top of the pile and knowledge we can let drift. It isn't just as easy as saying we need to focus on "21st Century skills" or have "conversations". What is the content context that we develop those skills in and what are the conversations about? I agree with David when he says that the learning conversations must be "developing knowledge to solve problems and accomplish goals that they can identify with."

Kenneth said...

My 3rd visit to EdCompBlog, it looks like it might become a regular event.

David said, "I also talk about how blogging can be a powerful thinking tool..." Ok the brain is the thinking tool the blog is the facilitation/capture/communication mechanism. I would say it's the dialogue either internal or external (with yourself to write the blog or with respondents) that requires you to use your brain.

Putting blogging aside and returning to knowledge thread.

If you consider the inter-connectedness (coupling and cohesion to use programming ideas) of knowledge then it becomes almost impossible to identify knowledge that has soured over time and mouldered through lack of applicability. If we return to Epson print codes, the fact that CHR(XXX) indicates bold and CHR(XXX+1) toggles bold off may be deemed ass less applicable now. But as a starting point of your knowledge of control characters and as an example embedding codes in text to carry out specific operations; knowing it 16 years ago helped you when it came to understanding html codes. In fact because you used the control codes as an example of "sour knowledge" you immediately made the concept relevant and applicable to the idea (knowledge) in your blog.

David asked, "The problem with taking the view that knowledge has to be useful is how do you decide what is useful?" Step back and look at the big picture. Look at the hierarchy or web or inter-connectedness of each piece of knowledge, then you will see the usefulness of knowledge. I tell my students you need to consider pupil's prior knowledge before you can decide what comes next.

O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us

If only you embodied the sentiment of Burns you could see what other see in you. Your 3rd last paragraph provides knowledge about you (you're from Ayrshire in Scotland as was Burns - a geographic/personal piece of knowledge). Your ability to memorise Burns resulted in you gaining an opportunity to be publicly successful, a memory that has lived with you for more than 3 decade. Surely you can see why these pieces of knowledge are valuable (to you)?

Okay I think that's enough...


David said...

Woah! You turn your back for ten minutes and suddenly you have six comments. :-) I'll try to deal with each in turn... although I may have to split this over two comments.

Ulrich: Firstly, follow the link to his blog (More thoughts on education: product or process) where, just hours before I did, he posted a response to my product or process post. I'll need to leave a comment there too because I found he helped me clarify my own thinking. I think both his response here and on his blog helped me realise I was creating a false dichotomy. It is not either/or. It's both/and! Not product or process, but product and process... and probably a lot more besides. Similarly with rote and meaningful.

ab: Agreed! See above. :-) The times table example is worth thinking about further. I learned the 12 times table. It made sense at the time. Money came in multiples of twelve. Now, children only learn up to the 10 times table. Has knowledge of the 12 times table gone off?

If we are interested in "know thyself" it could be argued that the poems of Burns are an extraordinarily good thing to learn!

David: Thank you for more to think about on the teacher-philosopher idea. The more I think about this, the more I like it.

And thanks for bringing us back to thinking about conversations. As Kenneth reminds us, the context is as important for the conversations as it is for the problem solving activities... or is that another false dichotomy? The problem solving, the conversations and the learning are all closely linked.

{Comments on the other comments will follow after I've walked the dogs. :-) }

David said...

{OK back with the dogs... now, where was I?}

Duncan: Yes, unfortunately, university degrees are increasingly taking on a vocational nature. I suppose there has always been an element of this but (IMHO) it seems to be getting worse. I hope we can continue to study stuff at university just because it's interesting, or even because it looks like it might be fun! However, students are looking at the size of the loans they are building up and universities are also pushed for cash and so perhaps both are looking to the bottom line rather than the blue sky.

Oh, dear, I'm getting all depressed now.

Paul: Changing a curriculum can be like turning an oil tanker and so letting some knowledge slip can be tricky! However, this is not necessarily a bad thing as it may help prevent us from throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I followed the link back to your blog and was interested in your Millionaires or Monsters post. I think it has something to add to this discussion. It sounds like Monster Garage is a bit like our Scrapheap Challenge. I like the analogy.

Kenneth: Welcome back. If you can keep pushing my thinking the way your last two comments have, I hope I can give you good enough posts to make you want to keep visiting!

Let's get some hair splitting out the way first. Is a hammer a tool or is it the hand that wields it or the eye/brain that guides it? Is a pen a tool or is it the brain the forms the words the pen writes? Of course I have to use my brain, but my point was that writing a blog helps me structure and develop my thoughts in a way that might not happen if I didn't have to write them down and share them with others. I would therefore argue that blogging could be described as a thinking tool - a tool that helps me think rather than a tool that does the thinking for me (like Gaspode in the Discworld series who is a thinking dog for the stupid - like a seeing eye dog for the blind!).

However, I don't think that's the main thrust of what either of us is saying, so let's not fall out over it. I think we are both on the same page with the interconnectedness and applicability. I was trying to grope towards that with the Epson codes example but I think you stated much more clearly why I think that this knowledge is not totally useless after all.

The "big picture" idea is also helpful. Just because I cannot see the value of something does not mean it is valueless. Quoting Burns at me to make your point was just rubbing it in though! :-) I think the seeing the value and the bigger picture can be made more difficult by the kind of attitudes hinted at in Duncan's comment. All too often, if it doesn't have an economic value it is not considered worthwhile in any way. Some years ago I saw one of the actresses from the Golden Girls TV series who said that their programme had made people see the value of older people. Good stuff I thought. Then she followed it up by saying, "They realised that old people were consumers too." - Oh dear! :-(

Chris said...

Gosh. I went off to Versailles for a bit and look waht I missed! As the passionate teacher of "useless" poetry, I often began a term with this quote from teaching notes belonging to my father (well-known in teaching in the post-war years): "Poetry, like all the arts, is useless. It will not feed us, clothe us or put a roof over our heads. and yet ..."
You can supply the rest. I maintain (to a boring degree) that you have to teach pupils "how", whatever the subject. And that includes how to read poetry - perhaps even how to choose the poetry that will enlarge their own souls. And I don't think that ever becomes redundant.

Duncan__ said...

Hear, hear, Chris. Well said.

David said...

As the passionate teacher of "useless" poetry...

Hello Chris,

I think I was groping towards what you and Kenneth have said more eloquently. I find it hard to say that all the poems I know are useful... but I can't escape your father's "and yet..." :-)

Kenneth gives some examples though of how the poems of Burns have shaped me and probably continue to do so. Perhaps I should give Rabbie more credit. Maybe he has "enlarged my soul" in ways I haven't acknowledged. :-)