20 April 2008

Passive Learning

[a long reflection on the recent Inside Higher Ed debate on the internet in the classroom]

There are always those who learn best by doing nothing.

They sit back in their chairs and wait. The professor or teacher or minister stands at the front of the room and delivers received wisdom to them. They write that down in their notebooks. Then they go home, read the text line-by-line in prescribed order. Read their own exact notes on what the professor or teacher or minister has said. And then they are perfectly positioned to remember and repeat this knowledge.

"An instructor’s job is not to entertain students. It is to convey knowledge that the students need — as determined by the institution that student chose to attend. Often the subject matter is not as entertaining as the Internet or a friend’s email message. But that is not the student’s decision to make. If the student knows better than the instructor and the law school dean about what they should study, then why are they attending law school? This modern sense of entitlement in students is frightening. They are there to learn under the tutelage of the instructor. The instructor and the institution know better – that is why they are at the front of the room and the student is in the seat. Let the instructors do their job as they see fit and acknowledge that the student’s role to listen." - "Peter"1

The problem occurs when schools - rather than churches - embrace this style of learning above all others. Because the problem with this type of passive learning, of receiving received wisdom, is that it does not work unless teacher and student share the same exact world view. If the "systems" can connect exactly, and the desire is to replicate the teacher within the learner, then... yes, open the connection and let the data pour from one vessel to another.

Think about this: Who succeeds? Who are the classroom stars? Back in third grade it was the quiet girls who were most like the female teacher (herself a former English major from a "good family") - the ones who "loved to read," who were "good at paying attention," who "worked hard," who had the "support of their family at home."

In high school it was probably the boy who most resembled each teacher - the "studious types" who were "really interested in the subject," and came with a "natural curiosity," and who, outside of school, "focused on their schoolwork not the other stuff."

In universities it is the students who will "grow up" to be professors and who will be, in a dozen years, indistinguishable from their former teachers.

"Reality: strongly-motivated students, with strongly-motivated families, make education happen." - "Buzz"1

And in all of these cases the perception will be that these students are succeeding because they are superior, because (as "Buzz" above puts it) they come from superior families, because they are "the elect." How gratifying it must be to the self-perception of the faculty that those who are the most superior students are those most like themselves.

This is the important sub-text of the conversation at Inside Higher Ed regarding the University of Chicago Law School (Hey, you! Pay Attention!). Students such as "Ryan G" who says, "If you see a class with a some raptly paying attention to the instructor while others appear distracted, you may also be seeing different learning styles. Sorry, but not everyone learns by watching a talking head for 50 minutes. I *can’t* learn that way and never have been able — which almost resulted in me not graduating high school. However I did finish high school, college, and eventually medical school (back when we didn’t have laptops in class.) Though I finished med school only by never actually going to lecture, running the note-service, and teaching myself in a way I can learn. (And despite not attending the talking head shows I graduated in the top of my class from a top 20 US medical school.)"1 are wrong even if they have succeeded, because they have not followed that "true path," they have not suffered in the "right ways," they are simply not enough like those who teach them.

"The best training a quality attorney can have is attending class with a professor whose teaching style forces the student to dig deep for the importance of the message when every cell in the body is screaming to be released from the tortures of boredom." - Kathy Anderson, Director, Diversity & Equity at Cal State University - Monterey Bay1

This is the Protestant, ableist message. There is one route to salvation, and that path runs straight through conformity and obedience. And only conformity and obedience, only staying on the one straight path, will prove that you are a member of the elect, that you have been chosen. That path is hard, and difficult, and uncomfortable, as it must be because that is the way we filter out those who do not belong.

"I feel compelled to ask the following question: what is wrong with having to listen to a boring professor or a boring lecture? Plenty of us had to do that when we were students. A lecture may not have provided us with instant gratification, but we were taught to respect the professor no matter how boring his/her lectures were." -"gianstefano1

What if students have a different world view?

A friend of mine recently talked about the class she is teaching in diversity in education. She told me about the conversations she had with her students regarding religion, and how difficult it was to get the conversation started. I told her how important this conversation was for teachers and pre-service teachers, and I suggested that she say this to her students:

"What if a large number of your students came from a culture where you went to church according to your schedule, not just at specific times determined by the church? Might they have a different view of the school day and the school schedule?"

"What if a large number of your students came from a culture where it was considered perfectly acceptable to stare off at the walls and windows during church services? Might they have a different idea of what 'paying attention' meant?"

"What if a large number of your students came from a culture where no one read individually in church? Where people moved all the time during the service? Where art, music, taste, and smell were all considered essential parts of religious learning? Might they have different ideas about reading, sitting in class, or how curriculum is delivered?"

Of course a large number of their students will be from a culture just like that - Catholics. That little group that makes up about 25% of the US and perhaps a third of children in public schools.

Remember, John Calvin and other Protestant founders railed against those ornate churches with their 'teaching art.' They railed against the openness of the Mass. They railed against the complex and diverse delivery system of Catholic dogma. They wrote everything down in books which they handed out to ensure that everyone received the exact same revealed word. They set worship times and insisted on attendance. They held services in plain white buildings. And, yes, they knew that some children were born pre-destined for heaven while others were born pre-destined for hell.

And when they got their hands on public education in North America - beginning in 17th Century New England - they made schools look and operate just like their churches. Catholic multi-tasking was most definitely "out," as were Catholic flexibility, the Catholic notion that celebration (Saint's Days, even Christmas in those early days) could be educational, and subjects like art and music. This system of operation has changed very little over the ensuing centuries.

In fact, if you listen to those who are "born right," and who are thus entitled to the passive learning, the only thing that has changed is the corruption of the student body which has strayed ever further from the perfect path.

"Mr. Socol, students used to know how to pay attention, even when the lecture was boring, and still managed to learn something. Adding cell phones, ipods and laptops for todays students who were born for the “short attention span theater", is throwing water on a grease fire. Students seem to no longer have the skill to be able to focus on one thing at a time. Blaming the lecturer is the lazy persons copout." - "Bored by lazy students"1

vs. Active Learners

So, if a student brings a different style, different methods, different intentions to the classroom, it is understood as a moral failing and a threat to the established order, and, perhaps, a threat to God. The argument is rarely about what is being learned, or about how the student is developing, and it is almost never about a student's right to determine what they need educationally, it is always about "following the rules"

"Maybe they would film it on their cell phones and post it on You [T]ube so their friends who cut class could watch it during some other class. I think this is why students aren’t learning: they aren’t paying attention. Unless it is part of the lesson, nothing that isn’t class work should be allowed during class time." - Dr. Jay Bernstein - Kingsborough Community College1

The obvious question for Dr. Bernstein is why not, "film it on their cell phones and post it on You [T]ube so their friends who cut class could watch it during some other class"? As Jerry Pattengale, AVP for scholarship & grants at Indiana Wesleyan University, noted, "I assume that few classes over 100 can make a strong case for the need to have live professors v. YouTubing lectures—if the professor still remains available online and in special on-campus gatherings."1 Does it really matter if I attend the class at the required time or get what I need from it in a way, at a time, when it works better for me? What if I, as a student, decide that I have, or need, a different path, or a different timeline, to knowledge acquisition? What if I, as a student, need to filter this "received wisdom" through my own world view, or through a knowledge base different from that of the instructor? What if my way of learning requires multi-tasking, or requires time spent - effectively - staring at the stories in the stained glass windows at times, even when the 'priest' is speaking? Does it matter to the professor, the teacher, the school, the university if I make those decisions for myself?

Apparently it does, because in the view of the entitled passive learner, the class instructor has received his or her powers in much the same way as the old kings of France - by divine right:

"The classroom is the professor’s domain. It is his or her kingdom. Their will is the law. If you don’t like it, do not take that class. Can’t change class? Then go to another school. Otherwise, stop whining. Buckle down. Read your cases. Pay attention. Handwrite your notes. Learn what the professor wants you to learn." - "John3L Law Student"1

It is all there in this future lawyer's words. The power is in the hands of those who have received it. Follow the path or go to Hell. And following the path requires absolute commitment to the ways of the elite, the ways of the past. Sit down. Shut up. Read your book. Write that down one-hundred times.

A fight against faith...

A friend of mine once told the story of being both a Catholic and the graduate of a Catholic university and arriving as a new faculty member at a Christian college. One of the first courses she was assigned to teach included, as part of the curriculum, the study of The Reformation. She called up a friend and said, "I don't know what to do with this, what do I really know about he Reformation?" "What do you know?" the friend asked, "You know that we're against it."

When I first began graduate school I followed an adviser's advice and joined a list-serve called "SpEdPro," a collection of academics involved in American "special education." (for a sense of the attitude which prevails on SpEdPro see this site by one of its active members) After just two months I became embroiled in a huge battle because I expressed "post-modern" thoughts on the subject of "research proven solutions" for students with differences. My arguments that this kind of prescriptive solution set blamed the student and not the school whenever a disconnect occurred were roundly denounced as heresy. I was a relativist witch in this modernist Salem, arguing against all notions of truth. Like a self-styled latter day Roger Williams I fled - to this blog (notice the name). Like Rhode Island, it is a small place. Unlike Rhode Island, I can't yet see my efforts as a success.

The problem is that this is a faith-based fight. If you can believe in the superiority of the passive learner, of received wisdom, you will never be able to see the rights of students who are different - whether they arrive from Catholic backgrounds with weird notions of time, movement and distraction, or who come from families with African or Caribbean or South American backgrounds with odd ideas about reading as a community activity, or who appear at school with brains genetically established differently in terms of attention, or who may have been born with differing capabilities in reading, or writing, or learning speed. You will never see that they are equal humans who have the same right to success.

You may see them as charity cases worthy of your sympathy as long as they "try hard enough" to act, to be, just like you. But you will not see them as equal. You will not see them as "Holy." You will not see them as being on the correct path to the light.

On another blog someone calling himself "Dave Stone" said this to me: "Ira–what you’re suggesting sounds to me like "defining deviancy down," taking unacceptable behavior and making it OK by lowering the standards of what’s acceptable. I can buy your Calvinist argument to a point, but this isn’t a matter of mere WASPy repression. There’s a functional reason why Protestants wanted people to shut up and pay attention: being present for the Presence and the ritual mattered less, listening to what was being said mattered more. It seems to me that a college classroom is more about paying attention to what’s going on than basking in the glory of the professor."2

And this is the mistake Protestants often mistake about Catholicism and educators too often make about students who are different. They believe that "being present for the presence," and the ritual itself, are not educational, are not dialogue. They believe that the only actual way to learn is to "shut up and pay attention." They can not even imagine that one might ask deep questions while staring at the images in the stained glass, or that the process of moving through the Stations of the Cross could include intellectual interaction, or that considering the Eucharist can be as essential educationally as reading today's chapter and verse. They can not imagine that the smell of incense or the light of the candles has true value. They, of course, can not conceive that showing up for an afternoon mass is as valuable as getting up early (with its assumption that you haven't spent Saturday night in an Irish pub), and sitting in silence alongside all of your neighbors, each reading the exact same text at the exact same moment. Failing to live up to the Protestant ideal makes you, at best childlike (this is why American Protestants send 'Christian Missionaries' to entirely Catholic nations), at worst, demonic.

"It may be over-parenting, but 18-21 year olds, are still in need of how to be a student and how not to be a plugged-in, distracted, slave to technology. You go Chicago!" - "Kristy, Compass Montessori High School"1

Yo — U-Chic is an Ivy-level law school. The Socratic method. Like getting an immediate “F” if you’re not prepared for class. The real thing. Not a bunch of Billy Ayers-types, singing Kumbaya and holding hands. Professional stuff — like passing the bar exam and impacting millions of people." - "KCG"1

"I applaud the move by the University of Chicago Law School to preserve the sanctity of the space of the classroom for teaching purposes." - Steve Katsinas, Professor at University of Alabama1

Two last thoughts:

First, I sat at a Seder Saturday night and listened to the story of "The Four Sons" and considered how, in this most ancient of Jewish celebrations the idea that education is for all, and that, in order for education to be for all, it must be individualized, is enshrined. I also noticed that in this holiday, probably the longest-celebrated Holy Day in the western world, ritual and props and tastes and smells are all used to support a communal literacy approach to learning.

Second, I remember sitting in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York not so long ago. I had brought a friend who was new to the city in to see, and a violent storm had broken out at the moment the 3 o'clock Mass was beginning. So we sat down and joined. We joined an incredibly diverse crowd, which, among other things, included every conceivable age and dozens of languages. Yet, we were all part of this, held together by the thin yet powerful threads of ritual but also supported in our own needs by the stunning diversity of teaching methods surrounding us. Yes, I heard the priest, but just as much I let my eyes move about the space, finding what I needed in the art, in the vastness of the Gothic space, in the sounds around me. Perhaps I was not learning what everyone else was. Perhaps I was only learning what I was ready for at that moment, and what was essential to me. That, I realize now, is a stunningly different concept of education than the one we meet in our schools, but I wonder - is it truly less valid?

If my education had been individualized from the start - as Judaism suggests - might I not be ready to truly learn on my own - as the cathedral suggests? Might that not be a better way?

This is not a debate that I will win. As Max Weber so clearly put it, capitalism and Protestantism march hand-in-hand. And we live in a culture dominated by both. Other arguments will always be infantilized, and labelled as odd and exotic - just as all of our kids, and all of us, who are not passive receptors of knowledge are labelled this way.

But even unwinnable fights are sometimes worth fighting. That battle against The Reformation did not quite work either - surely not in the self-proclaimed "advanced" nations - but it did preserve an alternative, and it did allow the western world to see a choice.

Maybe that is enough of a reason to keep arguing.

- Ira Socol

Related posts - Considering Universal Design, Not Getting to Universal Design, Humiliation and the Modern Professor, Technology and Equity.

1 quotations are from those commenting on the Inside Higher Ed article: Hey, You! Pay Attention!
2 from the comments on a post at the University Diaries blog

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

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Tim Lacy said...


Although I don't like the Protestant-Catholic metaphor for education in this post, I'm 100 percent behind you in your quest to get educators to think more about their learning styles. I'm particularly concerned about active learning at the college level. I didn't read the Inside Higher Ed piece about the University of Chicago, but I think they're throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It's not, as you consistently say, that technology is the problem, it's how we engage students either with or without technology in the classroom. If personal communication devices are an undeniable part of the communications revolution, then all educators have to incorporate them into their classroom methods. If wikipedia stinks, then use it and get your students to understand. If you're a law-school professor who wants students to ~dialogue~ (which is good), then get your students to use technology to enhance that dialogue.

There are big issues here, to be sure

- TL

Tim Lacy said...

Oops. At the end of the first sentence, cross out the "their." I meant to say that educators should think more about the diversity of learning styles among their students. -TL

Anita Figueras said...

Ira -

It is very good to read your words again. You are a person who changes the way I see the world.

Your description of successful students above packed a punch with me. "In universities it is the students who will "grow up" to be professors and who will be, in a dozen years, indistinguishable from their former teachers." That may be my daughter, who is studying mathematics at McGill, and who may never leave the academy. I want to find a way to introduce her to these ideas because she may well be a professor in the future.

Anita Figueras (scifiknitter on Xanga and here at Blogger)