Just Say No to Foam

The learning most easily forgotten is the kind of knowledge transmitted by the didactic instruction of textbooks and lectures. We are so used to this kind of learning that some of us may even ask, “Is there any other kind?” One answer is playing itself out remarkably in San Jose, California, but before focusing on it, here are answers to that question given by Mortimer Adler[1] (and others): 1) the kind of understanding promoted by questioning, dialogue, conversation, recitations, and other live dialectical processes; 2) the kind of skill cultivated by a good coach who requires practice at which he notices, advises, models, encourages, and reproves. In both cases the teacher involves the student, who emerges from these encounters wiser and more skilled than when he entered them.

“Just the facts, Ma’am,” Sergeant Friday used to say. That may be fine for someone whose job is to gather evidence, but a prosecutor must synthesize a case from that evidence, a judge must pass judgment on it—and a student must be able to act on it; and for these activities information alone won’t do. The kind of stuff transmissible by lecture and textbook tends to be “just the facts,” but they are far from the end of learning. A university student needs to understand that his education requires him (we hope!) not just to absorb information but to analyze it, synthesize from it, and judge the results. To learn to do so requires more than a lecture can give because it requires live, personal interaction.

And that is what the California State University at San Jose appears to be discovering. Its engineering course in circuits has gone from a pass rate of 59% to 91%. This remarkable improvement in a single year is the result of having the didactic instruction delivered on line, combined with the adoption of small classes that focus on projects. Presumably these projects are authentic, and the projectors are guided by a teacher who can coach and question as the projects proceed. The reporter says, “it is hard to tell” whether the improvement is due to the adoption of the online lectures or the adoption of the small classes. No, it isn’t hard to tell. Any experienced teacher knows  what will happen when you supplement lectures with a live work in progress. If online lectures free up teachers to get down with their students, they are bound to have good results when the teachers take their mandate seriously. Here is an example of people who have made an important discovery about the value of 1) and 2) above. It would be a pity if everyone thought the victory was due to the canned talking heads alone.

One problem with “blended learning” is that though good teachers have been doing the real thing for years without calling it an awful name, it is now turning into a chant that replaces thought, a bit like “Four legs good, two legs better” in Orwell. The other is that in an age where restaurant-goers can be persuaded to pay good money to eat dishes of foam from the blender, school-goers may end up paying good money for “blended learning” of a similar kind. One really hopes that CSUSJ and other public universities can proceed along the trail blazed by Provost Ellen Junn[2] and not end up feeding their students easy dishes of foam for three or four years.

[1] In The Paideia Proposal, source of my claim that knowledge didactically taught is most easily forgotten.

[2] She got this program going at CSUSJ.

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