Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Cultural Inertia in Teaching

I read about the Video format wars at length last night. For you young people that's was back in the day when the superior Beta format was done in by the popular VHS format. Not because the market saw the much better qualities of VHS (Beta was better), but instead because a few middle level mangers didn’t do such a good job at marketing Beta and well just bad luck for the Beta manufactures. Many people were left with Beta machines and no tapes.

Witch reminds me of an ancient Chinese proverb I read years ago…

Student:  Why does a river flow that way?
Master: Because of the water that came first.

Well – really I made it up – but it sounds like an ancient Chinese proverb.

Culture can be like river and sometimes it is just a matter of getting there first with your flag, standard or point of view. Then improving upon what you are trying to do to make it work. The problem comes if your basic concept is flawed – because you can’t build on shoddy foundation no matter how much money, resources or time you have. The whole thing is just going to fail again and again.

Modern teaching is like that – in the middle ages monks created a standard mythical ideal of the busy copyist who is a learned scholar and this mythological ideal has stayed with us through years of reform and rethinking.

Imagine for a moment that you are sitting in a monasteries copy room, Stacks of books and scrolls fill the room. The atmosphere is hushed and quite. In one corner is monk who busy working on maps. In the main section are two or three monks working on books. There ink bottles are full and their feather pens are busy. Sun light filter into the room from distant windows and the sound of birds can be heard, but the monks do not raise there heads from the books.

The head monk is sitting on raised platform in the middle of the hall. He is keeping track of the other monks work overseeing their production and quality of there work. The chief monk is not cruel , but neither is he really interested in the personal development of each of his monks. He is more concerned that the books, maps and scrolls being copied are accurate.
This mythology lies dormant in the mind of every teacher in the world. A successful classroom is seen as hushed and quite with scholars quietly working on there separate projects. Even though being a successful copyist has little too do with any connection with the word learning.

The problem of course, is that copyists are busy copying down important facts and figures, they are not engaged in effort to study or learn something.   Also the role of the copyist has been replaced by the printing press about four hundred years ago…

Institutional teaching has had a couple hundred years to be improved, but the basic mythological ideal keeps getting in the way. It’s time we killed the copyists off – it’s time for us to cut loose the idea of that teaching is the transfer of knowledge too the ideal that teaching is the inspiration of culture.

The river flows on – why master does the rive flow that way and how do we change it’s course?
Perhaps you know the answer.

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