In the allegorical tradition, no story is more tried-and-true than: "I was lost . . . but now I'm found." Everyone likes a conversion narrative. I have discovered the error of my ways! Now, I am on the straight-and-narrow! The status quo is restored. All is well.
I'm getting tired, though, of how often this "lost" and "found" binary plays out in journalism about higher education and any attempt at innovation. Why? I do not know anyone--anyone--who would say that all education, K-graduate school, in 2012 is perfect. Yet I am constantly reading articles debunking those who, recognizing problems, are working to fix them. Why is educational reform such an uphill battle?
The source of my complaint today is an article about someone I greatly admire, Mike Wesch, of Kansas State University. I've met him only two or three times, corresponded a half dozen or a dozen times, but I follow his research and his student-colalborative productions closely. He inspires me. The YouTube video he and his students made, "A Vision of Students Today," has been viewed over 4.5 million times--and it should be. It highlights the problem of students who need a form of education that is not being delivered by our educational system, and that itself models a collaborative, low-tech, participatory learning (students hold up statements, backed by facts, on notebook paper, and the whole is then edited into a low-cost video). To make the video required research and thinking and creativity, all the students colearning together. The project is about transforming hierarchical one-way teaching into engaged, interactive learning and it exemplfies that method. Here's the url: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGCJ46vyR9o
So of course i was dismayed when I read this headline about Mike Wesch in the Chronicle of Higher Education: "A Tech-Happy Professor Reboots After Hearing His Teaching Advice Isn't Working." http://chronicle.com/article/A-Tech-Happy-Professor-Reboots/130741/ Really? The same prof who a month ago had invited me to come to Kansas State for the launching of his brilliant Ed Parkour innovative teaching initiative had, in the intervening few weeks, renounced his commitment to engaged, interactive, collaborative, problem-based learning? Ed Parkour is about "learning around, over, and beyond the walls." Real-world learning, theory transformed to practice and community engagement, book-learning inspiring social change. All the things that make learning valuable not for the A grade but for, to quote Anthony Appiah, helping us all with the great existential question with which we are presented: "how to live a life."
But negotiating that existential obstacle race, in the classroom and out, was not the subject of this CHE piece. If I just read this piece, I'd think Wesch had been ("he was lost") the most gadget-happy technophile on earth, and that, thanks to the intervention of some wise old lecturers, he now had converted back to traditional teaching ("and now he's found"). Well, he was never tech happy and, as far as I can see from his subsequent posts, he's not now standing in front of a lecture class with fifty power-point slides lecturing on "A Vision of (Misguided) Students Today: Or, How 4.5 Million Students Can All Be Wrong." Not.
If you go to the Chronicle article, you will see Mike Wesch's comment. I'll quote some of it here: "My main point is that participatory teaching methods simply will not work if they do not begin with a deep bond between teacher and student. Importantly, this bond must be built through mutual respect, care, and an ongoing effort to know and understand one another. Somebody using traditional teaching methods (lecture) can foster these bonds and be as effective as somebody using more participatory methods. The participation and "active learning" that is necessary for true understanding and application may not happen in the classroom, but the lecture is just one piece of a much larger ecosystem of the college campus. An effective lecture can inspire deep late night conversations with peers, mad runs to the library for more information, and significant intellectual throwdowns in the minds of our students." Exactly.
And you can read two of his blog posts about the matter here: http://mediatedcultures.net/smatterings/why-good-classes-fail/ and
The issue is more complicated and great teaching, old and new forms, is about engagement, participation, contribution, and inspiration. What interests me, though, is how often those of us who are trying to push our colleagues to put those matters out front are parodied and reduced to a caricature. "Davidson believes you can ONLY learn through blogs, not term papers." On and on. The whole point of great teaching is that it takes the obvious and makes it exciting, interesting, through engaged specialized knowledge that forces you to go beneath the surface, to probe more deeply, to think theoretically about contradiction, and then, to find ways to apply those insights in whatever "life" one leads outside the classroom---around, over, and beyond the walls, as Wesch would say. If we don't make learning count around, over, and beyond the Ivory Tower, then why bother?
If you are twenty-two when you graduate from college, you have, if you are lucky, a lot of years left to make the lessons count. Every study of learning (check out Roddy Roediger's work here) shows that it is the content you hear and apply, you learn and grapple with, that you remember later and recall when you need it. It's not about tech or non-tech. It's about engaged participation in the world we live in now, not the fantasy of the future, not the nostalgia of the past.
Next year, behavioral economist Dan Ariely and I will be co-teaching a course called "Surprise Endings! Social Science and Literature," about how we can use the experimental method to find out a little more about what makes humans tick--but we still have to tell the story, to find a narrative to put into context the results of the quantitative, empirical research we do. Dan and I are interested in how the narratives we make up about ourselves, derived from the narrative scripts of our culture, sometimes lead us into thinking we think things we don't really think. That is the "predictably irrational" of his bestselling book. We make the same mistakes over and over because we believe we aren't making them. We cannot see ourselves until someone shows us the contradictions between what we actually do and what we believe we do. In Now You See It, I deconstruct a Cymbalta ad that uses the "I was lost, but now I'm found" conversion story to compel us to call our doctor to ask for Cymbalta to solve all our problems ("I'm Saved!") even as we are hearing the long litany of side effects that have been experienced by some other users of Cymbalta. We want to believe the conversion story. Despite the evidence to the contrary.
I would like to challenge journalists to think about their own storytelling. If every innovation is a story of doom waiting to be converted back to the status quo, and yet every story about education is about how students are failing, education costs too much, education doesn't prepare students for the complex world and job market they will enter, education is antiquated, educators resist change . . . You know the score! It's lose lose, and the conversion stories send us right back to the status quo that, according to the other stories, is recalcitrant, unresponsive, resistant to change. That doesn't exactly inspire anyone to try, damned if you do, damned if you don't, and a lot of Schadenfreude for the person who dares to be bold and then pulls back a bit and reconsiders.
Chronicle of Higher Education writer Jeff Young is one of my favorite writers on education. He's written many fair, balanced, incisive articles on education and so it's fine if he gets one wrong occasionally. But I need to say this: I really dislike this piece on Mike Wesch--it does Mike an injustice and is a disservice to dedicated teachers everywhere who want innovation, relevance, participation, and who care about the difficult challenges their students face in the world. There are much better stories to tell. And, if we are going to make education responsive to the demands of our world, we have to find those better stories. I hope, together, we can not only find those better stories but make more and more of them for ourselves and our students.
Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions. NOTE: The views expressed in Cat in the Stack blogs and in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of HASTAC, nor of any institution or organization. Davidson also writes on her own author blog, www.nowyouseeit.net .