Here to Stay, Gone Tomorrow

In my last posting I anticipated the return of my school to live classes. The month or so since then has entirely gratified my expectations. Juniors taking theory of knowledge have just begun work on ethical and moral knowledge. One lesson earlier this week may speak for the rest. It began with a Socratic discussion about the sources and qualities of moral knowledge. It was a good way to start clearing away intellectual underbrush and glib thinking. We’ll continue the discussion in segments, but the first segment laid some interesting and important issues on the table, which the students were keen to discuss. 

(One of the provisions for the reopening of school was that students’ desks must be a meter apart and face forward in rank-and-file order. Arrangement into small discussion groups and Socratic circles is forbidden. Students kept this generally in mind, but at a couple of points we might have had a cross between a permitted and an impermissible arrangement: students kept their places but faced each other in small groups. There was no crowding, so I took them as generally complying with the rules.)

The ensuing discussions were exciting and fruitful. I moved around the classroom making comments and asking questions. As I spoke with one group, its neighbors could continue in their own discussions or turn and listen to me or other groups. I considered it a highly successful lesson—one that would have been mostly unfeasible online.

In the last posting I also discussed threats to classroom instruction by commercial interests connected with the sale of teaching technology, noting that the drumbeat had started for more online lessons in the wake of the corona virus. Unfortunately, the turn towards flickering blue stuff is now also being supported by people within the Ed Biz who have no visible connection to commercial interests. Such was an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by one Flower Darby entitled ‘Sorry Not Sorry: Online Teaching Is Here to Stay’.

We need to examine such claims in light of the fable about the camel at the entrance to the nomad’s tent. The camel takes over the tent by inches. The moral warns us about the danger of not stopping pernicious incursions on our professional autonomy and lives. The same warning might be given about unwanted educational incursions on our classrooms. By contrast, Ms. Flower Darby is saying, in effect, that the camel is here to stay; but she is wrong. Trends are nothing but collections of individual decisions, and by changing our thinking and deciding, we can keep the tent our own.

Ah, but it is not about us, intones Ms Darby, it is about the students. I find this argument stupidly automatic and deeply offensive. There may be some serious and subtle discussion about what kind of teaching helps students best, and how to deal with educational emergencies, but it does no good to indulge in simplistic moral blackmail. Teachers are for students too.

The last part of the discussion in this article has to do with the desirability of working with a school’s Learning Management System, an “underdeployed tool with significant potential for fostering dynamic teaching and learning interactions.” With that kind of endorsement, no wonder it is underdeployed. I suspect another reason for running shy of a LMS is that it ends up treating education like a canned good.

Whatever purpose online education may have served in the corona virus emergency, we must not conflate emergencies and standard operations. That kind of distinction may be hard to keep in mind while the emergency is in progress, but Hong Kong’s experience should offer some hope for real teaching in the better times that can follow.

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