Against learner-centered pedagogy

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Although the learner-centered bandwagon has been with us for quite a while, there are three main reasons why this teaching strategy should undergo a reanalysis and re-thinking, providing the future will still entertain the idea of human-to-human formal teaching and learning.

  1. Learner-centered approaches do not let learners get out of their comfort zones both from the perspective of content and that of learning styles.
  2. Learner-centered approaches do not let learners stretch their imagination and do not open their eyes to what’s beyond their horizon.
  3. Learner-centered approaches end up with learners who are reaffirmed in their world view without an ability to pose probing questions about their own perspective.

It is instructive to view learner-centered pedagogy as a stepping-stone to machine teaching, big data algorithms, and a sedate, hedonistic citizenry. One of the fall-outs of learner-centered teaching has been the unceasing lack of abilities to ask probing questions about even the most frequent and matter-of-fact developments. Students who major in sciences are dashing headlong to innovate, technologize everything, seemingly without thinking about the real reasons for innovations, and technological breakthroughs. Distractions, rather than focus, tend to be created: “immersive computing” is a perfect illustration of this tendency. Why do we need immersive  gadgets? What will be they good for? Are they just another means to create trash (both real and metaphorical)?  These questions do not even touch the surface of the technological developments written about in “Google has a new favorite phrase” .

Media algorithms are another result of the drive to a “learner-centered” world. My computer informs me of newly-published articles about topics which according to the algorithm, I was interested in previously. But my interests are not circumscribed to those topics, far from it! The algorithm’s limiting abilities to really find out where all my interests reside is appallingly myopic. Since the digital technology satisfies the supposedly personal interest, it may be more useful for schools to actually bring previously unseen topics to the classrooms. It may be important for the machine-learning computer designers to know that learning is subconscious: Is Language Learning A Subconscious Process?.

In conclusion, if the world needs engaged and concerned citizenry, learner-centered pedagogy is not the way to proceed. Computers can deliver massive amounts of data on any given topic of personal interest, but human teachers can do much more than that: they can expand learners’ interests to where they have not even imagined to wonder/wander and nudge them to comparison, analyses, syntheses of topics hereto not encountered.

 

“Good Omens”: sublime and trite?

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Good Omens is a novel which braids together a number of separate developing strands  whose ends meet one Saturday, the chosen day for the Apocalypse. One strand narrates why the end of the world does not happen,  since both the devil (Crawley – yes, there is nomen in omen!) and the angel (Aziraphale), having fallen in love with life on earth and wanting to appear to honor their respective duties, conspire to raise the Antichrist child (Adam) so that he does not obey what he was destined for. The trouble is that they raise the wrong child (Warlock), Adam having been exchanged in the hospital with another boy. The second strand forms the consequences of a book, of which only one copy exists, entitled The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter,  Witch.  Agnes Nutter’s progeny, Anathema Nutter, possesses the detailed explanations of each prophesy written by the witch’s descendants through three hundred years of history. The third strand deals with the vicissitudes of witch-hunting by a descendant of the man who actually was responsible for Agnes Nutter’s  burning at the stake. Yet another strand brings us to the small village of Tadfield and the gang of four young children headed by Adam and including a converted Hell-hound.  The fifth strand follows the four symbols of the Apocalypse (War, Famine, Pestilence, Pollution)  embodied in four Bikers (Hell’s Angels, so to speak) who wreak havoc on London’s traffic and do not really destroy the world completely. Each of them is followed on their duties (for ex., War, embodied as a read-head, is involved in arms contraband).  The endearing parts of the book are surely the comical manner in which technology is made to exasperate humans (initially Crawley’s doing, but later perfected by humans); fun with Crawley and Aziraphale having lunch at the Ritz, both giving financial support to the Witch-finders Army, etc. There are the appealing traits of Crawley (for ex., he loves his Bentley); the ironic look at dieters (Famine has a hand in that), and many more unforgettable images which make reading this book so much fun.

Any book which attempts to come to terms with the Apocalypse/Revelation of St. John has to be both sublime and trite. Sublime since it must face/describe/conquer/critique the future as prophesied; trite since the end is really unknowable, so anything goes. Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett collaborated to give the end of the world a different spin, a spin which makes us laugh, forces us to define good and evil, leads us to consider human beings for all they are: capable of evil which no devil can ever conjure up. However, the book is lacking in the parallel thought giving humans “goodness which not even an angel can construct”. In other words, as usual, evil is more interesting than good.  On the surface, there seems to be only evil and good. To make things more complex, the devil sometimes acts for the good, and the angel now and then does evil. Moreover, as Crawley’s internal monologue indicates (p. 93), matters are not so clear:

There were people who called themselves Satanists who made Crowley squirm.  It wasn’t just the things they did, it was the way they blamed it all on Hell. They’d come up with some stomach-churning idea that no demon could have thought of in a thousand years, some dark and mindless unpleasantness that only a fully-functioning human brain could conceive, then shout “The Devil Made Me Do It” and get the sympathy of the court when the whole point was that the Devil hardly ever made anyone do anything. He didn’t have to. That was what some humans found hard to understand. Hell wasn’t a major reservoir of evil, any more than Heaven, in Crowley’s opinion, was a fountain of goodness; they were just sides in the great cosmic chess game. Where you found the real McCoy, the real grace and the real heart-stopping evil, was right inside the human mind.

And, further on,

It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.

So, if humans are humans, what about concepts such as God, the divine plan, faith, belief in heaven and hell? Crawley’s answer is that he has to follow the plan and obey it (he is scared of remaining in hell for all eternity, as it is a boring place, as boring as heaven).  If pressed, Aziraphale has only one answer: “ineffable”. That is, whatever God is and wills, is ineffable, i.e. unutterable, as well as forbidden to be uttered. In other words, unknowable because humans don’t and can’t express it in words. Without language, we cannot know; with language, we create our conceptual toolbox. The trouble is that this toolbox is being modified constantly. The subtitle of the book is The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. The word “nice” used to mean “foolish, stupid, senseless” (13c to 16c), then it meant “precise, careful”, then “agreeable, delightful” (18c); and now it means “kind, thoughtful” (1830 -today). Depending on your reading, then, Agnes’ prophecies may be foolish, or precise, or agreeable, or kind: you take your pick.

In Good Omens, Armageddon is nowhere near: the disaster has been averted by four children and a few adults, as well as by a devil and an angel. The four Bikers of the Apocalypse, however, did not perish, offering the possibility that the Revelation may as yet come true. As Aziraphale would have it, “it was all in the plan”, that is, if you believe in the ineffable plan. But how can you believe something that is ineffable? There is no answer to this question in the book, but the attempt at an answer is enjoyable.

 

Design fiction and designing future

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The following are critical comments on the content of the YouTube video of a presentation given by Jasmina Tesanovic and Bruce Sterling entitled Future Domestic Robots: Design Fiction and the Home of the Future. Although theirs is not the only way of looking at design fiction and designing future, it is a starting point and a rich mine full of bits and pieces of thought. You can watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vyb6JgWDSvg.

While the idea of design fiction, defined by Bruce Sterling as “a form of design that has an audience”, seems intriguing and full of promise, in actuality the gist of the design production of fiction and its connection to designing future is problematic. Designing things that are fictional, mythological, futuristic right now creates more problems than it solves. My take on design fiction belongs to the realistic and critical camp, rather than that of unquestioning acceptance and adoption, not to mention adoration. Three main ideas are the foundation of what follows: 1) the generation of waste 2) the false sense of “anything is possible by anyone” 3) conscientious and conscious language use.

1) The generation of waste

Anyone who has designed and produced something knows that the way to a finished product is punctuated with waste, garbage, junk: only one prototype remains and even that does not guarantee its adoption by everyone. The saddest part of design fiction is that the people who are involved in this enterprise know that they are producing an exorbitant amount of garbage but they just shrug it off and laugh about it. In the video program, there was an example of the OCAD group inventing things which may be in use in 2025: all of them were made of plastic! Where will these “invented things” end up? There seems to be no sense of the finiteness of  natural resources. And, needless to say, the extollment of  3D printing has no bounds, again, without awareness of the fact that the machine will “print” 99.9% of things which are waste.

2) The false sense of “anything is possible by anyone”

It is customary in the post-modern world to accept the fact that “the burden is on the user” and “do-it-yourself” is praised as the epitome of human creativity. In the video program, Sterling exclaims: “Just go and do a project!”, “Make your own stuff!”. However, talking about Casa Jasmina, both Tesanovic and Sterling fail to mention where their financial backing comes from: granted, they may be independently wealthy (after all, they are “married emigres” as Sterling puts it) and the abandoned factory in Torino may not have costed much, but they do have to have robotic technology (lots of it and of an up-to-date kind), pay taxes, so they do need money. They do not mention the amount of free (?) help they get from the “squatters” who apparently use open source information. Their works presented in an installation version are sought after by museums (who also do their own de-accessing, i.e. separation of what stays and what is junk: see 1) above), and certainly the installation costs the museum a nice sum. Furthermore, they “do not want to be depended on Google”. This is simply to underline the fact that projects such as these look beautiful on the outside, doable, and accessible to anyone; the truth is that unless the individual is backed by an institution, a university, a museum, and paid by these, the design fiction works would not be realizable.

3)  Conscientious and conscious language use

The language used  especially by Sterling (writer, novelist, lecturer) is really thought-provoking without being accountable.   He uses the adjective “moral” in two phrases: “our work has moral effects on society” and “ours is a moral gesture”, and yet nowhere in this video program there is an explanation of what these “moral” effects and “moral” gestures really signify. As if social responsibility and social awareness were a side-product of design fiction.

Tesanovic notes: “The stuff you have determines your lifestyle.” The assumption is therefore, “have more robotically-supported stuff , so you will have a better lifestyle”. The consumption’s doors have opened yet more widely…   She is also surprised that a UN group wants to use the Casa Jasmina: theirs is not a business but an avocation.

They both claim that they do not want to be anyone’s “users” or “clients”. Nevertheless, they are users of technology and clients of Arduino and internet providers.

In conclusion, to design things that so far exist only in the imagination and fiction must surely be extremely satisfying. However, as these designs are also projected into the future, it looks like humanity must elaborate and generate different fictions in order to design a more creative future.  It may be true, as Sterling claims at the end of the video, that technological breakthroughs are chipping away at the fine metaphysical line between what is real and what is imaginary, but technology by itself will not solve the more pressing problems humanity is facing right now.