All posts by Dr. Rosalind Warner

My background includes graduate work in Political Science at York University’s Centre for International and Security Studies, a one-year travel-study tour around the world focused on issues of peace and conflict resolution, and almost 20 years of teaching subjects from International Development to Canadian government. I have researched and published on topics like ecological modernization, global environmental governance issues, protected areas governance in North America, environmental discourses, and environment and trade in Canadian foreign policy. I am also energized by educational technologies and the latest news and information about teaching and learning in higher education.

Is Arts Education Ripe for Disruption?

In my companion post (ahem) a few weeks ago, I mused  about the potential for higher education to be vulnerable to the kinds of disruptive innovations occurring in other industries, like newspapers, music, and movies.  This time, I’ll explore a bit more how I see disruptive innovation affecting Arts education, which some see as particularly vulnerable to disruption. Although it’s sometimes easy to miss, Arts education is much more than attending lectures, writing essays and acquiring transferable and marketable skills.  Indeed, as this recent survey indicates, Arts educators would be remiss not to respond to the demands of their ‘clients’ for a greater and more meaningful experience animated by passion, curiosity, and depth.

It’s this complexity that makes Arts education less, rather than more, vulnerable to ‘MOOC-ification’.  The study of Humanities and Social Sciences requires an immersive and sometimes life-changing configuration of influences.  The expression of complex ideas in simple language, the organization and prioritization of research, and the exploration of the human experience from a range of viewpoints requires a commitment much larger than a given delivery system.  Arts education is larger than the acquisition of skills, indeed, referring to the complex processes of critical and creative thought as ‘skill acquisition’ devalues it, and is in many ways beside the point.

None of this is to deny that the institutional mechanisms of Arts education haven’t done some damage to the cultivation of critical and creative thinking.  Large lecture-style classes, cookie-cutter tests and formulaic essay-writing are convenient for educators concerned with conveying mass credentials, and have played their part in the past in reducing costs.  To the extent that Arts education conforms to the industrial practices of other subjects, it remains vulnerable.  However, new means of conveyance cannot yet accomplish the kinds of personal, individualized experience that Arts education aspires to (see the Culture lab as an example of this changing philosophy).

 To the extent that Arts education conforms to the industrial practices of other subjects, it remains vulnerable.

Protest Signs
Political Science emerged from turbulent times.

In addition, it matters that learners experience different Arts subjects in a manner that allows comparisons of their content. Most Arts undergrads take a few different subjects each term, offering the opportunity for cross-fertilization and meta-learning that can’t be accomplished by taking each subject in isolation, or ‘mixing’ and ‘matching’.  For example, my subject of Political Science emerged from a time when the arrival of mass warfare, revolutionary movements, totalitarian governments, and economic dislocations prompted an interest in cultivating citizens capable of making critical judgements based on historical knowledge.  This contextual knowledge of the origins of one’s society was believed to be a social good as well as an individual good.

Can Arts education evolve to meet the challenge of new technologies and disruptive innovations?  There is alot of synergy between the distributed model of online learning, and the more concentrated model of the classroom.  These two learning settings can be complementary.  With individual practice, testing and writing done in a distributed or individual setting, blended learning means making more time for group discussion, interactive question and answer sessions, and customized coaching in a personal or group setting.  Technologies can aid this process by enabling more time for intensive learning experiences when they are most effective, leaving educators the ability to collaborate and customize courses of study to suit their learners.  This can shorten the time necessary to learn.  However, making the most of disruptive innovation for the Arts means rejecting the temptation to reduce and narrow the purposes of Arts education to a specific and transferable set of measurable criteria.  Self-development and intellectual growth do take time, and for many, these experiences should not be rushed. Blended learning, coupled with open educational resources, can also improve accessibility and bring experiences to new learners who may not otherwise have the opportunity, by reducing the price without compromising the value of the experience.

Is Higher Education Ripe for Disruption?

Disruptive innovations are those that open up new markets by creating a demand using a simpler or different package of attributes from those available in existing markets.  Such disruptions tend to emerge in contexts remote from the immediate concerns of an established industry, but ultimately have wide and deep effects that can cause radical shifts.  Disruptive innovation is often less about the product and more about the delivery system or point of access to the product.  For example, most of us still watch movies or tv shows, but tend to download or stream the content rather than visit a Blockbuster.  Most of us listen to music and follow the news, but tend to download or stream music and use the internet to follow the headlines.   In the past, we may have opened up our morning newspaper or put a record on a turntable.  One of the lessons is that it is not sufficient to rely on demand for the product to drive a given mode of delivery.

While it is difficult to identify industries and firms ripe for disruption, the tendency is to point to large-scale concerns with overpriced products and stilted business models based on industrial-era formats.  Higher education has been in the sights of those writing about disruptive innovation for precisely this reason.  Its reliance on mass delivery of material through face-to-face lectures, the credit system which offers degrees based on time investment rather than competency, and its increasingly overpriced credential system has the hallmarks of an industry ripe for innovation.

I would argue that higher education is not a perfect fit, however, for the types of analysis offered by Clayton Christiansen and Sebastian Thrun and others concerned with disrupting education and encouraging more radical innovations.

In the case of higher ed, the product is less like a song or a movie or even a news article than it is like an extended experience.

In the case of higher ed, the product is less like a song or a movie or even a news article than it is like an extended experience.  A better comparison might be with the travel industry, similarly engaged in delivering what might be termed an ‘experience’, and one which operates on the basis of time as an investment [or, in the case of a vacation or an education, a reward for effort].

Experience or even time is a more complex commodity than a book or a song.  Although web-based booking has almost completely replaced travel agencies, professors are not like travel agents in that teaching involves a more complex and involved relationship than simply the ‘delivery’ of the material and the ‘reception’ in the mind of the learner.  Music and movies are still ‘mass produced’ and streaming a movie or song is virtually the same experience as playing the song on a record or watching a VHS.  In those industries, innovation was more disruptive because the experience the products offered were interchangeable.  In education as in travel, the experiences are more differentiated and uniqueness is the stock in trade, and increasingly, it is theIfQYv singular and unique interaction between the ‘consumer’ and the ‘product’ that creates and adds value.

it is for this broad reason that I hesitate to apply the frame of disruptive innovation to higher education.  Yes, there are problems with the mass delivery model based on lectures and textbooks and tutorials.  Yes, there will be challenges to the delivery model through MOOCs and even peer-led educational models as found on Redditt and other sites. However, a more likely outcome than a full rupture may be a disaggregation of the educational functions of accreditation, time in class, competencies, and resources.  In my next blog post, I’ll explore a bit more how I see disruptive innovation affecting Arts education, which some see as particularly vulnerable to disruption.  In fact, I will further argue that Arts education is actually less vulnerable to disruptive innovation than the STEM subjects precisely because of its unique character as an experience created by the organic relationship between teacher and student.  Education is as much process as product.

How to Follow the News: 10 Rules of Thumb

After following the news for many years and thinking about world events, I’ve been able to observe some things about news gathering. I’m an advocate of reasoned and dispassionate analysis based on information, but it can be hard to be impartial when so much of the news today is biased one way or another.  However, I don’t believe that reasoned thinking about international events is incompatible with advocacy.   The strongest and most defensible points of view are those that are supported with evidence and with thoughtful and informed reasoning.  Sometimes, though, it’s hard to be informed when the media obscures the truth.  The rise of the internet has not made it any easier.  In fact, speculation and accusations are given even a wider audience when things go viral.  So, here is some advice, feel free to take it or leave it, and try to keep an open mind.

  1. There are angels and devils on both sides, but this doesn’t mean the claims and arguments of both sides are morally equivalent.

In the aftermath of rage over the killing of 3 Israeli teens, many Israelis protected Arabs attacked by crowds on public transit.  Many Palestinians have worked inside and outside Israel for peace and understanding between the two sides.   Ordinary people on both sides want the same things everyone wants:  a chance to live peacefully, make a living, and enjoy some freedom.  Nevertheless, the costs of the long conflict have not been borne by both sides equally, and this reflects the large power imbalance between the two sides. This imbalance should be a factor when deciding one’s view.   Here is an analysis that puts this conflict in context, and considers the ethical arguments.  Here is another.

2. Real life events are [almost] always more complicated than they seem.

Folly, lack of foresight, incompetence and brutality can produce unexpected outcomes for all sides.   Indeed, the last few months have seen an unprecedented array of crises emerging in a variety of global locales.  In a highly competitive market, so-called ‘hard reporting’ has been replaced with shallowness at best, and inflammatory styles of reporting at worst  One consequence is that there are few able to offer a strategic analysis of a event.   One must often wait, or dig deeper, to get a better understanding of the big picture.  Try to find out about what happened in the immediate weeks prior to the event, or read about the country and regions involved to get a sense of the context.

3. People and systems are distinct things.

Individuals, whether in a leadership position or not, develop cognitive frames over the course of their lives to understand the world and their position in it.  Both people and systems will actively protect those frames, but systems take much longer to change course, partly because they are supported by longer generational memories. Systems are more permanent, and every system demands allegiance, but be careful not to identify individuals as symbols for systems, they are not the same thing.  People behave differently in a group than they do as individuals.

4. Sometimes good people do bad things, and vice versa.

Beware of the ad hominem argument.  An examination of the actor is often insufficient to explain any given behaviour or action.  A given actor usually cannot be reduced to a single bad (or good) decision.

5. Opportunism is far more common than planned conspiracies.

It is almost never good strategy to organize and plan an attack on one’s own people in order to gain sympathy.   The risks of discovery are high, and the results can backfire.   For example,  some explanations of the Odessa event of May 2nd 2014, in which dozens were killed in street clashes between pro-federalist and nationalist forces in Ukraine, strain credulity by claiming ‘agent provocateurs’ were responsible.  Similarly, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu tried to paint a negative view of the opposition by stating that: “Hamas wants civilian casualties”.   Be skeptical of such oversimplified characterizations and convoluted theories. Recognize that different sides will opportunistically use images to elicit anger and sympathy for their cause.   Have anger, and have empathy.

6. People don’t like inconsistencies, but these are frequent and often deep in human events.

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological state that happensPhilosoraptor when information is contradictory. Individuals often go to great lengths to overcome  the discomfort, including ignoring contradictory information, oversimplifying the facts, and narrowing the frame of reference.  Try to recognize these strategies in yourself and others. Try to become comfortable with contradiction, blurriness, messiness, and complexity.

7. Every report becomes part of a track record, don’t forget the past.

Don’t base your decision on a single report, study, or bit of information.  Compare today’s headlines with those of the past. Don’t forget when today’s reports conflict with those of yesterday. Follow stories that are given less attention, so you will know more about them.

8. All sides will try to appeal to emotions.  Beware of manipulation.

The internet and television news are eminently malleable, with out-of-context quotes, selective information, and even photo manipulation. Watch for terms like “appears to be” and for leading questions that raise doubt or provoke.   Think about what the media is choosing to focus on when preparing a story. Consider the effect of the format and phases of revealing a story.

9. Look deeply, look widely, and compare reports from a variety of sources.  Look for hard evidence, not eye witness accounts.

Personal interviews are a mainstay of video reporting.  They are ALL edited, and eye witnesses, even when sincere, are unreliable.

10. Beware of appeals to authority.

Even those with inside knowledge, high levels of education, and recognized credentials can sometimes lie.   People can also be mistaken in their facts and biased by their education.   Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other UN agencies have long established track records and can generally be trusted when other sources are more questionable.  However, they are also not infallible.


The Psychology of Wealth and the Social Contract

Credit: Flickr User Philip Taylor
Credit: Flickr User Philip Taylor

Social science is telling us that morality and generosity decline among the most well-off.   Ever since I heard about this study at UC Berkeley I’ve been curious to imagine how these findings might apply to political systems.  It seems that material wealth, or even the feeling of wealth, has a greater impact on one’s attitudes towards others than previously believed; possibly even a greater impact than previous political ideology, upbringing, or education!   Studies have shown for some time already that generosity is more marked among those who have fewer resources compared to those with more, but now it seems we’re starting to get results that reveal even more about the nature of these differences.  There are intriguing hints at the sources of these really surprising findings.

Nick Powdthavee, an author of a study of the effect of lottery winnings, found that greater wins tend to make people more right-wing and inegalitarian.  He declared:

“We are not sure exactly what goes on inside people’s brains but it seems that having money causes people to favour conservative right-wing ideas. Humans are creatures of flexible ethics.”

Also in this study, the authors speculate about the effect on democracy, arguing that self-interest trumps morality in decision making.

This last point is where I depart a bit in interpreting the meaning of these studies.  Moving to the right may mean supporting an effort to protect one’s own ‘hoard’, but it is only ‘self-interested’ on an individual level, not necessarily on a social level.  Democracy is to some degree about keeping these tendencies in check and allowing a public good to emerge from the apparent conflict of interest created between the rich and the poor.   The paradox, of course, is that the wealthy MUST be on board the project of contributing to the social good at the very point when they are the least motivated to do so (due to their wealth, apparently).   As the wealthy opt out of the social contract that makes things better for everyone, they undermine themselves by eroding the means by which the social fabric is maintained.

 The paradox, of course, is that the wealthy MUST be on board the project of contributing to the social good at the very point when they are the least motivated to do so…

I assume, of course, that the wealthy are still in some way part of that social fabric.  Wealth seems to offer a way out of social obligations and norms [for example, by letting people think they can drive faster with a more expensive car, even if they end up paying a ticket].   But why do people choose to opt out, even if it becomes more expensive, and actually less rational, for them to do so? Why send your kids to private school, pay your taxes to another country, or get your healthcare from a boutique provider, when comparable services can be obtained much more cheaply by paying your fair share to the common pool?  It’s not exactly self-interested in the rational, economic sense, to do this.

I’m wondering if the answer has to do with the psychological need to control the environment, something that money provides unequivocally in a capitalist society.  What one loses in material cost [private school is more expensive than public, paying a ticket is more expensive than driving according to the rules, for example] is made up for in control over the process. If it is about control rather than about wealth, it has implications not only for what the rich do individually, but how they act toward the political system as a group.  For if the tendency to protect one’s own extends to the effort to control the society as a whole, it means the wealthy will make social laws and rules for everyone else that reflect their particular interests.

Fostering empathy in the minds of the wealthy may not be the way to go, as this article in the Atlantic suggests.  A considerable amount of energy is spent in encouraging charity among the wealthy, which has had little impact on the mindset.  Indeed, what is interesting is that most Americans have experienced poverty in their lives, if only temporarily, at one time or another.  This means a significant number of wealthy individuals, and yes, even members of Congress or Parliament, have also experienced poverty.  If the above studies are correct, it seems unlikely that this experience can trump the psychological effects of wealth, and the tendency to be less egalitarian or generous, that goes with wealth. It doesn’t seem likely that human nature will change.

Credit: Flickr User Brent Granby
Credit: Flickr User Brent Granby

Bridging the psychology of the individual with the need for a public good means bolstering institutions that supercede and limit the tendencies of the wealthy to opt out and to control the process. Unfortunately, many democratic institutions have been put in place to do exactly the opposite: to control and limit the worst excesses of the general public [see the Canadian Senate].

Public education, public health care, parental leave, elder care, social services, and even sewers and parks have often been thought of as contingent on ‘affordability’ (Yes I’m looking at you, BC Liberals!)  In fact, by highlighting the idea of the public good, these institutions remind us of the vulnerability of the social contract to the psychology of wealth. Now that we know more about the effects of wealth on our thinking  (and by that I mean everybody’s thinking) social planners should be better equipped to make the case for the defence of that social contract.  That defence should strongly state the need for everyone, but especially the wealthy, to be included in the social project from which we all benefit.

Climate Change: Deconstructing Conservative Fatalism

Photo Credit: Thinkstock
Photo Credit: Thinkstock

Recent comments about climate change policy from conservative world leaders Stephen Harper and Tony Abbott suggest an important shift in conservative thinking about climate, science, and the role of country governments in tackling the problems of climate change.  Having lost the public relations fight about climate knowledge, conservatives now either vacate the field or adopt a discourse of what Stephen Colbert might call ‘truthiness’.

Like the child in Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, the conservatives under Stephen Harper have ‘called out’ the world over inaction on climate change.  This strategy has had some success.  Harper stated recently that “no country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth in their country. We are just a little more frank about that, but that is the approach that every country is seeking.”

In this way, conservatives can claim to be the real ‘truth tellers’ who can then freely take the low ground of inaction.  By doing this, they make common cause with critics of climate politics while also maintaining a distance from the more extremist deniers [who quite frankly are starting to look rather foolish]. This discursive strategy is nothing new to the Harper conservatives, who have had some success in using it to justify pulling out of the international effort to negotiate a new agreement.

In Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, a child is the only one who sees that the Emperor is not wearing rich clothes but is indeed wearing nothing.  The child has done what none of the Emperor’s advisors dared to do, and so has credibility because of his/her relative freedom from social constraints.  These constraints restrict what subordinates may say to the Emperor, and so make it difficult to oppose his views.  The child, unrestricted by expectations, has the ability to speak their own mind without fear of the consequences.

Much is forgiven when a speaker can be said to be ignorant and unsophisticated, and the moral of the story is that wisdom and social value can come from the mouths of innocents not captured by the oppressive dictates of social expectations.

Peaceful and productive international relations thrive on the mushiness of language in describing aspirations and expectations.

However, taking a ‘truth teller’ role in international relations has many more risks and is far more complicated.  Peaceful and productive international relations thrive on the mushiness of language in describing aspirations and expectations.  Norms are built in the space created by uncertain statements, blurry commitments and nondescript agreements.

Social expectations and norms in other settings can become a straightjacket of nakedness, as the moral of the Emperor’s New Clothes suggests.  But international relations is different.  In IR, social expectations and common norms are flimsy and weak.  The risk of defection from any common enterprise is so high that the appearance alone of cooperation (nakedness) is often the only thing carrying the projects of climate change agreements forward, and making progress possible.  Bravery means a willingness to be at least a little bit naked, and aware of one’s own vulnerability.

For this reason, Conservative ‘truth telling’ should be seen for what it is:  first, it is an unabashed instrumental rationalist strategy for defecting from a common effort to address climate change.  It is not a cowboy-esque statement of independence worthy of respect for its pluck and grit.  It is not brave.  It is not radical.  It is not inspirational.

78806802Second, using ‘truth telling’ as a political tactic obscures the fact that defection imposes costs on all of the other countries seeking a means of fairly distributing the disastrous effects of adaptation to climate change.   Defection means cheating.  Any common benefits that come from an agreement, such as a reduction in emissions, will be enjoyed by all, whether they have paid any part of the cost of adjustment.

Conservative ‘truth telling’ is not brave.  It is not radical.  It is not inspirational.

Canada and Australia, as wealthy developed economies, will be enjoying the benefits of the economic adjustments imposed on poorer, less developed economies.  Canada is not the weak ‘child’ calling out the powerful Emperor, but rather, Canada is like the Emperor exploiting the helplessness of his subjects for his own vanity.

Any real effort to ‘tell the truth’ about climate change needs to demonstrate a willingness to pay a price for the achievement of real emissions reductions.  No one is saying that countries aren’t reluctant to take on that price.  To say so is not ‘truth telling’ but a recognition of the difficulty of achieving agreement.

To recognize the difficulty and then back away from it reveals a self-serving policy that celebrates weakness and apathy, not strength and independence.  Conservatives are banking that their celebration of ‘do-nothing’ policies will play on peoples’ fatalism and fear about climate change.  Let’s not let the Emperor succeed in this vain pretense.


“Old School Makes a Comeback”? Round Two

dictideaThis is (finally!) my second post in this series.  My goal remains to advocate a dialogue between conservatives and reformers, and in my first post I noted the continuing relevance of ‘old school’ teaching methods and philosophies.  Since then, I’ve seen a number of other interventions along the same lines.  This study based on student preferences sparked a storm by suggesting that students preferred good lectures over the latest technology, and led to not a few qualifications on the part of the authors.  This rejoinder reminded us all of the body of literature showing the ineffectiveness of lecturing under any circumstances.  And This one in the Atlantic takes an eminently reasonable middle ground in its agnostic advocacy of ‘lecturing’ as one tool in the kit of varied methods, that is most successful when used purposefully and skillfully.

Some of this healthy debate arises from the ongoing backlash against MOOCs and the Silicon Valley startup philosophy that underwrote the idea of online mass education.  This backlash was facilitated by Sebastian Thrun’s about face and his public confessions of over-optimism for technology.  I want to reiterate that it’s important to separate out the question of technology from the question of teaching techniques.  Neither side of the debate should be reduced to ‘either-or’ options.

As an advocate of learner-centred teaching, I think it’s possible to believe BOTH that lecturing is a less effective strategy over all for achieving learning goals AND that ‘good’ lecturing can make learning more engaging if done consciously and well.   In some ways, it’s unfortunate that ‘lecturing’ has become emblematic of conservatism, since I would argue that conservatism is actually much bigger than lecturing.  Conservatism is a whole approach to teaching and learning, and so it encompasses lecturing, but it also encompasses ‘tried and true’ methods like Socratic questioning, drills and memorization.  So, the focus should be on conservatism as a teaching philosophy and less on any particular teaching technique or strategy.

it’s possible to believe BOTH that lecturing is a less effective strategy over all for achieving learning goals AND that ‘good’ lecturing can make learning more engaging if done consciously and well.

What is the argument for ‘old school’ instruction as we experience it today?  I think it draws from 5 main premises.  In my previous post, I discussed two of those premises: 1) the focus on standards and 2) the need for mastery.  In this post, I’ll turn to the 3 remaining premises of conservatism:

3. Self-discipline is a necessary goal of education.  Joanne Lipman’s article notes the work of Anders Ericsson, whose work was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers.  She quotes: “true expertise requires teachers who give “constructive, even painful, feedback”‘.

4. Failure is instructive.  A strict teacher will enable students to fail, to try again, and to learn ‘grit’ and persistence pay off.  Studies show that students with more persistence are more likely to succeed.

5. Rote learning and drills can be a means to enhance creativity, improve performance in basic skills, and encourage independence.  Therefore learning must be somewhat stressful and even uncomfortable and boring, to be effective.99951157

Let’s take each of these premises in turn:

3. On self-discipline: I am still waiting for the evidence that externally-imposed punishment is a more effective way to learn.  Much depends on determining what students know, what they are able to know, and what they can know with supports.  This means knowing the learner well, and committing to their learning, not to the teachers’ idea of an acceptable standard. I suspect that the ‘toughest’ teachers also know their learners extremely well, and know how far they can push successfully.  Self-discipline is cultured by offering supports and timely corrections when needed.  It means paying attention to what learners need and not necessarily what they want.

IMG_04264. Failure is instructive.  A recent study by Viktor Venkatesh sparked a storm by suggesting that ‘productive failure’ leads to deeper and more meaningful learning.  I would venture that a distinction be made between ‘punishment’ and the ‘natural’ consequences of failure.   Punishment, or failure for failure’s sake, is not the way that we get the best performance.  Imagine if we coached our Olympic athletes only using strict punishments for failure.  Athletes know the stakes, and they therefore seek out coaches who encourage them and support them through those failures and trials. This usually does not mean blanket praise, but a judicious use of supports to get the most out of one’s failure.  Failure without supports is like throwing someone into a river and expecting them to learn how to swim.  Such an experience may indeed make one persistent in the moment, but will that help them learn better, and will that persistence carry over to other tasks?

4. On rote learning: Lipman states of reformers: “Projects and collaborative learning are applauded; traditional methods like lecturing and memorization—derided as “drill and kill”—are frowned upon, dismissed as a surefire way to suck young minds dry of creativity and motivation.”  Indeed, there is a certain hostility to lecturing and to ‘drilling’ among advocates of constructivist techniques.  However, this unease is well-founded in the scientific literature, which in comparative studies has found that lecturing is relatively ineffective on a variety of measures of learning, including recall as well as understanding.  On this question, I would argue that there is a place for rote learning and memorization in education, and this place will likely remain for some time to come. As the Atlantic points out, lecturing has the upper hand in institutions of higher learning around the world.  However, if the goals of learning are deeper, if they involve mastery, the development of thinking, and the ability to problem-solve, then lecturing and drilling are less likely to achieve their stated goals on their own, when compared with alternative strategies. Learning outcomes should be the measure of effectiveness, rather than whether the process is stressful or difficult.

‘Old School’ Makes a Comeback? Opening a Dialogue Between Conservatives and Reformers

Science Teacher Writing on Black BoardRecently I’ve come across a couple of posts in support of ‘old school’ teaching styles.  This one presents the ‘latest findings’ of recent studies that tend to support ‘tough’ teaching methods.  This one, written by a prominent political scientist, laments the ‘demise’ of traditional education.  It’s worth noting that these traditional voices are still relevant and in fact the arguments are becoming more prominent as educational technology upends the traditional teaching model in unexpected ways.  It is completely understandable that educators might long for a more comfortable past, where authority was intrinsically respected (at least in our minds’s memory) and the power of the educator could be more easily leveraged to convey a universally recognized canon. One could also point to the ‘generation gap’ between ‘digital natives’ and others.  However, I feel the heart of this debate is less technological than it is philosophical.

I’d like to use the next two posts to analyze this phenomenon. I’ll state from the outset that I remain an advocate of learner-centred teaching, which I understand to draw from constructivist and connectivist learning philosophies that contend: 1) that learners be held responsible for their learning process and goals; and 2) that teaching be attentive to the specific needs of learners.

I’ve noticed that considerable misunderstanding arises when learner-centred teaching is counterposed with ‘traditional’ teaching methods.

Do we need to choose between ‘the guide on the side’ instead of the ‘sage on the stage’?

Learner-centred teaching is not the ‘opposite of’ traditional teaching.  Learner-centred teaching does not mean upending the relationship of respect between the learner and the teacher. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how instruction could be at all effective in the absence of mutual regard.

The defenses of those advocating ‘old school’ methods are therefore founded on a mistaken impression of what the ‘reformist’ alternative philosophies and methods are fundamentally about.  It is, appropriately, the job of those who advocate changes to make their case.  With the goal of opening a dialogue, let’s examine the arguments of the conservatives and some of the possible responses.  What is precisely the argument for ‘old school’ instruction as we experience it today?  I think it draws from several main premises, which I will extract from the two blogs posts described above.  In this post I will address 2 of these, and in the next post I will talk about the last few.

‘Old School’ Arguments

  1. Standards matter.  Grades represent a real measure of accomplishment and effort.  High levels of accomplishment deserve reward, and lower levels send an important signal to the student about their degree of learning, which can either motivate more effort or help the student realize they are unsuited. Standards are best determined by the experts in a field, who are best-placed to judge what skills and knowledge are necessary to succeed.  To fudge on or de-emphasize grades is to rob students of the opportunity to excel or fail, both are necessary in the process of learning, and both will help students to advance.
  2. A well-rounded education based on mastery should be the goal of learning. It is clear that a ‘well-rounded’ education for Barry Cooper (see his blog in the Calgary Herald) does not include things like anti-discrimination training or sustainability education, or explicit attention to soft goals like ‘well-being’. But what might a well-rounded education include?

Let’s take each of these premises in turn:stick_figure_book_pile_800_clr_9092

  1. With respect to standards, learner-centred teaching emphasizes that the expectations of teachers must be high.  There is no real disagreement on that. The disconnect arises I think when the emphasis is solely on meeting the standards set by teachers and other authorities.  The assumption is that students will always set their own standards too low, and require the teachers’ intervention to achieve.

Students will choose high standards for themselves very often if given the chance, and will benefit from a learning environment in which the material is advanced, sometimes very advanced.

When students do choose high standards, requiring a teachers’ intervention actually robs students of the ability to be more conscious, and yes, more self-disciplined and persistent. This is because these external standards give the message that teachers are their sole source of feedback.  Lipman mentions an interesting example: music students who chose teachers that would be tough on them.  The point is that the students chose those standards and were therefore more self-motivated to learn as a result.  Here I would cite work done by Ken Bain and other educators and psychologists who emphasize that an intrinsic interest in learning can be compromised when the focus is on extrinsic rewards and punishments.  The result of ‘learning for the grade’ is that learners will do just enough to earn the grade and no more.  If part of the goal of education is to learn self-reliance, why compromise that goal by removing any chance to be accountable to oneself.

2. With respect to ‘mastery’, there is again not really a disagreement here about the goal.  For Cooper, though, mastery means a specific thing: the ability to be conversant in a specific culture.   While one may argue about the content of that culture, I think we can agree that certain habits of mind underlie all forms of learning: the ability to be open-minded, critically-minded, curious, thorough, persistent, detailed, even-handed, thoughtful and reflective, a problem-solver, expressive, and/or skeptical.  How we acquire these habits is still a question in hot debate in educational circles.  It is far from resolved, but there is no reason yet to believe that mastery is any less likely to occur in a constructivist than in a traditional setting.  There is also really no reason to believe that tolerance, commitment to community, or even self-development are incompatible with mastery learning.  If we uncover the conservatives’ focus on a ‘well-rounded’ education, I think we will see something that very closely resembles ‘character-building’ or ‘service to the community’ as well as the acquisition of skills.  These values underlie a lot of the ‘old school’ philosophy and are implicit values of education.

In my next post, I’ll look ahead to other components of the ‘old school’ argument: discipline, stress, and failure.  Just what we look for in a well-educated individual.

The True Meaning of Differentiated Citizenship

090913_0254_TheTrueMean1.pngSometimes the language that we use as political scientists is regrettable in its implications. For example, the definition of ‘differentiated citizenship’ according to a leading introductory text to Canadian politics reads as follows: “The granting of special group-based legal or constitutional rights to national minorities and ethnic groups” (Mintz, Tossutti and Dunn 89). While accurate, the use of the term ‘special’ has many unintended implications. Who is ‘special’ and who is entitled to ‘different’ treatment by government?
For one thing, to say that a group or individual receives ‘special’ treatment is to imply that every other group is not special. Or, to put it another way, it is to imply that a group is singled out from the otherwise equal treatment that they might be entitled to receive by virtue of being equal members of the community. It assumes that the community at large includes other groups which may be equally entitled to special treatment were it not for the unique qualities which set the ‘special’ group apart. Equality before the law is both an operational concept and an aspirational standard.Using the term ‘special’ to describe a group singled out for differentiated treatment suggests that everyone else is already treated equally under the law, that equal legal treatment is in fact a reality, and not also an aspiration yet to be achieved. Under the assumption of equality, special treatment is, by definition, discriminatory. Discriminatory treatment technically only means the same as ‘special’ treatment, except for the fact that it implies a harmful result for the group being singled out. When the result of special treatment is discrimination, it is rightfully condemned. Discrimination on the basis of race, gender or ethnicity, for example, is condemned in a democracy not primarily because it constitutes special or differential treatment, but rather because of the negative effects of the judgments that tend to be made, most often based on involuntary or ascribed characteristics. The response to ‘special treatment’ is to question the basis for unequal treatment rather than to condemn all forms of harmful discrimination. Why the knee-jerk reaction to ‘special treatment’? After all, governments identify groups for a variety of special programs and services all the time. Groups are defined by age, income levels, geography, occupation, health status, and marital status. Many of these categories are based on involuntary characteristics, or at least, characteristics that are extremely difficult to change. Northerners or people who live in rural areas are entitled to unique job training or assistance for moving expenses. Fishers in the Maritimes are treated distinctly from other occupations with respect to qualification for EI benefits, young people are targeted for special job training and employment programs, and government services like healthcare are often offered in languages other than the two official languages.
090913_0254_TheTrueMean2.jpgIn truth, as discussed in the last two blog posts, equal treatment is as elusive as the abstraction of ‘equality’ itself. One is tempted sometimes to ‘test’ equality by imagining a ‘reverse onus’. In other words, we might try to test the extent of equality by asking ourselves how a given situation might be if the positions were reversed. If a black woman and a white woman are ranked equally on a college entrance application, then ‘all else being equal’, the chances of success should be equally distributed (50/50). If this is indeed true, then the white woman and black woman are being equally treated. In reality, we can more effectively test the presumption of equality by looking at outcomes. If an equal chance of success really does exist, then the number of black successful women should be roughly proportional to the number of black women in the population as a whole, and the same with the number of white women. Success is clearly not distributed proportionally among these racial groups. Because the outcomes do not support the idea that such equal treatment exists, it is unfair to apply the ‘reverse racism’ test. Treatment that might be appropriate for one group would not be appropriate for the privileged group. The two situations are not comparable. Discrimination can still be shown to exist, as the story of Yolanda Spivey reveals. Spivey, a black woman, reportedly modified her online job profile to appear ‘white’, changing her name and racial identification, but keeping all of her other information the same, including qualifications,

experience, and work history. She received many more employment enquiries as a white woman than as a black woman. The experiences of black and white people are not comparable, and so these groups should not be considered as if they were treated equally. Of course, more study and data is needed to determine the extent, nature, and form of discrimination in society. Nevertheless, differential treatment, and even differentiated citizenship, is justifiable in order to move toward equality of opportunity for all. Until equality can be demonstrated in outcomes, it should be seen as an aspirational goal, and not assumed to be already in place.