Against learner-centered pedagogy

learning

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.

 

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Teaching

In May of 1994 I was invited to present a workshop during the “Springtime Teaching Refresher” at York University; i.e. the workshop was geared to my colleagues, members of the teaching complement of the university. My memories of this experience bring up murky ideas of the positives and negatives group work brings to language teaching, but just recently, while clearing out my university office, I found the letter of thanks from the Academic Director of the Center for the support of Teaching, which included the summary of my session’s evaluations (see these below the post). As usual, participants were asked to list two things which they liked (among which these make me proud: variety of actual techniques presented, generation of discussion and sharing, well organized and presented). They were also asked to describe two things which could be added or improved. And here matters start to be interesting. Let’s concentrate on the following, i.e. some of those things the participants felt could be improved or added:
• handout with outline of group activities,
• instructions need to be clear,
• reading exercise probably did not reflect the students’ experience.
As for the first suggestion for improvement, there is something amiss when my colleagues need a “handout with outline of group activities”. Either they do not know how to follow an organized talk without some type of written outline, or they do not think any workshop presentation is worth its salt if it does not include some type of a handout. This attitude of “must see things written down” is troubling, since instructors themselves give students predigested chunks which the students follow during a lecture (and, predictably, their cognitive world crumbles if the instructor strays from this outlined material). Needless to say, there is no meeting, no conference (no matter how learned), no presentation, where handouts are not present. What does it say about our culture? Cannot we rely on our memory any longer? Perhaps: perhaps I would remember more of my presentation if I had made and kept a handout for it… But this reliance on written bits reflects the fragmented chunks of information we are surrounded with. It is not that we no longer read, it is that we read bits without context, that troublesome and time-consuming framework which helps us make sense of the world. And, in any handout, the context is sorely missing. What is the upshot of this lack of context? As my experience in the past 35 years of teaching has showed me, individuals (especially those between 18-30) do not have the skills, patience, willingness to read anything that has been written/published more than 30 years ago – let alone before and during the Roman Classical Period, Middle Ages, Renaissance or the Enlightenment. Culture is therefore moving in the direction of a two-tier system where some people will be able to learn from and enjoy imagining the past and other will not. As one of my ex-colleagues tends to repeat, “We live in the new Dark Ages.”
The second suggestion surely conflicts with the approval the presentation received (well organized and presented) and reaffirms yet again the uselessness of session/course/workshop evaluations. Granted, the manner in which presentations of any kind are received by the audience transcends any quick-reply to questions on the evaluation sheet. Back to the fragmentation again, this time with a false sense of pride and security for the organizers: “We have written proof of the participants’ evaluative thoughts!”, which in the great majority of cases resemble the “like” button of Facebook. However, it is not always a question of the lack of time for the respondents to muse about the just transpired experience during a workshop.
The third suggestion for improvement of my presentation cuts to the core of what it means to teach at the university level, and what it means to teach nowadays. Teaching materials should “reflect the students’ experience”: that’s the slogan now. My question is why should they? Let me back up a bit, and say that any good (no need to be great) instructor can make anything he/she teaches, shows, relates, explains, demonstrates, etc. reflect the students’ experience. However, reflecting the students’ experience is not the purpose of teaching: that is simply an aid/trick used for the benefit of some students to help them grasp concepts better. One of the fundamental problems with university teaching now is due to this constant need to reaffirm the students’ experiences. And yet, that is not learning, that is simply helping students stay within their own individual bubbles, it supports their navel-gazing, endorsing the me generation’s understanding of the world. Teaching must be able to burst the individual bubble, to help lift the gaze outside of oneself, to learn about something brand new which is totally unlike oneself, unpredictable, amazingly and wondrously albeit dangerously different.
This is true for all types of courses, “Competency-based degree programs” included: these let students “breeze through courses” because they have a practical knowledge of the areas taught in those courses. The opinion that “[Competency-based courses] challenge the traditional belief that the professor holds all of the knowledge and that I must be disseminated in the classroom.” (from University Affairs 06/14, p. 31) shows a myopic, dim-witted and hollywoodian perspective on what professors really do.
How to stop this inopportunely unintelligent stance? First, by not using hand-outs. Second, by permitting students to make mistakes. Third, by forcing the students’ gaze outside of their bubble, outward. All of this with only a judicious use of materials that “reflect the students’ experiences”. Hopefully, this will aid in preparing a citizenry who can think on their own, who do not need (movie/sports) stars to lead them on the way to more consumerism. In other words, who look deeper into everything.

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Two 2013 conferences on contemporary world and universities

2013 marked an interesting year: there were two conferences which dealt with the universities from novel and different perspectives. The first one had to do with Social Media: Implications for the University and the second focused on Global Trends in Media and Higher Education. Since it will take a while between the conference itself and the publication of the acts, here are some ideas about the most important and pressing issues that arise from the papers heard at the two conferences.

Social Media: Implications for the University, York University, May 3-5, 2013

Up to the time of the conference, very few publications appeared which deal with the interplay between platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, etc. and the university’s mission to research, teach, and administer, making it a most welcome place to construct a solid base on which to think about these matters. No concurrent sessions were held, to the great delight of all the speakers and participants. The discussions after each presentation were lively and led to further thinking about the topic at hand. Most papers addressed the following four questions:

1. Can universities substantially change the manner in which they achieve their mission by using social media?
2. What are the opportunities, impacts, and challenges of social media on the workings of the university?
3. How innovative and effective is the use of social media for the purposes of research, teaching, and administration in a university setting?
4. Do social media have a critical function in the mobilization and dissemination of knowledge?
In general, the answers to these questions presented varied and balanced points of view. These spanned between two opposite poles: on the one hand, strong criticism appeared of those aspects of social interaction which are being dismantled by social media in the fabric of society, and therefore also in the fabric of the university. On the other pole, concrete and optimistic suggestions pointed to the use of social media for pedagogical effects aimed at within a particular course content but outside of the classroom physical space. Crowd-sourcing of administrative functions (such as recruitment) received positive support.
The critical aspects of social media use at the university level focused on the interactive problems with Web 2.0: if teaching/learning is a dialogical process, social media are not well-suited for such discourse interaction. Distractions, attention-span issues, linguistic shortcuts and fluidity were mentioned as the most pressing issues to be managed in courses where social media are used. The conclusions to which the papers of this conference pointed to a guarded optimism about the use of social media in teaching, open embrace of the use of social media for recruitment and other administrative functions of the university, and there were no definitive opinions as to the use of social media in research.

 

Worldviews conference: Global Trends in Media and Higher Education, Toronto, June 19-21, 2013

The fact that there were concurrent sessions did not permit me to attend all of them. This is one of the most frustrating experience for a conference attendee: that of having to choose between two or three interesting papers because they occur at the same time. Rather than describing each session I attended, here are some general points which relate to the conference organization as well as to the perspectives on universities.

Delivery of the papers: moderator-panel style

A conference is successful if the papers/presentations/panels address the main ideas/questions put forth in the description. Many of the sessions lacked this connection. In other words, I was expecting every panel to address connections/similarities/differences between journalism and higher education, but many panels did not deal with this main topic.
The conference was predicated on doing something different, not to have the usual 20 minute presentations followed by 10 minutes of discussion. In this way, it fell into the trap of contemporary “fluid” and fragmented flow of bits of information: the “informal conversational style” of the form ‘moderator-panelists’ often resulted in conversations taking a life of their own, without following the proposed theme. As a consequence, the audience did not come out with a firm grasp on that proposed theme. It was as if the educational professionals were afraid to do what they are accustomed to do: speak about their research in a coherent, cogent manner for more than 5 minutes. Granted, the informal conversation was sometimes choc-full of good ideas, but they were not fully developed and therefore incomplete, shapeless and easily forgotten.

Oft-repeated keywords/buzzwords

Each of the following keywords/buzzwords illustrates a central issue with the university’s mission and the expectations of society at large: unpaid internship, crowd- out/sourcing, crisis, authority, transparency, trust, inequality, blurring of meaning, innovation, creativity, democratization of resources, change, ranking, neo-liberal power, efficiency, speed, context, cop-out. There were no attempts to charge the university with the mission of not only critiquing the neo-liberal consumerist trends, but actually coming up with possible solutions. In this view, universities are on the receiving end of any new idea that comes from technologically-driven business-created products and by its lack of response the university is simply acquiescing to a leadership outside of the academia. In general, it was interesting to compare journalists’ and educators’ professional lives being transformed under the weight of technology and financial crisis. It is clear that what was missing was both a governmental position and a big business perspective. And, as much as the conference described itself to be “democratic”, there were very few students both in attendance and as speakers. The conference also stressed the importance of contextualizing.

Unanswered questions

Some unanswered/unanalyzed questions:
1. Is this era like others (repetition) or is it new (paradigm shift)?
2. Has higher education changed dramatically (so that it is not recognizable any longer) or is it static and weary of change?
3. Is there semantic leaching of crucial differences between instruction/education/learning and efficiency/speed/depth?
4. How relevant are the experiences, background, prior education, digital nativity of students?
5. Dilemmas:

professionals vs equality/democracy
decisions from above vs decisions made by “users”
technocracy no longer imposed but self-directed

The manner in which universities answer these questions will definitely shape the role and importance of higher education in the future, providing society will not keep relying on another nursery for new ideas, outside of the academia.

Apology for Saussure’s silence

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For those scholars whose preoccupation is the analysis, teaching, observation of all aspects of language, it is only natural to keep asking: “Whatever happened to Ferdinand de Saussure?” In other words, whatever happened to his ideas, his fresh outlook on language, his standing as  “father of an academic, scientific discipline”? These questions receive significant answers in the slender publication entitled Ferdinand de Saussure, il linguista senza qualità (Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2013, pp. 5-26) written by Nunzio La Fauci.

Let us examine a number of threads which weave through the booklet, making specific points not only about Saussure himself but also noting how these threads contribute to a possible profound re-examination of  “Saussure’s” Cours de linguistique générale,  as well as the science called linguistics. The whole portrait painted by La Fauci rests on the premise that Saussure embodies what Musil described as “man without qualities”, and, I add, that is to say, perhaps, a man of post-modern qualities.

Teaching

Whatever Saussure was or has become, firstly and foremost he was a teacher. La Fauci underlines the fact that Saussure, not really so sure of his ideas that he would put them to print, had the chance to present his musings about general linguistics to students in three courses. It is a well-known fact that without Bally and Sechehaye (who did not attend these lectures but who, with the collaboration of Riedlinger, assembled notes made by students), Saussure’s ideas about language would not have seen the light of day. Although La Fauci does not analyze this aspect of Saussure’s life, it is clear that without the courses themselves and without the  student notes, there would not be the book which so transformed many social disciplines. But what is more important is the fact that Saussure had the possibility to verbalize his ideas about language in a non-threatening environment, clearly attempting to rationalize and justify in some way the direction of his thoughts. However, this is also Saussure’s damnation, so to speak, since whatever the Cours de linguistique générale offers, cannot be undone, cannot be defended, explained, elaborated on, it can only be attacked.

Linguistics

“Linguistics is a science”. This is a claim put forth by all the definitions of linguistics, but which very few look at from another perspective, that of social science. The science in the definition deals with concepts, in Saussure’s case, to put it crudely, of notions of relationships among and differences between forms: syntagmatic and associative/paradigmatic. The social in this instance must furnish the role of forms for the expression of ideas. Is it possible (but La Fauci does not deal with this) that Saussure was uncertain about his ideas regarding language precisely because he did not want to be stuck in a formalistic straight-jacket but did not know how to get out of it? I have always found problematic Saussure’s use the image of chess pieces for explaining synchrony and diachrony. This picture does not include the players, i.e. speakers. (An analysis of the use of chess for scientific explanations is reserved for another post.) Clearly, the conceptual bases change with time, but the danger of linguistics having self-absorbed notions is ever present.

Ipsi dixerunt

Historical chances underscore the vagaries of being in the right place at the right time supported by the “right” people. In fact, La Fauci describes the manner in which the attitudes toward the Cours expressed first by Meillet and then by the three points of the “structuralist diamond” (p.14)  Hjelmslev, Trubeckoy and Jakobson, shaped Saussure’s reputation in scientific circles. The Cours, read in a structuralist perspective, helped to elaborate other fields, such as anthropology, sociology, literary criticism, etc. Saussure becomes “an emblem” of the first Forty or so years of the Twentieth Century (p. 16). La Fauci asks: What is left of Saussure in a world where linguistic Parnassus now swells with new names and then deflates? His answer: two things remain of Saussure. The first idea makes of Saussure a promoter of novel thinking, which nonetheless nowadays is perceived as irreparably old and out of fashion. The second opinion regarding Saussure brings to the fore a group of admirers and specialists who keep the interest/cult of Saussure alive, especially those who work on unearthing Saussure’s thought from the mountain of private writings and other sources which need to be analyzed and published. The destiny of Saussure therefore rests on the good will of those who cavilously seek to discover what Saussure said (or worse, thought) (p. 18). Furthermore, as Jakobson so clearly communicated, Saussure was not able to bring new ideas to the study of historical linguistics/Indo-European; but Saussure’s attitude of dignified prudery did not allow him the publishable expression of his innermost thoughts (La Fauci , p. 21). And, I add, interestingly enough, if the scholar from Geneva  lived today, perhaps he would be less reticent to consign his thoughts to electronic technology…

Before concluding with a quote from Musil’s Man without qualities, La Fauci makes the point that Saussure’s though is worth much more deeper analysis and use than simple mention and celebration of his existence.

Ambivalent attitudes to interesting historical figures make for learned disquisitions or one-sided decisions, when they ought to be presented as bases for a really profound re-examination of many of accepted versions of “the truth”. La Fauci’s work is a step in this direction.