Saturday, January 12, 2013

Education Unplugged

It has been an interesting week at Enema U.  The students and the professors are still MIA, but the nuts and bolts of the university continue to loosen as the university carries on.    University work is done in committees, and a committee is a life form several notches lower on the evolutionary scale than Congress.

I think I have figured out the flaw in meetings.  The sane people are full of doubts while the crazy people are full of confidence.   Not only is there no shortage of crazy people on campus, but it seems to be a competition.

At one of the meetings this week, I listened raptly while people who do not teach for a living told me in great detail exactly how teaching should be done.  “The Sage on the Stage is dead,” they said.  “Lectures no longer work.”

This was followed by hours and hours of being told that the pedagogy of teaching has changed.  Somewhere along the line, I have really developed a dislike to the word ‘pedagogy’.  The people who use the word the most often, seem to teach the worst.  For those of you with honest jobs, if you don’t know what the word means, it is Greek for the act of having an intimate relationship with a poodle.

Theories of teaching seem to change faster than Kardashian boyfriends, but I have noticed something along the way:  as the methods of instruction improve over time, test scores and graduation rates keep dropping. 

I took classes from quite a few really good professors, scholars who taught me to love history.  Somehow they managed to do this without modern teaching theories or technologically advanced classrooms.  The difference, I am told, is that the student of today was born with technology, is used to technology and demands it in the classroom--and technology demands new methods of teaching.  Personally, I think the problem is that students need to put down the smartphone until they master the technology of books.

Somehow, technology seems to drive just about everything in education today.  Online teaching, digital textbooks, distributed learning… the list of new—and as yet unproven--methods of instruction grows regularly.  And I confess to using many of these techniques myself.  But I think that somewhere along the line we have come to value the technology more than the teacher who enjoys teaching.

Several years ago, I developed a media-intensive lecture on the Jim Crow laws and the slow birth of Civil Rights.  The lecture included scores of PowerPoint slides of Southern Blacks being denied access to the polls and more than one graphic image of a lynching.  Less than an hour before class started, I got word that the projector had been stolen from the classroom and there was no possibility of obtaining a spare.

The class was not cancelled.  From my pickup, I took fifty feet of good 1-inch rope to the classroom.  While sitting on the table at the front of the room, I gave my lecture.  At the same time, as slowly as humanly possible, I tied a hangman’s noose.  I never mentioned the rope or the knot, just tied it glacially slowly as I talked.  I don’t think those students blinked until the lecture—and that knot—was finished.  I have never given that lecture with the PowerPoint slides.

Socrates, some 2400 years ago, said that a school was a log with a student on one end of it and a teacher on the other.  That method still works.

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