Oh, Please

Let me make something clear: Teaching cannot be reduced to its tools.

Let me give you an example, though I doubt anyone reading this really needs one. One of the devices I use in the classroom is the lecture. It allows me to introduce information to students in an organized fashion.  I cannot package my lectures, however, offering them as a substitute for what I do in the classroom. Why not? Because they are not a one-way transmittal but are, instead, a dynamic between me and the particular class. I constantly watch the students, changing pace, style and even subject depending on what I am seeing on their faces and in their actions. Make the lecture only an electronic residue of me, the teacher, and the real utility of the lecture as motivator and map is substantially reduced. The electronic residue cannot gauge student interest nor can it determine student starting points.

Face-to-face interaction is at the core of most learning, and it always has been. Yes, there are a few true autodidacts, but these are extremely rare. Most of us, even the brightest and most able of us, need that bounce that another person gives.

People whose lives are guided by print and electronic media often do not understand this, thinking that the interaction isn’t necessary, that only those things captured by a book or a video are really important–for teaching, that is. They don’t see that these are only tools.

Jonathan Chait, who (as far as I can tell) has never been a teacher, wrote last week that “designing a higher education system around maintaining living standards for college professors is an insane idea.” He is responding to comments by Jonathan Rees (who occasionally blogs here) and is trying to make the point that there needs to be opportunity for students who do not have the means to experience the nice campus education that Chait received.

Sure, but that opportunity is not afforded by a model of education stripped of its most important element, the interaction between student and teacher… and that’s what Chait is arguing for when he advocates for MOOCs and other aspects of the “new” digital educational possibilities as, essentially, replacements for teachers. He writes that:

insisting that’s the only way a student ought to be able to get a degree, in an economy where a college degree is necessary for a middle-class life, is to doom the children of non-affluent families to crushing college debt, or to lock them out of upward mobility altogether.

What he doesn’t see, perhaps because he knows so little about teaching, is that removing the teacher from the equation amounts to the same thing, locking students “out of upward mobility altogether.” Keep “real” education for the elite; give a version with human interaction strained out of it to everyone else. The result? The elite can keep congratulating itself on how well it has done, that the rest have had opportunity, too, but haven’t taken it. The problem is, the opportunity offered the rest is quite a bit weaker than that offered the elite.

Designing and maintaining an educational system that guarantees reasonable living standards for teachers is no insane idea. In fact, it is the only way that real education comes to pass.

Yes, education starts with the student… just a a crop starts with seeds. But without teachers and farmers who are present every step of the way, most of the students, like most of the crop, will be stunted or will fail. In both cases, machines can help, but they cannot replace the human involvement.

Anyone with even an ounce of sense should know that.

12 thoughts on “Oh, Please

    • But that is exactly what we are trying to do to teachers, reduce them to the extremely low pay of farm workers and replace as much as we can of their tasks with mechanization… and it is why our farm products, like our schools, suffer so. The analogy, to my mind, holds. We have already destroyed the farmers and made much of our food substandard. Why are we doing the same thing to our teachers and our education?

      • Agricultural products are at an all-time high for quality—the low-quality food you are seeing is from subsequent processing. (Disclaimer: I live in Santa Cruz County, CA which has some of the best local produce in the world, and the some of the worst pay/cost-of-living ratios for farm workers.)

        My objection to the analogy is that farms have industrialized very successfully—food is extremely cheap and high quality now (by historic standards) despite hundred-fold reductions in employment. I don’t think that education is as easily mechanized.

        I agree with you that politicians and administrators would like to treat universities like farms and teachers like farm workers—but I don’t think that the same opportunities for cost savings without loss of quality are possible.

        • You are absolutely wrong about standards. If you really believe what you are saying, I can only conclude that you have never worked in agriculture (I have–not just in Peace Corps, where my main task was training farmers to use oxen for plowing, but in this country, where I have worked with hogs and chickens). Low quality in food isn’t only from processing, but from over-use of fertilizers and herbicides and pesticides… among other things (look at how those hogs and chickens are “grown”). The farm goods may look good to you, but they really aren’t what they seem to be–especially if you look at the whole picture, and not just at the shiny-looking apple.

          The only way one can say that industrial farming is successful is if one does not look under the surface. Groundwater pollution, anyone? I could go on, but I think my point is clear.

          But let me add… there are unintended consequences to industrialized farming, such as this, just posted by the New York Times. The article says the virus is not harmful to humans, but the industrial farrowing barns could possibly destroy our hogs. Certainly, keeping that from happening is costing fortunes now… fortunes that could likely have been saved by smaller operations with more careful human oversight. Money was saved… but at what cost? This is only one example of the problems with agriculture today, and one I came across by chance just a moment ago. There are many, many more.

          • You are probably right about meat production, and I do worry about overuse of antibiotics and pesticides. I mainly buy organic produce, meat, and dairy products, which significantly reduces these undesired side-effects. Although that raises prices somewhat for me, the prices are still quite low by historic standards, and the quality is quite high.

            There may have been a short period (no more than 50 years) when food in the US was of higher quality than the mass market stuff of today, but go back even 100 years and you’ll find much higher rates of contamination and food-borne illness, even in high-end foodstuffs.

  1. Pingback: Oh, Please | Learning-Teaching | Scoop.it

  2. I agree the lecture is an important tool. I further agree that the ftf class time is extremely important. I am not convinced that there may not be, however, some synergistic combination of online lecture/demonstration/homework component combined with the more essential interaction between professor and class within the same space. I would like to be able to maximize my interaction time with students. If this means that perhaps part of the lecture component could be placed into the online world, that some form of assessment of student learning from that lecture could be required, then perhaps even more of the valuable ftf time may be given over to clarifying confusion, exploring implications, and otherwise developing interesting outcomes from a more actively engaged classroom.

    • There are lots of ways teaching can be arranged, and any number of excellent tools–including digital ones. But the face remains, the best education always involves close interaction with a teacher.

  3. Pingback: “If you gotta ask, you’ll never know.” | More or Less Bunk

  4. Thank you, Mr. Barlow, this is brilliant. In my opinion, the less mature (not just younger) the learner, the more critical that face-to-face time is.

  5. Pingback: Getting your students to really think independently | Neil Atkin

  6. Pingback: Getting your students to really think independently | Dragonfly Training

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.