Tag Archives: pedagogy

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.

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‘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.