Nine Rules for the Education Apocalypse

1. Don’t fear the Apocalypse. Emily Dickinson knew she was in the presence of poetry when she could feel physically the top of her head coming off. This was not a metaphor. It was a mystical experience. Incidentally, the word “apocalypse” (from the Greek apokaluptein) means “revelation,” and more specifically “to uncover,” as in lifting the top of a box. Surprise! It’s a present! Let’s not fear the apocalypse, but instead prepare our education system for transformation. Instead of exams, let’s assess them on whether or not the tops of their heads come off. Education should be about running a more complex, subtle operating system.

2. Suck less. There is this guy with a tug-boat who hauls icebergs from the North Pole to the Middle East to provide fresh water for billions. His job is easier than getting students to learn and getting teachers to teach. You can tug an iceberg to a desert and everyone will drink, but you can’t lead anyone to learning. I have yet to see a so-called education reformer address the fundamental problem with the education system, which is, put succinctly: school sucks. Boredom is the main currency of education, exchanged fluidly between teachers and pupils.

3. Create a new center. Where is the Andy Warhol of education reform, charging way out in front of the generals, the avant-garde? It was Warhol who created a new center out in the margins. He built a new camp that at first looked foolish, laughable, but soon became the new center. Prophecy. Then, after some time, his work became the status quo, until…look…here comes another Andy!

4. Be Useless. In The Idea of a University, Cardinal John Henry Newman creates a distinction between useful and useless knowledge, and then sides mainly with the latter. The Liberal Arts are the useless arts and, therefore, supremely useful. The merely useful fields of study are definitely useful, make no mistake, but they are not nearly useless enough. Chuang Tzu knew this, and so favored the disabled and crooked trees, and generally preferred to drag his tail in the mud rather than coming to court with sage advice for the king. Too few sages make the difficult decision to be useless. Too many decide to be useful, to claim a role in the established drama. Watch out for anyone chasing his destiny, submitting to fate, or following his dreams! Too often people dream of being useful. What’s the use in that? The earth, to pick one example, is completely useless. It doesn’t do anything. It plays a non-zero-sum game, and, even better, it’s totally unaware of itself, or at least can’t be bothered to submit the proper reports. The earth doesn’t care. It treats humanity like a straw dog. It does nothing, endlessly. See that oh-so-exquisite school of fish circling the coral? It dissipates, and then reconstitutes itself into various, ever-changing patterns. Constant adjustment, constant beauty, constant change. This is what we should be teaching our children: how to make beautiful schools. Of course, this requires rules and hard work. But mostly it means being useless and doing nothing.

5. End grades. If we treat students like rubrics, don’t be surprised if all they care about is grades, or, worse yet, don’t care about grades at all. The best students and the worst students are the ones who don’t care about grades. Students are not percentages, points, letters; they are not dollar signs, checked or unchecked boxes on rubrics. They are whole people and will respond as such if you treat them accordingly. A rubric is for a mechanic. This is what’s wrong with your car. This checks out okay. Transaction complete. Let me top off your fluid. If creating life-long learners is what we’re after, then why do we care so much if they get it right at the end of each three-month block? Let’s measure them in thirty years. See how well we did. Assess this: Dharma burning through Karma. Or, “We’ll change your brain, or your money back!” MRI instead of final exam. Replace the scantron with the brain scan.There are no grades in reality. There is only practice. The world is practice. God is practicing right damn now. Hey, Shakespeare, you forgot to finish that subplot with Polonius spying on Laertes in Paris. Minus 10 points on your little Hamlet play. Also, your main character has too many contradictions. Was he insane? Was he faking? It’s really unclear. Plus, I’m pretty sure you plagiarized, Shakespeare. I saw you looking over little Thomas Kyd’s shoulder.

6. Destroy Departments; Kill Majors. The new schools should soften all boundaries between genres, subjects, majors, departments, and degrees and instead orient student energy around direct action, creation, and experiment. The only reform necessary is a release and redistribution of energy. (Education reform! Ha! Was it ever formed to begin with?) The ever-shrinking art, music, physical education problem solved: do them all at once: climb and swing from ropes to splatter paint while listening to music and recording audio and video to edit into a film later. Or else we do all school work while walking 2.2. miles-per-hour on treadmills, ala Brain Rules by John Medina. Walking and writing. Perfect. Word art! Large scale installation art work made of language, maybe heavy-lifting in there, too. Let’s throw all subjects together! Science and Home Economics and History, study the chemical composition of food and the history and culture of dishes and cuisines. History, Literature, Religion, Philosophy, Psychology, Astrobiology, Evolution….these are not separate subjects. Never could be. The inventor of the concept of “bits” thought of himself as neither physicist nor engineer. The writings of Emerson are neither essays, sermons, or in line with normative categories of literature we might use to partition a syllabus: poem, play, fiction, non-fiction. What was Teilhard deChardin writing? You might find him in the bookstore under philosophy, religion, paleontology? Joseph Campbell? Marshall McLuhan? Bucky Fuller? There is nothing liberal about partitioning knowledge into categories or majors. The globe cannot be divided into majors and minors, so neither can its consciousness. The university is the globe’s consciousness. Not, “What’s your major?” but what are you working on, thinking about, advocating, becoming? Not, “Where are you from?” but “Who are you now?” In order to change schools, you would have to change yourself, and no one wants that. Socrates, at the beginning of Western Education, said, “Know Thyself!” and still, we do not listen.

7. No classrooms! Learning is the goal. Who cares the vehicle? As soon as you set the times for a class period, you kill learning, which does not occur in 50 minutes chunks at the appointed time. In school, out of school. In class, after class. Such ridiculous boundaries. Education has a design problem. Create whole learning environments, entire learning communities (not just like two classes jammed together for 6 credits.) I mean a whole learning world. Does the Internet exist? I mean, if the internet is everywhere, it is nowhere. It just is. If it’s in our cars, phones, brains, then it is an extension of life as we know it. Same for education, same then doubly of online education. It should be called just education, and then, not even that. There is no classroom, never was—don’t go to class—you are the classroom, the pupil, the teacher, the world, the universe, basic human consciousness is the university. The university is nowhere and everywhere or else its center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. I forget which one.

8. No more hoops and papers! Jump through the hoop! Get the piece of paper! No, let’s paper over the hoop and at least make them crash through it. Or shrink the hoop! Maybe expand its circumference beyond detection. Make the center of the hoop everywhere, the circumference nowhere! If you get your piece of paper, you will be prepared, at least, for the coming fascist onslaught. (Show me your papers!) If the paper is what matters, than the trappings of education matter. The book itself matters more than the content, more than the act of reading. Book as bludgeoning device. There is no teachable moment, only one continuous mistake. Shikanza, shikanza. Your assignment for next time: Build a new planet from scratch with your hands.

9. Charter for a New University (Based on Mirra Alfassa’s Auroville Charter)

—The university belongs to nobody in particular. It belongs to humanity as a whole. But to live in the University, one must be the willing servitor of the Global Consciousness.

—The university will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress and a youth that never ages.

—The university wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and from within, the University will boldly spring toward the future realization.

—The University will be a site of material and spiritual research for a living embodiment of an actual human unity.

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The Teaching-Learning Paradox Revisited (Part 1)

A simple syllogism to begin:

1. All people are ideologues*.

2. Teachers are people.

3. You know what goes here.

If you reject the premise, you probably want to stop reading. You are the problem.

If you accept the premise, you also probably want to stop reading. Some unpleasantness flows from it.

There is a secret that snakes through the history of education research. In fact, it’s not even a snake. A snake could easily slip into the rushes and go unnoticed. What I’m writing about looks more like a roaring springtime river bloated with snowmelt. Don’t fall in.

NO DIFFERENCE

In their 1968 study The Teaching-Learning Paradox: A Comparative Analysis of College Teaching Methods, Robert Dubin and Thomas C. Taveggia analyze 40 years of research comparing the effectiveness of a range of college teaching methods, including lecture, discussion, tutorials, independent study, small group work, and TV courses (1968’s equivalent of online education). Their book can be summarized in two words: “No Difference.”

Dubin and Taveggia poured over the data of nearly 100 studies that compare teaching methods by using final examinations as dependent variables (a potential weakness I’ll discuss later). What they found should be disturbing to any instructor who has ever flown the flag for a particular teaching method, for example, favoring small group work over lectures.**

They repeat their conclusions frequently throughout the 86-page study, anticipating, rightly, that no one would listen:

In the foregoing paragraphs we have reported the results of a reanalysis of the data from 91 comparative studies of college teaching technologies conducted between 1924 and 1965. These data demonstrate clearly and unequivocally that there is no measurable difference among truly distinctive methods of college instruction when evaluated by student performance on final examinations. (35)

Lecture? Lecture plus discussion? Small group work? One-one-one tutorials? Self-directed independent study.

No difference. Regardless of method, students will earn the same grade on the final examination.

Rubin and Taveggia also compared small classes with large classes, as well as so-called instructor-centered vs. student-centered classrooms (a bizarre, Orwellian construct if I’ve ever heard one. More on that in future installments.)

No difference.

Just to repeat: When measuring the performance on college final examinations, lecturing is no worse or better than other methods (despite the lecture’s oh-so authoritarian overtones). In fact, it does not matter one whit which teaching method is employed.

Sure, 1968 is a long time ago, but The Teaching-Learning Paradox has been cited over 200 times since then, and there is widespread agreement on its conclusions. Medical educators seem particularly drawn to (and perhaps repulsed by) its conclusions. This is unsurprising given the importance of final exams in medical school, and the heavy content-knowledge required to become a medical professional (again, Rubin and Taveggia are measuring the kind of end-of-semester knowledge acquisition that many of us may find limiting).

Olle Ten Cate, a medical school professor and former president of the Netherlands Association for Medical Education, published an article in 2001 called “What Happens to the Student? The Neglected Variable in Educational Outcome Research” that is largely a response to the problem presented by Rubin and Taveggia. Ten Cate summarizes the problem (and the accompanying feeling of frustration). He also, however, begins searching for a way around the paradox:

Yet, is it conceivable that there really is no difference in the effects of such different treatments in education? How can we sustain the idea that systematically different educational approaches, not during one hour, not a day, or a week, but during four or six full years and thousands of hours of ‘experimental treatment’, will show hardly any measurable differential effect other than student opinion? (83)

He also points to the money that is being wasted on such studies, since it has been clear for decades that the overall conclusion is “No Difference.”

If we put so much money, time and energy in such huge curriculum experiments, some day the community might not remain satisfied with the consistent finding of ‘no difference’.

You could easily connect the conclusions of The Teaching-Learning Paradox to today’s hot teaching technology, online education. A 2009 meta-analysis of online education by the U.S. Department of Education showed no significant differences in the learning outcomes of three different teaching “mediums” (online, web-blended, and face-to-face). The study’s conclusions claim that blended students performed “modestly better,” but if you dig into the study a bit more, it stipulates that “the studies in this meta-analysis do not demonstrate that online learning is superior as a medium,” only that many of these course required more from students and instructors and “It was the combination of elements in the treatment conditions (which was likely to have included additional learning time and materials as well as additional opportunities for collaboration) that produced the observed learning advantages.”

This lines up nicely with Dubin and Taveggia’s conclusions. If I can take some liberties here and subvert Marshall McLuhan, it’s the message, not the medium.

In fact, as Dubin and Taveggia note, there are only two factors that are consistent in all 91 studies they analyzed: students enrolled in a course, and each course featured a textbook. Lecture at them. Make them watch you on TV. Make them do the work on their own. Make them log into a website. Tutor them.

As long as they are enrolled in your course and reading a textbook……

You guessed it:  No Difference!

HOW CAN I MAKE A DIFFERENCE?

Are you drowning yet? Rethinking your teaching method? Wondering whether or not this huge push for more interactive, student-centered learning environments (think ice-breakers, small group work, group projects, student agency, one-one-sessions) has been a complete waste of time?

Well, yes. Yes it has.

That is, if your central goal is to deliver content. The evidence seems clear. At the end of the semester, students will know about the same amount of stuff regardless of teaching method***. Read The Teaching-Learning Paradox and then sit through some faculty training on how to engage students. If you’re not furious, you can’t do math. Dubin and Taveggia’s work is lucid and straightforward, and seems to be supported with each new study on teaching methods. If your goal is for your students to obtain content knowledge by the end of the semester, you should be in open revolt against anyone who suggests that one teaching method is superior to another. It simply isn’t true.

But…

What if content delivery isn’t your ultimate goal? And what might Rubin and Taveggia be leaving out? In future posts, I will consider other studies and books that present the issue from a slightly different angle. For now, let me return to Ten Cate’s paper for some possible solutions. First, he provides a potentially depressing anecdote that (after some reflection) presents a way forward from The Teaching-Learning Morass:

Some call it the VanderBlij Effect, after the Dutch math professor who delivered remarkably clear lectures. However, students attending his lectures usually received lower grades at the test than those who had not attended his teaching. The latter were forced to study so hard to master the material that they really grasped it. But the effect we are discussing may affect students in both groups.

Oh my. Even skilled teachers are wasting their time? This story actually offers an important (and hopeful) truth: authentic student-centered environments (and student effort and study time) can have an impact. In fact, this was the only thing that Rubin and Taveggia found that did make a difference:

We found two studies in, the literature which compared some form of study with no study and evaluated their respective outcomes on examinations covering ability to recall or prove knowledge of course content.These studies had a total of six comparisons between groups of students who studied and those who did not, all of which were independent comparisons. The results are significantly in favor of study. (26)

The grand irony of many so-called student-centered learning strategies is that they are just more instructor-centered strategies in disguise. It’s the soft authoritarianism of ceding control.  Above, we find that if students actually take their learning into their own hands, it can make a difference. It seems to be the only thing that does. As one of my colleagues says, “I don’t teach no one nothing.”

The lesson of The Teaching-Learning Paradox is that if instructors apply their own methods (whether instructor-centered or student-centered) it will not make a difference. Hence, Ten Cate’s question, “What Happens to the Student?” He claims that the studies Rubin and Taveggia analyzed (and almost all subsequent studies that support their conclusions) have three massive flaws: First, they confuse an independent variable for a dependent variable. That is, the results of a final examination are not really the result of the teaching method, they are an extension of it. This is why, potentially, all of the final exam results do not vary. Second, these studies are not truly blind, and can never be. If they students know they are being taught, they will act differently. Third, the effects on the student are not being measured. Is education simply about inputs and outputs? Is it merely about transferring knowledge? Shouldn’t we be looking for models that measure the effects on student behavior, which is, ultimately the one factor that can make a difference, if we extrapolate from the above mentioned studies on “studying,” and on the true meaning of the VanderBlij Effect?

Maybe The Teaching-Learning Paradox does not present a paradox after all. It might simply be an infinite regress. When the twin mirrors of content delivery and final examination are made to face one another, you get a perfect, endless, pointless reflection.

END OF PART 1

*Perhaps I’m abusing this term. I simply mean that everyone operates from within a particular perspective or set of perspectives, and that we often, consciously or not, make judgments about the world based on assumptions that our perspectives are superior to others. I’m doing it right now. One purpose of this blog post is to point out that educators often charge forth into the classroom under the assumption that their methods of instruction (whether cutting edge or traditional) are the most effective ones available. Evidence to support such claims does not exist.

**The results of the study hold true for different mixtures of methods, such as combing lecture, discussion, and small group work.

*** Later, I hope to discuss the difference between “teaching method” and “teaching style.” I will also discuss some more recent cognitive research. It may well be that “style” is another “method,” and that style will also make “no difference.” I hope not.

Should Only Rock Stars Make Online Lectures?

After reading David Byrne’s recent ode to Iowa (in which he recounts the state’s socialist utopian roots and observes that Iowa “may not be cool, but it might be beyond cool. Here among the winding creeks and fields of corn they may have arrived at some kind of secret satisfaction”), I went looking for more wisdom from the former Talking Heads musician and found his TED talk (which was thankfully decidedly un-TED. By that I mean it wasn’t a breathless, triumphant paean to the coming salvation of our digital overlords).

In fact, Bryne’s presentation is quite understated. He only makes one simple point: the evolution of music can be tied to architecture of performance venues.

This sound obvious, but it carries immense implications, essentially undermining the Romantic notion of creativity’s emergence from individual emotion and intuition. In other words, creativity isn’t the product of inner-magic. It is shaped by the external environment. In fact, Byrne argues that the external form might precede creativity, or, as he writes elsewhere:

So, the order of the process is the reverse from what is often assumed: the consideration of the vessel comes first, and that which fills it comes afterwards. Most of the time we’re not even aware of this tailoring we do. Opportunity is often the mother of invention. The emotional story — “something to get off my chest” — still gets told, but its form is guided by contextual restrictions.

He is writing about music, but I instantly thought of online lectures, and of the classroom in general.

Today, I read an anti-MOOC article in Slate by Jonathan Rees which, among other complaints, trashes the lecture format that appears in some MOOCs:

But the most common way to assess learning in the MOOCs offered by the largest providers is a single multiple-choice question after approximately five-minute chunks of pre-taped lectures. If I had told my tenure committee that I taught history this way, I’d be in another line of work right now.

I know exactly what’s he talking about, but I think he’s missing the point. You simply can’t teach the same way online that you can in the classroom. Had he told his tenure committee that he recorded and uploaded a live 80-minute lecture and discussion session onto Blackboard, he would not have pleased them either. Online instructors who use the 5-minute-and-quiz format are not trying to dumb their product down (that might be the unintentional result). Instead, they’re trying to adapt to a new environment.

I write differently on a blog than I do with my pen and notebook. I teach differently in a lecture hall than in an oval-shaped seminar room. I have some classrooms that I’m still trying to figure out. Exactly how do I teach in here?

The online classroom is one of those. We are all struggling to adapt.

Perhaps I was enamored by Byrne’s star power or his recent praise of Iowa, but I was able to pay attention to his lecture, in part, because of environmental or technological factors (it helped that I was intrigued by his argument as well).

That is, he used pictures, which he changed frequently. Also, the camera angles changed often. I don’t have a crew to replicate the latter, but the former is quite simple to do in an online lecture.

The video below is my relatively recent attempt to make a lecture that suits the online format, minus the camera (I have a hard time making this look natural or finding the right setting. I wish, like Byrne’s TED talk I could be recorded in a hall packed with people). Still, I use ten slides in less than 10 minutes, not MTV fast, but enough perhaps to keep attention.

In this respect, I should probably follow more of Pecha Kucha format, which is 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide. Here is author Dan Pink explaining and demonstrating:

Finally, here is a recent video I did using a webcam and a few pictures and text on PowerPoint. Someone told me it looked like I was talking in a closet. Again, I’m not sure how to make the video appealing without either having the camera pointed up my nostrils or projecting me in the background like a specter:

A regular classroom is just a regular classroom. No one is expecting Literature 101 at 8:00 in the morning to be a Hollywood production. But, once you create a video and upload it to YouTube you are, in a way, competing with the pros.

What is someone with no training in media and performance supposed to do? I guess become famous and let the TED folks film you.

I’ll get right on that.

The Teaching-Learning Paradox

In an earlier post, I discussed the Educator’s Catch-22, which demonstrates the absurdity of trying to teach intrinsic motivation in environments (i.e. schools) built on extrinsic motivation.

Now, in order to advance your suffering: say hello to the Teaching-Learning Paradox, first coined in a 1968 study by Robert Dubin and Thomas Taveggia who set out to compare a variety of teaching methods. Here is their key finding:

No shred of evidence was found to indicate any basis for preferring one teaching method over another as measured by the performance of students on course examinations. Underlying all theories concerning the efficacy of one teaching method over another is an implicit model of how teaching and learning are linked. However, we really do not know what the linkage is. The need for establishing clear and unequivocal links between a theory of learning and a theory of teaching is a vital one.

If you’re not following Rubin and Taveggia’s academic-ese, they’re really saying there is no way to determine which teachings methods are better than others. Furthermore, they admit there exists no clear connection between teaching and learning. When someone learns, we have no way of knowing what, if anything, the student’s progress had to do with the teacher or the teaching method.

Though this study was authored almost 45 years ago, the riddle has not yet been solved. We seem to agree that learning happens; we’re just not sure how.

This is a bit like developmental psychologists who claim to be clueless as to how developmental leaps occur. Changes can be charted and measured, but their cause is mysterious.

Adding to the confusion is the constant call for individualized instruction to appeal to a variety of learning styles. This is all Howard Gardner’s fault, I believe.

Here’s what we’re left with: everyone learns differently, but we don’t know how. Teachers can all teach differently, but it won’t make a difference because students will still learn, but we don’t know how. Different styles, strokes, folks, and so on.

I’ve as I’ve written elsewhere, learning can happen anywhere, at anytime, for any reason. We just don’t know why or how. Is that so bad?

You can dissect a frog, but not a mystery.