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A veteran journalist's take on such diverse subjects as religion and religious violence, democracy, freedom of expression, sociology, journalism, criticism, travel, philosophy, Southeast Asia, politics,economics, and even parenthood, the supernatural, film criticism, and cooking. Please don't hesitate to participate by starting a comment thread if you have an interest in any of these subjects...or anything else, for that matter... p.write@gmail.com

Toward a new educational paradigm

Education in the 21st Century

Patrick Guntensperger

Parksville BC, Canada/Jakarta Indonesia

 

 

We can no longer see education as the acquisition of information nor can we continue to see teaching as the dissemination of information; that paradigm is obsolete. Until now, learning involved acquiring knowledge; studying to learn facts and incorporating them into an understanding of the world. But as what we so tritely refer to as the Information Age progresses, we need to recognise that it is impossible to learn any subject thoroughly within any sort of educational institutional context. In fact, Information is so abundant and so accessible that it is beyond the scope of the educational process to convey any useful specialised information at all beyond the fundamentals of ‘readin’, ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmitic. That and the fundamentals of information acquisition are all we should be attempting to teach, if we look at teaching as the transmission of information. Teaching, however, is absolutely not obsolete, nor is learning. It’s just that we need to rethink what we mean when we talk about education.

Taking in information
An obsolete way of acquiring information

One of the universities at which I have lectured was largely an information technology and business school; it was obvious that the students enrolled primarily so that they could be at the cutting edge of the information age and could be functional within a society in which progress occurs at a rate that was unthinkable in the lifetime of their parents. Anyone who knows how an institution of higher learning works also knows that teaching courses in IT is simply not compatible with the old paradigm of university learning.

If a faculty member has an idea for a new course or an improvement on an old one, he or she writes it up along with a proposal for a syllabus and the materials required for the course. Between semesters the department head will look at the proposal and decide whether it has any value. If it gets green lighted, it will go to a committee that will tweak, rethink, revise, rewrite, and otherwise modify the course. By the end of the semester break it might be approved in a very different form. Then it will languish for a semester while lecturers are recruited, materials acquired, textbooks purchased and academic calendars describing the course and its value printed and distributed. By the time the first lecture is convened, the course, if it is an IT one, or one that deals with any subject in which there is ongoing progress, is prepared to present obsolete information and utilise obsolete technology in the computer labs. The students, if they are IT geeks to begin with, or are in any way committed to the subject, are way ahead of the curve before the course gets started. Everybody knows that if you have a problem with your computer, and you want it solved right away…you find a twelve-year-old.

learning on yesterday's technology
By the time the hardware’s installed, it’s obsolete

This occurs now and it will continue to occur at an exponentially increasing pace; that is the nature of today’s world. The fact is that the teaching profession is behind the learning consumer at every step of the way and always will be, as long as we maintain the current paradigm.

It’s time that we at any institution of higher learning recognise and accept the fact that we don’t teach; we facilitate learning. And it is with this in mind that I want to advocate an expanded focus on learning how to think. I have lectured and taught variations on that theme for most of my adult life and I believe that it is the study of critical thinking, logic, and reason that is the key to any progress that any but the dullest student will make. We can’t give them the information as it is developed; the pace is simply too fast. But we can teach them how to discriminate among the true, the likely, the unlikely and the bullshit. And that may be the highest calling of a teacher. Otherwise we are merely journeymen with a trade passing on traditional techniques to apprentices.

And while passing on a trade is an admirable endeavour, teaching people how to think has far reaching consequences that simple imitation of behaviour couldn’t begin to approach.

Learning to distinguish between reasonable ideas and crackpot ones, between ideas that prevail because they are traditional and those that prevail because they work, separating faith from knowledge, employing the tools of intellectual discrimination….these are the skills that need to be passed on. The specific trade or professional skills that one may attempt to teach will be outdated before they make it onto the syllabus.

Teaching students to enquire beyond simply paraphrasing Wikipedia (or more often cutting and pasting) to look into the sources of the information they can find is far, far more important than giving them that information in the first place.

Teaching students how logical fallacies work and encouraging them to look for them in day-to-day life will have an effect that will last a lifetime and will encourage the habitual employment of reason over superstition, habit, and moribund thinking. An adult who understands the basic principles of informal logic and is able to recognise a Straw Man, a Red Herring, Begging the Question, an Ad Hominem, and other simple fallacies is more likely to be able to have a chance at real success than a diligent student who has memorised the date of the Battle of Hastings. Need to know the date of the battle of Hastings? (1066) Look it up! Takes about 3 seconds. Moreover, looking it up might lead to further inquiry…if the subject is of interest or value.

Who was Casanova? That’s not likely to be taught along with the history of the Age of Reason. And yet a reading of his memoires gives a much more visceral and lively understanding of the period during which Rousseau, Voltaire, and Jefferson made their more famous contributions to cultural progress. But encouraging the search for knowledge is more likely to lead to Casanova’s writings than the dissemination of the dates of the events of the 1700s. Those dates will come up anyway. An interest in any subject is of vastly greater value than a collection of rote dates and occurrences.

We are past the point where we can teach knowledge. It can’t be done in any reasonable way. We are at a much better place; we now should be teaching how to learn. That’s the best skill that can be passed on.

Getting a start on their futures
What they now know is less than a freshman starting tomorrow

…enditem…

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Comments

  1. Today over lunch a woman tried to explain to me that the Sandy Hook shootings did not really happen. It was a conspiracy to help Obama pass new gun control laws. I refused to talk to her, so she explained it to some one else. Her final argument was that it had to be true because she read it on the Internet.

    I eat lunch with this woman everyday and she is a wonderful, thoughtful person. Even more interesting is she went to school and her grade point average was higher than mine. This might seem insignificant, but it’s not. There are currently millions of people out there that believe this and other totally stupid things. They were never taught the basic skill of critical thinking. They were never taught to “distinguish between reasonable ideas and crack pot ones” search for the source of their information, etc.

    I wish I could write a whole article on how to overhaul education.

  2. I hate to take issue with you by outright contradicting something you said. Nevertheless. That woman is neither wonderful nor thoughtful. If she was wonderful she would not give credit to a theory that would require the president of the United States and dozens of his subordinates engaging in a conspiracy that involved the brutal murder of twenty 6 year old children for crass political purposes. If she was thoughtful she would have dismissed the theory as offensively stupid.

    If she got a high grade point average, I would submit that she got it in a school where regurgitating the party line is what gets rewarded and in which the party line is stupid and paranoid.

    Critical thinking is the enemy of idiot thinking; perhaps that’s why religious schools don’t teach it.

    And please…you CAN write that kind of article. Go for it.

    • Poor word choice on my behalf. Here is the meaning I was giving those words:

      Wonderful: extremely kind and nice to others.
      Thoughtful: thinks of everyone else; considerate.

      Which is why I was so annoyed when she brought it up. When the Sandy Hook shooting took place she was one of the first ones to talk about how horrible it was.

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