Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Harkness Table and Educational Field-Trips of the Mind

Museum Photo of wooden benches and blackboard
Traditional Classroom

Is knowledge still power? Is the ultimate goal and objective to turn yourself into a walking encyclopedia? Will that ensure future success and a host of job opportunities? Will you be considered smart and intelligent, as well as resourceful because you have memorized loads of data?

Then, you are no smarter than a smart-phone at best. If all you have is knowledge, you can be replaced with modern bite-sized technology. For example, if you are able to memorize significant dates in history, you will be admired for your memory storage, but I can most likely find the same information in about ten seconds using Google search. Put differently, you might be hired as a species of a bygone stone-aged information age, an exemplar that could be displayed and exhibited in a museum, but the link between knowledge and power has weakened due to the advent of technology.

In fact, think about taking computer science classes about say twenty-five years ago. What you have learned then may be somewhat useful, but seeing how things have changed, you definitely need a refresher. For one, computers have shrunk significantly in size but have expanded in memory; despite Bill Gates' comments in the past, 640 kilobytes of storage is simply not enough (although I have heard that he denies ever making that statement in the 80ies).

So what are the ramifications and effects of this new outlook on the field of education? Certainly, the field of education has accepted a shift in style and method. We have moved from a teacher-centered and lecture-saturated class to skill- and performance-based outcomes that put the student at the center of the discourse. I believe it has connections with our changing perception of knowledge for its own sake since simply knowing things does not cut it anymore. It also empowers students to learn in an active manner, which according to recent studies generally favor and benefit overall learning.

But a student-centered approach is often easier said than done, and it may be more prevalent in theory than in actual practice. There remains a sense on both sides of the teacher / student spectrum that a teacher has to instill knowledge, while teachers more often than not tend to switch rather automatically or subconsciously into the lecture mode.

The students are often seen, and may even see themselves, as "empty vessels" that need to be filled and then sent out to the world. The idea suffers from the fact that we do not fully know if any of the knowledge has actually sunk in. Our tests and exams are often knowledge-based, which means that students can memorize the answers, cram the night before, only to wipe the slates clean thereafter by hitting the delete button; they forget practically everything they have been taught come the end of the semester.

In fact, students may in many cases give the answers the instructor expects of them, and then all you have is regurgitated knowledge and very little actual analysis or reflection on the part of the student. The only thing they learned is how to please others and give others what they expect of you. Although somewhat useful in a practical sense, namely for later job situations, it is not what education should strive for or be.

On the other hand, one should also keep in mind that students are not merely empty vessels; they come filled with all sorts of stuff, some of it useful for their education, some of it not. It would be then the quest of the teacher to activate the parts that are beneficial and not other parts, such as prejudices, stereotypes or pseudo-scientific claims, so that the latter concepts and ideas do not interfere with the learning process.

Although I value knowledge, and I think it is a great idea to provide skills to our students for future success in work and life, I am not sure the current methods fully satisfy those outcomes. First off, we are expected to plan our lessons along certain guidelines. Each section has a specific function, such as to arouse curiosity, to check their previous knowledge, to provide them with new information and then to follow it all up with a post-evaluation, to see how much of the data sticks and has actually sunk in.

This is all and good, and it is very valuable for teaching. But because of a somewhat rigid structure, it also becomes limiting. I condone a teaching style that I call “framed spontaneity,” in which the lesson plan and its structure are plastic and flexible; it ought to be adjusted along the way to the needs of the students, the class in general, the current situations, as well as the teacher's needs. All these variables can interfere with the order and structure of the lesson, although the goal is still to reach the learning outcomes set in the first place. In other words, the destination is the same, but the path can be different.

I generally see the classroom as both exploration and experiment. (I also see it in poetic and metaphysical terms of a sacred space in which knowledge is bred for all the members involved.) Exploration in the sense that my goal is not so much knowledge but to give students guidance and motivation to explore their own world and ideas on and via the given topic. For example, we will engage in discussion and discourse on a given subject. The class as such will brainstorm, express and evaluate ideas.

Knowledge is secondary but still necessary to fill the gaps and to enable general discussion; yet the focus is to enable students with critical thinking skills, analysis and interpretation. As I tend to say in class - and remember this is for humanities classes and most likely would not work with science - that there are no right or wrong answers as long as the students can back it up with clear and convincing logic, examples, and evidence.

This will be an open-ended discourse that needs, of course, to be focused. But in terms of knowledge and even subject, it can lead to unexpected insights and results. It is at the same time mostly student-centered since it is directed mainly towards their needs and desires. It is an exploration, an adventure that we all embark upon, the classroom as the ship and the teacher the appointed captain. It is a field-trip of the mind and on good days, everyone will benefit from it and learn something new, including the teacher. On bad days, the teacher will have to put on his lecture hat for a bit to give the students time and opportunity to get those creative juices flowing again.

But I say good and bad days because there are other factors involved too. The first and most important one is a question of motivation and encouragement. A discussion without people willing to participate or without them feeling comfortable to discuss their ideas leads to nowhere productive. The teacher needs to show the significance of the issue and relate it to the lives of the students whenever possible (but you will be surprised how much is actually possible once the connection is established). At the same time, all opinions must be respected, and there should be a general atmosphere of acceptance and tolerance so that students will feel comfortable sharing their own opinions with others.

The other factor is evidently previous knowledge or relation to the subject. You cannot discuss Plato without knowing at least the rudiments of his philosophy in order to be able to put him into perspective with other philosophers while evaluating and checking its link with one's own convictions and beliefs. Once these points and criteria are satisfied, we can engage in productive, educational, and academic discourse.

This view that I am expressing here has been in practice for over 80 years! I was surprised to see that the Harkness Table, proposed by the oil magnate and philanthropist Edward Harkness, was a method that built upon what I believe to be a very useful way of teaching relevant skills to students. It has been the staple of various boarding schools and colleges, having its origin in Phillips Exeter Academy.

I stumbled upon this perspective while reading (and preparing an upcoming book review of) the memoirs of the successful business-leader Peter Georgescu, the CEO of Young and Rubicam. He himself professes and stresses the importance and value of this type of education. It gives students not only necessary skills, but also reliance and confidence in their own abilities, something they can take with them for their later professional and personal life. It is not about teaching them what the instructor wants them to know, but about instilling a perhaps life-long curiosity in knowledge, research, and critical analysis of relevant issues.

I have had previous discussions on this topic with directors and board-members. They generally believe that it is of utmost importance to give the objectives first and then to show them at the end that the objectives have been fulfilled. To me that takes away the thrill and exploration out of the whole deal. My method is along the lines of let us get started and then at the end, you will be surprised with yourself and what you are able to do. Its focus is on the student's own accomplishments. It is the aha-moment that puts the mirror in front of their own capabilities.

Yet the way the field of education prefers to structure itself is to have a codified plan, while its focus is mainly on what can be tested and evaluated. For example, statements that lead towards an expected future outcome, such as by the end of the course, students will be able to do the following things.

This is all fine, but there will be classes (and also teachers) that will stand out from the rest. And they will most likely be those classes that strayed from the codified restrictions and in which students got involved in exploring issues; by looking at issues with different eyes, they may have learned something new and valuable.

It should not be a picnic, but a field-trip of the mind. It should include a sense of wonder and curiosity. There is too much focus on grades and outcomes, but the most important values and benefits are those that are permanently engraved in the hearts and minds of the students. And that is what, ideally and fundamentally, education is and should be about.

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