Saturday, December 21, 2013

Teaching and the Difference between Being Educated and Having an Education

Picture of an empty sidewalk with brown leaves
What does it mean to have an education? And how could it be different from being educated? Are the two not one and the same thing? Should they be?

That depends on one's philosophy for teaching, which, in turn, strongly affects the method of teaching. Throughout Western history (with some notable exceptions during ancient Greece), the role of the teacher has been predominantly to instruct and provide knowledge by instilling, ensuring and maintaining discipline. 

Students in this view were seen at best as tabula rasa, empty vessels or blank sheets of paper that needed to be filled or written upon. This is what is commonly referred to nowadays (at times in a derogatory manner) as lecturing (something that pretty much every teenager abhors).

Indeed that is how lecturing works. The idea is that the teacher has knowledge that they will impart upon or transfer to the students in order to instruct or correct them. Knowledge is regarded as something that can be possessed alongside with the framed document that goes with it; you will find that the particular student mentioned on the diploma has managed to reproduce (or regurgitate) knowledge in a satisfactory manner.

The extreme form of such a type of learning is the imposing headmaster at his pulpit threatening with sticks and other forms of punishment. Students then are to memorize the works of famous learned people, and in this way they would be able to reproduce and demonstrate anytime and anywhere the information they have received. Such students are often referred to as walking dictionaries. They can give you the facts, dates, and numbers on merely any event. They live under the maxim that knowledge is indeed supplying power to them.

Yet they do not really have power. Put them in a difficult situation, and it becomes apparent that they are lost even with all their knowledge and information in their heads. In current times, they are easily replaceable with a smartphone that can do what they do and with much more accuracy and detail to boot. Knowledge for knowledge's sake is rather useless since it is rigid and inflexible and cannot be applied to different fluid and complex situations.

If we look at teaching, it does, more often than not, follow that sort of scheme even today. We give our students certain facts and expect them to be able to recall them in oral or written exams. If they differ from what we deem right they are often penalized and denied a passing grade. They would have to repeat the motions until they satisfy the teacher who is a kind of gatekeeper, while the student may be at times as bewildered and desperate as Kafka's Josef K.

Certainly, there are more and more movements in education toward applying critical thinking and other types of skills. The students are expected to fulfill a list of learning or performance outcomes to show that they have learned what has been taught to them. It is better than merely learning by heart as they are given the opportunity to apply their knowledge.

This can be best illustrated by giving the example of mathematics. There you may memorize the formula, but you need to use it under differing circumstances. In that sense, the knowledge or skills are the magical formula supposed to help you attain good worthwhile jobs and, more importantly, to get you through life.

The benefit of this method is that there is at least some direction in accepting that students are not as “empty-headed” as first assumed. In fact, we are building upon or refining some of their skills. A more student-centered approach will also give them some leeway to express their skills in more unique or creative ways instead of prepacked and fabricated chunks of information.

That is, of course, as anything of value, easier said than done. As instructors we still have an image of the exemplary student in our minds and whether subconsciously or not we do compare our actual students with our mental notes or prototypes of them. The danger is that while we may assume students did not learn a thing, they might have done so in their own ways. Furthermore, it could turn out that our methods of evaluation may turn out flawed or distorted. A student may have anxiety of exams and hence not do well on any of them.

But that is not all there is. Education is not just about knowledge or skills that can be acquired or possessed. The problem is, in our materialistic world, we are so obsessed with possessions that if something does not give tangible results, we automatically assume it is a failure. For example, if a person lacks wealth or a good job, many of us will deem that person a failure. But money on its own or the possession of knowledge does not immediately signify success.

Let me give an example. There are people who are very good at jumping through the hoops of education. They can provide the answers their instructors are craving to hear, and they are very good at giving the impression that they are indeed educated. But it may turn out that it is more about appearance than true education. They are not ignited with the passion for learning. Education is not something that ends with your degree; in fact, that is only the starting point.

My take on teaching is that our message as teachers needs to vibrate within the soul of our students. Something must click within them or at least partially open their eyes to the world and themselves. They must learn to ask questions instead of following authority blindly albeit respectfully. They should gain curiosity about the subject that they did not have previously. Education then is like sampling food making you want to eat the whole dish.

In fact, food is a great and fitting metaphor here. Education should be like the wafer of the body of Christ that is assimilated and resonates with one's whole being. It should not be confined to the classroom or the duration of one's degree. It has to be woven intimately within the fabric of one's essence and being.

Critical thinking and curiosity are two things that need to be practiced at all times. While as teachers we may end up teaching our students discipline, it is up to them to eat and drink up our own passion for knowledge. In other words, being educated means that they have got the message and that they have changed through this contact. It is intellectual, emotional and also spiritual.

The student develops and starts paving and carving his or her own path. And whether they passed the course with a high grade or not is of lesser value here. In fact, it is our materialistic thinking again that focuses and places too much value on grades. If the course has changed your way of thinking or touched you in a unique way, it has been successful. A degree should not be just a piece of paper; it ought to be engraved deep within your heart. 


Vincent said...

“The extreme form of such a type of learning is the imposing headmaster at his pulpit threatening with sticks and other forms of punishment. Students then are to memorize the works of famous learned people, and in this way they would be able to reproduce and demonstrate anytime and anywhere the information they have received.”

Reading the above, I wonder what kind of real-life instance you have in mind. My own education was at an English preparatory school, where the preparation is for public school, and where “public” actually means “private”. I didn’t go on to public school but to a fee-paying grammar school, and thence to university. The teaching was least adequate at the latter.

At any rate it was a traditional English form of education, aimed at the “sons of gentlemen”. It had the specific aim, I think, of producing officers in the Armed Forces, clergymen, senior civil servants and colonial administrators, and other professionals. Sport, civilized behaviour and leadership were the qualities most fostered. Academically, boys were encouraged to shine, but it was understood that not all could be in the top rank. The Classics—Latin and Greek—were still taught. Discipline was kept by the senior boys mostly. The cane was seldom used for punishment, but it had the benefit of being decisive, memorable and short-lived.

I’m not an ambassador for this kind of education, which in any case has changed out of recognition: and the school I went to was a unique hybrid and not at all outstanding. But I think I can speak for the system and correct the implication that students were to “memorize the works of famous learned people” in order to show off their education.

One might well acquire a love of literature, and at that young age absorb plenty of Shakespeare, the Bible, Tennyson, Milton, perhaps something from Latin authors. The more expensive the education, the more you are expected to have something to show for it, if only the elegance of manners and high-class accent. Such education wasn’t egalitarian, but based on the concept of an élite. It allowed boys (or girls, for there were and are such schools for girls, such as Wycombe Abbey, a top-ranking one in my town) to find their own niche and if it were to become learned, then they would be able to make a start in an academic career.

My main point in this is to say I don’t recognize the picture you paint of a wrong kind of education. Do you have personal knowledge of it, dear Arash?

Arash Farzaneh said...

Great to hear from you, dear Vincent! My post is here is about a major shift in education that was long due to happen. The example you give of schools and universities (supposedly) preparing students for certain jobs and careers is exactly what I am talking about.

It is not about educating students but simply about having an education so that they can have a job. The fact that money can buy you better education is another issue that I think is equally lamentable.

Currently, especially at post-secondary education, they are looking not only at one's grades but also at the student's personality and personal achievements, i.e. a fuller and more vibrant profile. I applaud that.

As to the headmaster or teacher with the cane, it was used mainly as a symbol. It has very little to do with my own German education, which I would not call strict but stern and quite fruitful in its own ways. The image is partly of the 19th century grammar-translation method in which students recited classics in different languages but could not effectively speak or communicate in that given language as well as the image of the abusive authoritarian teacher of Pink Floyd's "The Wall."

In other words, education at times feels like dead meat, and I think it needs to be spruced up and made living flesh. One of the main problems is again its delivery in form of dry lecture that seems to have little or no relevance with one's life. Studies have shown that students forget most of it anyhow, whereas interactive methods of teaching, see my post on the "Harkness Table" or on "framed spontaneity" are much more interesting and effective.

Today's academia is slowly beginning to see its value, but still not enough. All in all, this has been less a cry from personal experience but about a philosophical framework for the future.

Vincent said...

The example I gave was the opposite of preparing students for certain jobs and careers. It was the basic education of an elite class. Specialization would come later.

"The fact that money can buy you better education is another issue that I think is equally lamentable."

So what is money for, one wonders. What better use can it be put to?

I think the implication of your "lamentable" is inequality and unfairness.

I shall respond with several arguments.

1) Elite implies "for the few". It also implies something highly prized. In America, you have for example the Juilliard School of Music.

2) Elite schools have always given scholarships, whereby those without money are able to attain a place. Instead of money, effort and sacrifice is exchanged.

I don't think we are at loggerheads. I think it's more a matter of precision in defining one's target, and perhaps some literary control in the images one summons in defence of one's case.

Your reference to Pink Floyd's "The Wall" indicates that you may be using images from popular culture to support your case, rather than factual examples, preferably based on personal experience.

Progressive thinking, in any sphere, is in constant danger of thinking that all old-fashioned practices, from almost any tradition, are lamentable. That Karl Marx, and Hegel before him, have a lot to answer for. They thought history was something to plunder selectively for their own arguments, accusing all our ancestors of crassness and cruelty.

Tradition, much like blind evolution, has a way of establishing a certain fitness for purpose. Before sweeping it away as obsolete, one must understand it sympathetically and see exactly what needs to be changed to meet changed circumstances.

This is not achieved by setting up ludicrous caricatures and inviting one's reader to deride them, especially if one's examples were imaginary in the first place.

"... education at times feels like dead meat, and I think it needs to be spruced up and made living flesh." but I shall look at the posts you mention, and give you a fair reading.

Vincent said...

You've inspired me to write my first blog post since September on Wayfarer's Notes. But the words are D. H. Lawrence's, not mine.