Attack of the Learning Blender!

One of the earliest postings on this blog was about my discovery that Googling “McLearning” on a lark brought up a very unlarklike mother lode of junk in education. It was called “blended learning” by its profit-making proponents, and touted as a “solution” in the war of pink slime education on the old-fashioned kind provided by live teachers in real places. I guessed then that its main drawing power would be that it was cheap and could “deliver” “instruction” en masse, sidestepping reliance on the pesky and expensive human beings who traditionally help young people get an education.

It is no longer a guess. The schools of Manchester, New Hampshire are now planning to introduce “blended learning labs,” in which students take courses on line during the school day. The “labs” would be under the supervision of a “facilitator,” who… what? Facilitates on-off switching? Facilitates brightness and contrast? Facilitates the removal of chewing gum from tables? It is not clear how someone not acquainted with the subject being taught could “facilitate” learning it, which is what we would expect of a teacher rather than a “facilitator.”

The Manchester schools superintendent, saying that the introduction of pink slime education would “deal with…the need for students and school districts to catch up with technology,” puts the cart before the horse. Technologies may be introduced to schools once the technologies’ capabilities  “catch up with” the classroom’s educational needs. If a technology cannot provide coaching, if it cannot provide Socratic questioning, if it cannot provide formative assessment, there is no need for teachers and students to “catch up with” it.  As usual, the Canard of the 21st Century is confusing the issue, which is actually very clear: education is being debased, and the debasement needs stopping. The Manchester parents and teachers opposing pink slime are right to do so.

One of the arguments used to promote the “delivery” of recorded “instruction” is that excellent lecturers can reach more students on record than if they spoke live, and that they could replace lousy live lecturers. While this claim may have some validity, it needs further examination. An old colleague of mine, still teaching at the school where I began my career, reports that the school’s move to introduce one “blended learning” course per student per term has met with resistance and dislike by the students, who prefer the dynamic of a live classroom and interaction with a live teacher.

When I was a first-year teacher at this school, I used to visit the classes of teachers reputed to be excellent. One classroom I visited was that of Mr. C., who taught the school’s A.P. American History courses. His pedagogy was old-fashioned: lectures and papers. His results, among the best in the state, were due not to his adopting more up-to-date means of “delivering” “instruction” but to the quality of his lectures and the pains he took with them. He would frequently come into the faculty room after a class and collapse in one of the armchairs, sometimes in a sweat. I remember walking under the second-floor windows of his classroom and hearing his voice peal out to make a point or tell a story. He was also an accomplished amateur musician and had a fine singing voice that  he would use once a year in his annual Elvis impersonation, given to each of his classes, which would cheer him to the echo—his “fun[1]” for the year. He allowed only one recording of his speaking: a tape he made of Jonathan Edwards’s hair-raising sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God[2].” While it was an impressive performance, it couldn’t hold a candle to his live classroom, even when he was not being so pyrotechnical.

The answer to the problem of dull lectures is not Mr. C. in a can: it is the instruction of student teachers in platform technique for when they give a lecture as part of a varied classroom offering, so that students may enjoy it, or at least benefit from it, as well as the other things on offer. It is probable that few student teachers will turn out to be as good at the lectern as Mr. C., but they can surely be brought to the point of talking well, of planning well, of questioning well, of correcting well—in short, of teaching well, which is teaching live.

[1] “Too much fun is of all things the most loathsome.”—William Blake, and Mr. C.

[2] Edwards is supposed to have delivered this sermon in the calm, measured tones of a learned Puritan divine, but Mr. C. delivered it in the best fire-and-brimstone tradition, justifying Richard Hofstadter’s judgment that it was a “sermon such as a sadist might have trembled to deliver.”

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