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Tea for Three with Æsop

One reason Hong Kong has not been ravaged by the novel corona virus should be evident to anyone who casts back in memory to the days when school children were taught how to draw a moral from a fable of Æsop’s (Ooh! A ligature!) or to interpret an old saw. Think, for example, of the saw that “a stitch in time saves nine.” Just as someone darning socks has an easier job of it by darning when the hole is small, so the people of a city, by jointly and severally following a few simple directions for prophylactic hygiene, do not have to suffer the massive lockdowns that result when a virus gets out of hand.

I recently went for afternoon tea at the old Peninsula Hotel with a former colleague. (I teach at a city school; she, at an “international” school.) A member of the hotel’s staff took our temperatures when we entered. Tea tables were spaced two meters apart. All the staff were masked, as were we till we reached our table. No group was larger than four. Even the string band that played tangos and fifties movie tunes from a balcony wore masks.

After friendly catching-up, our talk moved to the closure of Hong Kong’s schools. Chief among the consequences has been a shift from live teaching to online. Our circumstances of teaching are different, our students are different, and our administrative structures are different; but we found that our concerns were the same. They are not always or necessarily what our schools’ managers focus on, but they are important.

First: As these postings have often argued[1], of the three kinds of learning achieved in school, only one can be treated massively or mechanically. This also happens to be the kind of learning that students tend to forget most easily and quickly. The other two[2] must be achieved under the tutelage of a live human teacher.

This means that, second, online learning is unfitted to do many of the basic jobs of education. My former colleague and I commiserated the unsatisfactory way online teachers must ignore their students’ need for improved skill and understanding. Online courses that offer “breakout rooms” and “office hours” cannot eliminate this deficit. A few students troubled by having to ask questions in front of a live class will open up in a chat thread, but they are exceptions that only slightly prove the rule.

We must therefore conclude that, third, online learning is only an emergency expedient, not the next brave new world of education. Even The New York Times, long a gull for novel stupidity in teaching[3], has recognized this, calling for online learning to return to a supporting role after the emergency recedes.

Fourth, educational “managers” must keep their heads rather than go off half-cocked. Unfortunately, many of them are losing their heads in the educational game of “Ready, Fire, Aim.” This game has dangerous consequences. The danger is increased by the flatulent and idiotic discourse “educators” often favor[4]. My former colleague instances an “exploratory” session held by her school’s “management” about online learning. One of the ground rules was that “negative” ideas were not permitted. It was as if the “managers” had learned from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

And so we come back to Æsop, who warns us against the volcano that labors, only to bring forth a mouse. It helps to remember the long term. In doing so, we can be reassured that, like the tortoise, we’ll win the race by being deliberate and steady. Of the sixteen to twenty years that many of our students will require for their education, the current difficulties have taken up about 1% of the time, a thing that educationist hares are likely to forget. Maybe they need to take some time off for a nice cup of tea.


[1] For example, here and here

[2] All three are identified here

[3] As here

[4] I am referring to Western education, not Chinese. Chinese educators favor zheng ming over bullshit, and their paramount educator, who has been dead for 2,500 years, has been giving lessons for most of that time. 

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