Fast School Nation

Last May I noted, after googling “McLearning” and scoring a remarkable hit, that we are moving toward a view of learning that prefers “instruction” which can be “delivered” as well by a machine as by a teacher. One of the reasons I gave is that junk learning, like junk food, will be cheap to “deliver.” Now that The New York Times reports cheapness trumping quality in education, the issue is worth another look.

The place to start is with a teacher in an ordinary traditional classroom. Professor Barzun justly asserts, “Anybody who has ever taught knows that the act of teaching depends upon the teacher’s instantaneous and intuitive vision of the pupil’s mind as it gropes and fumbles to grasp a new idea[1].” This is one reason among many why “teaching is an act of perpetual discretion.”

Another is that a teacher is a coach, and coaching requires immediate adaptation to the needs of the person being coached. This is as true of the writing coach as of the golfing coach. When I have meetings with my students about their writing, each meeting is different from the others because each of my students writes differently, thinks differently, and responds differently to instruction.

The third reason is that no one can teach understanding; rather, the good teacher provides conditions in which understanding takes place. One of those conditions is provided by Socratic instruction, which seizes on a student’s own words and uses them to probe for understanding and help the student achieve it. Another is provided by what we all call “teachable moments,” which occur spontaneously throughout the day but cannot be planned or machined. The last reason to recognize perpetual discretion as an ineluctable condition of teaching, as I have argued, is that students learn best when they feel some kind of affective tie with their teacher, and ties do not come into being en masse or mechanically.

On-line learning cannot provide any of these guarantees of perpetual discretion, but on-line learning is where we seem to be going. My first experience with it came when I reviewed the material produced by a Midwestern state university for use by students at a distance for high-school credit. The school I then taught at wanted one of our failing students to use the material to get the equivalent of a high-school English course. Well, the material was shocking on two counts. One was its concentration on memory of factual detail at the expense of understanding. The other was its idiocy in, for example. asking questions of interpretation by multiple choice. I advised the school not to use it because it overlooked real understanding and had no way of adapting itself to individual students.

A former colleague of mine reports that “our” school now requires every student to take one on-line course. He reports that the students think the on-line courses stink. The teachers think so too, but there’s no avoiding the ad hominem argument addressed to teachers who say what they think: “You’re just saying that because you’re a threatened teacher.”

How could anyone think differently? What possibility does on-line software have of instantaneous and intuitive vision? This same former colleague had the good fortune to study under Professor John Searle, author of the famous “Chinese Room Argument” against artificial intelligence. But even if Searle is wrong, it would take an unusual student to form an affective tie to a Chinese Room.

And it would take an extraordinarily expensive Chinese Room, assuming one were possible, to ask effective Socratic questions or otherwise to display instantaneous intuitive vision. How much does Watson cost, which can play Jeopardy, and how much more subtle than Watson is a good teacher?

My fear is that none of this will matter. The attraction of on-line learning to its proponents is not that on-line learning is better than learning in the classroom. The attraction is not even that it is as good. The attraction is that it is cheaper. “Pedagogical” justifications will inevitably follow (cherchez la flimmeflamme), some of them based on “research” that will be treated with less caution than it deserves.

What will our on-liners do when they are faced with a life of cruxes that don’t wait for a mouse click or that don’t have choices a) through e) laid out for them? What will they do when they work for a boss who doesn’t give them a study guide for the project he assigns them? What will they do when they face an intense and brilliant Socratic professor in college?—assuming they do face him instead of another screen.

[1] Begin Here, p. 20


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