Tuesday, May 06, 2008

A more thought out response

As I said in an earlier post I went to a conference on Saturday. The keynote speaker was Mark Treadwell who helped design the new national curriculum for New Zealand.

Without being unnecessarily rude may I say that I found Mark Treadwell to be one of those "Visionary Leaders" that the other keynote speaker Jamie McKenzie warned us about that we should avoid in another session on Friday. Which is a shame, he seems like a nice guy and on a certain level I really liked him. I leave open the possibility that I completely misunderstood him.

He is I believe both misreading and misinterpreting the concept of child centered education as developed by John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Horace Mann and others.

I think that if Mark Treadwell's ideas were followed then we would have a society that could not maintain the machines that were required to sustain the society that the machines had created. In that sense his ideas are the antithesis of progressive education

While I disagreed with him on many levels he made one point that was very true; humans are not necessarily logical beings. It is strange to me that he should believe that and then not see that technology will be neither our salvation nor our downfall. After all, how could a logical machine redeem an illogical animal?

His, at least implied assertion that written language is being replaced with verbal language is demonstratively false. If for no other reason than people can read faster than they can speak. Reading about something is a much more efficient way of gathering information for most people than speaking. Especially when written language removes the barriers associated with accent.

His graph about the growth of knowledge and the "New Paradigm" that supposedly emerged in 2002 was, I think misleading in that the amount of knowledge may increase faster as a whole but the slope of change remains the same and the plateaus are shorter You would expect that because humans have the same brain they had 100,000 years ago and can only learn so fast. Knowledge increases in part because there are more people. More than that, most of the new knowledge, especially that on the Internet is not really knowledge at all, but some combination of conjecture, misapplication and bigotry. Thus, it has no education value. Other areas of knowledge are applicable only to specialized fields. Most people do not need to know much more to live their lives today than they did 50 years ago. It does not matter how much more is known in global sense.

In his follow up session in the afternoon he had a chart that showed how he believed that character education had flowed from conformity (discipline by force) to self interest to a moral reasoning. While in one sense there is some truth in this in another way it showed an almost laughable lack of understanding of educational history. It can easily be shown that the primary purpose of education, since at least the time of Plato has been to instill moral virtue. The modern public education movement at least in the United States and Canada was in large part started in the 19th century as a way to increase literacy so that the illiterate working class could develop the skills needed to read the Bible and therefore improve their moral understanding and not to simply have their religion dictated to them. So, his chart was in some important ways backwards.

I would also challenge his assertion that we are entering an age where creativity is more important than the past. Was the caveman making a flint tip for his spear any less creative than someone today? Indeed, it appears to me that people in an agricultural or pre-industrial society had to be rather more creative than the accountant, banker or generic bean-counter professions that we have today. In the past you solved problems or you died; today if you are not good at solving problems you become a middle-manager, politician, fashion designer, entertainer or any of a host of other jobs where creativity is discouraged in favor of recycling old trends or following an existing, somewhat ridged set of directives.

I also found his characterization of the educational process to be skewed. While previous generations did emphasis more route learning and some cultures emphasized it more than others it simply isn't true children were not taught to think or be creative in the past. The entire cannon of literature and the complete body of arts and sciences testify against Mark Treadwell at this point.

I think that in the past, possibly because there was less to distract us, humans engaged more in what I call meditative learning. This is the act of simply pondering a problem as you walk or while sitting down. Just thinking about something. Now with the ubiquity of Internet access almost nobody thinks because we do not have to. Search Google and see what somebody else says. How is that creative? I believe and I believe it strongly that to improve education we may not need more technology but less. (Please note, I do not suffer from technophobia) As our curriculum has become more crowded it is this meditative aspect of education that has most suffered and it is in this aspect of education that libraries used to excel. It is also the aspect of learning that is most obviously absent in Hong Kong Schools. Do you want to see creative, thinking, mature, morally grounded students graduating from you school who can face the terrors of adulthood with the ability to gain and use the skills needed to meet the challenge of the future? Then maybe we don't need to speed up learning but to slow it down.

All of this means that, contrary to what Mark Treadwell appeared to say, I don't think that the way good teachers teach has or is going to change very much. Teachers may use different media for instruction, incorporate new technology into lesson plans, apply concepts to real life situation, make the educational process student centered, encourage thinking and creativity and try to mold character as well as academic skills; but, when have good teachers not done these things?

The more things change the more they stay the same; and that is many times a good thing.

After hearing Mark Treadwell twice on Friday I decided I'd rather not hear what he had to say on Saturday. I stayed home and went out to lunch with the really smart, good looking, looks twenty-five years younger than she is, hard working wife. We enjoyed our meal.

Until Next Time
Fai Mao
The Blogger who styles himself as a part time philosopher of education

No comments: