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“Learning More than We Are Taught”: Technologies as a mirror on higher education, Part 2

30 Apr

The Classroom: Marisol’s Perspective

Last week you heard from Alison Link, an M.A. student working in academic technology and program evaluation. This week, Marisol Brito, a Ph.D. candidate in the field of philosophy will jump in. Both posts take on this complex question before teachers in higher education:

What sort of mirrors are technologies holding up to traditional institutions of education?

Or in a more colloquial student voice:

If I can get the Powerpoint online, why am I bothering to attend a university or walk into a classroom?

Ultimately, we want to seize these moments of writing, reading and thinking together to reaffirm what we value in education, what we need and demand from our educational experiences both as University students and educators, and to spark dialogue and thinking among our colleagues holding up mirrors and shaping similar questions.

Learning more than we are taught

There is a passage that hangs above the door of my son’s preschool classroom that catches my eye nearly every time I pass it:

Even though students do not learn all they are taught, they learn considerably more than they are taught.

On these mornings, I find myself nodding in intuitive agreement and imagining, without much effort, ways in which I recognize the importance of such a statement in a classroom for young children.

Technically, I suppose, the students may be learning about glue for an afternoon, or snakes, or some other content area, but as a parent it is obvious to me that my child’s classroom is about a great deal more than subject content. My son learns from the patience, kindness, and empathy of the teacher, from the mistakes, frustration, and joy of the other children. He learns from nearly everything that happens around him.

We assume these things in small children. We think of them as learning to live.

Certainly, I would not think that a Powerpoint, or video, or any technology, could fully replace the experience he has in the classroom.

But what about big kids? Adults even? As I take my leave from the preschool, moving fom my role as parent to my role as university instructor, understanding how the quote applies seems less clear – and the question as important:

Is the classroom experience also a way in which adults – college students and teachers – learn more than they are taught?

I think it’s fair to say that culturally, such a belief is not generally how higher education has approached classroom education. Unless specifically noted otherwise, I would hazard that both instructors and students primarily view higher education as content education. If a student takes a chemistry course, that student likely expects to learn chemistry. Perhaps an ambitious student might hope to like the teacher, to learn how the teacher thinks, or learn what the teacher enjoys about chemistry. It is possible even that the student might expect to learn how to be a chemist. It seems significantly less likely that the student expects to learn in these exchanges how to be a person.

The classroom as a medium

But, when are we not learning how to be people?

As explored last week, McLuhan offers a notion that may be helpful here, he writes:

[The] medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium–that is, of any extension of ourselves–result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology … – Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (1964), p. 19-24

When we engage with the world, whether that engagement is via a classroom, a phone call, an online forum, or a currently unimagined technology, there are personal and social consequences that follow from the form of engagement we choose. We extend ourselves through that medium, and the medium becomes part of the message we receive – the medium becomes one of our, often inadvertent, teachers.

In a classic classroom that might mean the student learns to sit still, or defer to authority. In an active learning classroom that might mean the student learns to work with peers to suss out a solution. Either way the classroom and the pedagogy are part of the message the student receives – in effect they also become teachers.

In this way of thinking, any medium – that is anything or anyone – becomes a teacher, not just a person with a certain title or credential. As instructors we need to recognize that we are not alone in the classroom, we have a host of co-teachers.

The classroom as a teacher/messenger

If the medium through which we learn is a teacher in itself then our classrooms hold messages far beyond content, and our students (and us) do learn from those messages. It is important then, that we don’t overlook the role of the classroom by assuming it is a neutral or null messenger.

For me, the colloquial question raised by the use of Powerpoint, If I can get the Powerpoint online, why am I bothering to attend a university or walk into a classroom?, forces my attention toward examining what I want from and believe about classrooms and learning.

What do we really believe about learning? What do we really want from an educational experience?

I thought about writing about Dewey, I thought about writing about Aristotle, but when I think about what I most want for education, I think about John Stuart Mill.

Relationships as a way to learn – John Stuart Mill and friendship

When trying to confront problems that in his time seemed nearly insurmountable, Mill advocated for friendship – for a kind personal relationship – to be one of the most promising ways to effect genuine change in society. Mill’s advocacy of friendship was deeply rooted in his conviction that friendship is one of the most meaningful ways that we learn. He writes in The Subjection of Women:

When each of two persons, instead of being a nothing, is a something; when they are attached to one another … the constant partaking in the same things, assisted by their sympathy, draws out the latent capacities of each for being interested in the things which were at first interesting only to the other; and works a gradual assimilation of the tastes and characters to one another, partly by the insensible modification of each, but more by a real enriching of the two natures, each acquiring the tastes and capacities of the other in addition to its own. (emphasis added)

I believe we can understand Mill’s view as holding that friendship allows us to grow in two specific ways:

  • first, by increasing the number of things we know about, and
  • second, by increasing the number of things we care about.

Both of these things are deeply important to our growth, as it is when we both know about AND care about something that we will be best able and motivated to act, and act well, in relation to it.

A chemist grounded in such relationships, for example, would be supported to practice chemistry in an informed and responsible way – one in concert with needs of and obligations to the wider world. She would not practice chemistry and practice personhood separately – the two would be intertwined.

If we know about something, but don’t properly care about it – we could worry that we won’t act enough, or at all.

If we care about something, but don’t properly know about it – we could worry that we won’t act properly.

For Mill, friendship is a way that we learn and grow.

Now, this doesn’t mean that we need to be besties with our students. But it does mean that we might want to view relationship building, teacher-student and student-student, to be an intentional and meaningful aspect of our pedagogy. In fact, for Mill, relationships were not just a place to better learn content …

Relationships as a way to create knowledge – Mill, Taylor and friendship

In addition to helping us better navigate the world of knowledge as it already exists, Mill also views friendship as a way to create new knowledge. Writing about his friendship with Harriet Taylor, Mill reports that their ability to look up to one another, to challenge one another, and to engage one another leaves them better able, together, to discover knowledge in the world. He writes in an 1832 letter (to William Bridges Adams):

Each of us knows many things which the other knows not, & can do many things which the other values but cannot himself do, or not so well. There is also just that difference of character between us which renders us highly valuable to each other in another way for I require to be warmed, you perhaps occasionally to be calmed. We are almost as much the natural complement of one another as man and woman are: we are far stronger together than separately, & whatever both of us agree in, has a very good chance, I think, of being true.  (emphasis added)

For Mill, friendship is a way that individuals and the wider world can learn and grow, as our different experiences, knowledge, and the care we have for one another can work in concert to help us come to new truths and understandings.

What do we really want?

So what do I really want – for learning, for teaching; for learners and teachers?

I want to be sure that we don’t overlook the medium of our message – that we use our classrooms and other educational spaces with intention. That said, I would like relationships to be an acknowledged part of those intentions. If relationships are part of learning, and part of creating knowledge, then I want us to keep Mill – and Taylor – in mind, and take the following questions seriously:

How and where can we support and foster relationships …

  • … in the classroom?
  • … in the university?
  • … online?
  • … somewhere else entirely?

How do we – teachers, and also students – make relationships central to the “medium” of education?

I’m not sure yet what all the answers are – but I am confident that it’s going to take asking curious questions that hold up mirrors.  And, I am curious to know from my peers as well as my students: What do you want?

I also know that answering is going to take more than a few Powerpoint slides

Related Posts

Alison Link – “If I can get the Power Point online…”: Technologies as a mirror on higher education, Part 1.

Marisol Brito and Alex Fink – Learning from Early Childhood Education – Two Pedagogy Nerds Contemplate What Higher Ed Might be Overlooking.

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