wasting bandwidth since 1999

Tag: teaching Page 1 of 12

We Still Need Subversive Teachers

Froggy Reader

Being in mostly quarantine over the past five months has provided a lot of opportunity to catch up on reading. And to pull a few older books off the shelves for a second pass.

One work that I just finished again, and have returned to every few years since I first read it in graduate school, is Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity.

A few pieces of the book are very dated, reflecting the late 60’s era in which it was written. However, large sections are still far too relevant fifty plus years later.

What Do You Do?

Sea Gulls

It’s a pretty common question when people meet for the first time. Part of the usual introductory ritual, at least here in the United States.

But how do you answer that query without boring everyone within earshot?1 After all, it’s likely the person asking isn’t looking for a long, nuanced answer.

When I was still in the classroom, I had a straightforward, easily understood response: “I’m a teacher”. Everyone you meet has been in school and has a good, if often clichéd, idea of what a teacher does.

Teaching And Learning Are Not The Same Thing

Seth Godin is a popular writer and speaker, well known for his work around marketing and organization. He also occasionally offers ideas around education.1 Probably his best known work in that area is the extended essay Stop Stealing Dreams and the TEDx talk on which it is based.2

In addition to writing a daily blog, Godin also does a weekly podcast called Akimbo, and in a recent episode he offered some thoughts about the educational establishment related to the recent college entrance cheating scandal that featured a few members of the rich and semi-famous.3

At the opening of the podcast, he makes this observation: 

Management and leadership are not the same thing.

Management is done with power and authority, compelling others to do what we need them to do, when we need them to do it. Leadership, on the other hand, always involves voluntary compliance. It always involves people eagerly following the leader.

And the same dichotomy is true about learning and education.

Education is often done to us, it is mandatory, people show up and say “you will learn this and there will be a test”.

That’s different from learning. Learning is a process we choose to go through.

That idea of learning not being the same as education is one that has been stuck in my head for many years. And it’s not much of a stretch to modify Godin’s statement into this corollary: learning is not the same as teaching.

Teaching, at least in it’s popular interpretation, is also something done to students. Ask someone who’s not part of the profession what a “teacher” does and you’ll probably get a lot of verbs related to the transfer of information from an adult to kids. Someone who lectures, gives tests, and in general runs a space called “classroom”.

Learning, on the other hand, may or may not occur as the result of teaching. In a formal school setting, students are usually offered some incentive to retain certain information and skills for a relatively short period of time, although much of that is likely to disappear over the longer term. Maybe even between the spring tests and the beginning of the new school year.

Over a long career in and around public schools, I’ve heard more than a few colleagues say something to the effect of “I taught them, they just didn’t learn it” about their students.

This also ties back to some previous rants about personalized learning. Those systems seem to be more about teaching – the transmission of information to the subject for them to retain at least long enough to pass an assessment – than about learning. The goal of the artificially intelligent algorithms embedded in the software is to adapt the flow of data to the student’s ability to respond to it.

Is that “learning”? Maybe it’s one definition. Certainly it’s a process that produces a statistical score for classifying the learner.

In the end, however, genuine learning really only involves interests and topics that have some personal meaning or consequence for the learner. And that’s equally true for a high school freshman as it is for an adult of any age.

So, why do we persist in “teaching” instead of enabling “learning”?


The image at the top is, of course, a classic cartoon from Gary Larson’s Far Side. I’m very likely violating copyright by using it, which is why I’m embedding it from someone else’s copyright violation. :-)

1. Don’t hold me to this, but I think I read somewhere that one or both of his parents were teachers. Which doesn’t make anyone an education “expert” but can add to their understanding of the profession from that particular time.

2. The talk is worth your time to watch. In the essay, I think he misses the mark as often as he hits it but his ideas about the American educational structure are still interesting.

3. And lost me in the process, as he sometimes does with other Akimbo episodes. Overall, however, I look forward to his weekly audio essays.

What is “Ed” Tech?

Roomba hack: Spirograph!

For one teacher, edtech included a Roomba.

It turns out the disc-shaped vacuum cleaner, which uses sensors to autonomously zip around homes is also a great tool to teach students about robotics and empathy.

Yung’s students learned all about how the Roomba moves, behaves and how it works. Then they set off to dream up and draw their own robots that could help people in the real world like a robot that gives you a blanket when you sleep.

Ok, I can see building a lesson around understanding how a robotic vacuum works.

But does that make the device educational technology?

Not necessarily.

Let’s face it, “edtech” is a very broad term and a wide variety of hardware, software and services have been tossed into that basket. So maybe we need to be a little more specific.

I don’t expect this to catch on, but I see at least two subcategories: teaching technology and learning technology.

That robot is learning technology only if kids are the ones using it. They should be playing with it, experimenting,  programming it. Maybe even taking the device apart and changing it’s function, like the picture above.

Technology under the control and direction of adults is teaching technology. Stuff like Google Classroom, FlipGrid, interactive whiteboards, most of the hot new stuff in your Twitter feed.

And that’s not a bad thing. Only that we need to make a distinction between technology that is used by teachers as part of their instruction and tech that is used by students as part of their learning.

They are not necessarily the same. Certainly not of equal value.

Just something to think about.


Image: Roomba hack: spirograph! by squidish on Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

Is That “Teaching”?

A writer for The Guardian warns that artificial intelligence will be taking over many jobs that we previously assumed were safe from automation. Like teaching. 

Teachers: software such as McGraw-Hill Connect and Aplia allow college professors to manage the coursework for hundreds of students at a time. Massive open online courses (Moocs) extend their reach to thousands more. And actual physical robots are being used to teach English to students in Japan and Korea.

Which is all very nice if you start, as does this writer and many others, with the assumption that teaching is nothing more than the transmission of information. His sole example of MOOCs, in which college professors (more likely adjunct staff are doing the actual work) assemble a collection of readings and videos for students to consume in a specific order, is certainly all about presenting data for the invisible student on the other side to absorb.

But is that “teaching”?

Robot Driver1

Look through the listings at EdSurge and other sites documenting edtech and you find many startups working hard to incorporate artificial intelligence into their “personalized learning” software. Their systems, they say, will adapt to the student and allow them to “work at their own pace” on the computer, independent of a human instructor.

But is that “teaching”?

I suppose one response could be, does it matter, as long as the kids are learning? Maybe then we need to decide what we mean by “learning”.

Anyway, the writer also provides examples from other fields that, in the past, we’ve assumed required human interaction.

Journalists: AI bots created by companies such as Narrative Science and Automated Insights are already cranking out business and sports stories for clients like Forbes and the Associated Press. In a June 2015 interview with the Guardian, Narrative Science co-founder Kris Hammond predicted 90% of journalism will be computerized by 2030, and that some hardworking j-bot will nab a Pulitzer sooner than that.

Therapists: human-like “social robots” are already being used to help teach children on the autism spectrum appropriate social behavior. Therapeutic robot pets provide companionship for seniors with dementia. The US military is using a computer-generated virtual therapist to screen soldiers in Afghanistan for PTSD.

Actors: Peter Cushing, who died in 1994, reprised his role as Grand Moff Tarkin in 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, thanks to some digital wizardry by Industrial Light & Magic. But he’s hardly the first human actor to have returned from the grave. Paul Walker, Audrey Hepburn, Sir Laurence Olivier, Bruce Lee and Marlon Brando have all been digitally resurrected for use in films and commercials.

Are his anecdotes examples of journalism, therapy, and acting? Or, like teaching, is this how many people view those professions? As a mechanical process that can be replaced with a sufficiently clever algorithm?

Maybe I’m just a traditionalist,2 but I’d like to think that all of those professions, especially the art of teaching, will always require a human touch to do well. But if that aspect can be programmed into a robot or an AI system, it’s likely something that will come far in the future. Or a good science fiction story.

Page 1 of 12

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén