Starting Over

From “Wonderful World”
Lou Adler, Herb Alpert, and Sam Cooke
Performed by Sam Cooke

Starting Over

Students in classroom at 
Holton Arms School by Theodor Horydczak,

There is something exciting about the beginning of another school year. There is optimism that the goals of the year will be met and an enthusiasm for the literature that will be covered. I know that as the year progresses students are likely to start complaining that the books we read are boring, the assignments are too hard and too confusing, and that the tools needed to complete the assignments (computers, pencils, paper, etc.) are too hard to come by. But that will all happen later and who knows, this year may not happen at all. There is always the hope that the students will be as excited as I am.

The picture of a classroom from the 1920’s gives rise to the speculation that, aside from dress codes, things have not changed very much; desks in rows with students bent over papers on their desk tops and writing furiously. There are pictures on the walls, though not too many, and some of them are framed. A bit more formal in their arrangement than on my walls, and the wall themselves a bit more sparsely populated. But the classrooms look remarkably alike.

Hopefully, the content of the course and its presentation will be a bit more innovative and 21st century. To what extent does the form the classroom takes dictate the way the class and its content are received. Does a classroom that looks early 20th century invite an early 20th century reaction to the course itself? How does a teacher break out of this pattern when the room is small, the class is somewhat large, and everyone needs to sit somewhere? When I taught in Los Angeles I had a classroom with tables arranged in a rectangle and 30 chairs arranged neatly around the tables. This created a seminar appearance to the class that impacted on the students’ response to the class. But where I teach now there are no tables, at least none that can be spared.

Still, the new year is full of optimism. There are new toys to play with this year in the classroom. There are wikis to be fed, Flikr images to be commented on, VoiceThreads and podcasts that will perhaps provoke some curiosity and enthusiasm. My greatest hope, though, is that curiosity will be provoked, that students will wonder about things.

Educated Fish, 1937
Fleischer Studios

The film clip illustrates one attitude towards education. The troublesome fish in the class cannot be made to take the day’s lesson seriously until he has an encounter with the object of the day’s lesson. I suppose that practicality is always an issue. Some students cannot get excited about learning some things until they understand exactly how the content of the class is going to impact on their future lives. The young fish saw no point to the lesson and his interest could not be captured. Most students will not have their encounter with the worm and the hook until after they leave the classroom.

Some things train the mind to be flexible, to solve problems, even if the problems they are given to solve in school are not the same problems they will encounter in the world. Their purpose is not to replicate “the world as it is,” necessarily, but to teach students to think creatively and abstractly. As a teacher I cannot anticipate every problem my students will encounter, I can only give them the tools they need to confront the difficult problems of every stripe that will eventually arise.

Still, some students are just excited about learning new stuff. Not all that are excited are excited about learning new “English” stuff, but they are excited about learning something. Some are mathematicians, some are scientists, and some are historians. But there are also some aspiring literary critics in the mix. The secret of the art of teaching is, I suppose, figuring out how to tap into that enthusiasm for learning, especially into the enthusiasm of those that are enthusiastic about learning non-academic things.

What about the content of a class? Is it really necessary to cover difficult texts? Is it enough that students read? Many think the reading and interpreting of texts is enough in itself. The issue is not the difficulty of the text but the interpretive skill the student brings to the text. I remember a student in a Literary Theory class I took once commenting on the critic Roland Barthes. He enjoyed Barthes critical approach to a text and the interesting things he did with interpretation. He added, though, that it was perhaps unfortunate that he focused on “second rate” texts like James Bond novels. For Barthes the quality of the text was not of primary importance.

In fact Bathes believed that it was the reader and not the writer that brought a text to life. A writer strings together a series of words and readers create a story from these “raw materials”. Whatever quality or artistry that exists in the text exists because the reader put it there. From this perspective, I suppose, there is no such thing as a “second rate” text. I like this idea to a point, but I also think that Shakespeare has more to do with the artistry found in Hamlet than I do. But if there is artistry in the text, my imagination must also bring that artistry to life, and perhaps this is the problem.

How do we train students to read “artistically”? Can the imagination be trained or is that something that each individual must do for her or himself? I think that guiding students through difficult texts trains the imagination, but of course, only if the mind of the student is willing to be trained. But then, what is the student’s role in this process? What if the student does not want her or his mind “trained” or at least not trained in the manner I am proposing to train it? Is some resistance to this process on the part of the student a good thing that indicates the student’s involvement in the process?

Most students when asked to comment on the situations, actions of characters, and the values the text seems to advocate, among other things, are very creative. They obviously understand the concepts behind great literature and the issues with which the literature grapples. They also seem to enjoy wrestling with the problems the texts raise; they are just a bit standoffish towards the texts themselves.

I think, maybe, this is how it is supposed to be. In high school students are exposed to some of the literature that has stood the “test of time”. Their language skills are often a bit behind their cognitive skills, that is, students often have the ability to understand and effectively debate complex issues and ideas. They are often sensitive to subtlety and nuance. It is the words that get in the way. Still, it is the words they need to learn, if only to give them the tools they need to articulate the true depth of their thought. As a teacher I need to be patient as students wrestle with words and build vocabulary.

On the whole there is good cause to be excited as schools “start over” and once again run their races through the curriculum. The curious and the indifferent will all make their way to class. Though I do not believe in the indifferent student. I think indifference or what is often called “laziness” masks other things, they are symptoms and not a diagnosis. The trick is finding the cause of the symptom and treating that. This is the challenge of teaching and what makes the profession exciting. I suppose if a doctor never saw a patient in need of a challenging diagnosis the practice of medicine would become a bit boring and mundane (isn’t this the premise behind House). The same is probably true for any profession. For those that do what they do because they need a place to hang out until retirement the challenges are a nuisance. For others the new year presents an opportunity to diagnose some interesting cases and to prescribe interesting, if unorthodox, courses of treatment.

Technology, Web 2.0, and the Platonic Ideal

Technology, Web 2.0, and the Platonic Ideal

The Ptolemiac Universe

The first illustration is of the Ptolemaic universe, a series of spheres nested inside one another. Many of the earliest composers were attempting to capture the music that these crystal spheres must produce in their orbits; sort of like the music one makes running their finger around the rim of a fine crystal goblet. The bit of music we just heard is from Anton Bruckner’s 7th Symphony. I have been told by people who understand such things that Bruckner’s symphonies often exhibit a mathematical precision and it is this precision that often evokes the emotional response that many have to the music.

I think that what attracts many to music, whatever the genre, is not the melody but the content of the complete musical experience. The melody is the most accessible; it is what we whistle in the shower. But it is all the other stuff that is going on around the melody that makes the music endure. It is why we still listen to old Beatles records, perhaps, and not other of the less enduring bands of the era. The melody may be the hook, but if there is nothing of interest happening with harmonies and rhythms and the blend of instrumental sounds the melody soon becomes cloying. It is that melody we get stuck inside our heads and cannot get free of.

I think it is always the content that gives enduring value. If the melody is all there is the music is not likely to endure. It is those other things, the harmonies, rhythms, and instruments that give the music its depth and longevity. I think this principle holds true with many things, not just music and I think there is a lesson here about education, course content, and the technology (new or otherwise) employed to showcase that course content.

The kind of authentic assignments that many advocates of the new technologies offer as examples of best practice trivialize the core academic disciplines; create a kind of “Big Mac curriculum” where students develop only those skills that they are most likely to use in the market place. Because few students will need to read and understand anything more complex than a memo or a travel brochure, their writing tasks should focus on memos and travel brochures. Few of our students will go on to become physicists or literary critics. Most students will not in their daily lives have to use calculus or need to read Proust. But if school curriculum is built only around travel brochures and how to balance a checkbook we will not be training the physicists, mathematicians, or scholars of the next generation.

It may be that students will never write a term paper after they leave school and that the kind of writing they will do will be much more “practical”. But the purpose behind a term paper is not to prepare them for a life of writing term papers but a life of making critical, analytic, and interpretive judgments; skills that term papers teach and the paper itself documents have been mastered.

The adept will perhaps succeed in training themselves and the children of the wealthy and privileged will be able to acquire the skills that have always characterized the traditional liberal arts education, the children of the less fortunate (which includes the bulk of the middle class and the vast majority of children in this country) will not be challenged to excel at any but the most rudimentary skills. This need not be the case, I suppose, but when I look at the examples of what those leading the “technology revolution” regard as authentic assignments I see assignments that tap into what most students find interesting.

I do not mean to suggest that what interests students or what students think they need to know should be barred from the classroom but only to suggest that the classroom should go beyond this. In the 1960’s and 1970’s the philosophy of the Summerhill School enjoyed some popularity in America and that philosophy is revived every now and again. It is at heart a belief that students know best what they need to learn and left to their own devices will learn what they need to learn more effectively.

When I look at the educational philosophy behind much of the Web 2.0 tools and those that advocate for them I see this Summerhill philosophy. I think there is a lot of merit to this for the motivated students. But every school that I encountered that practiced this philosophy had problems motivating some of their students. It is these students that concern me. I think as a teacher it is these difficult to motivate students that makes the job challenging and exciting and keeps me from becoming bored with it. I think it is important to find a balance between offering students the opportunity to self-direct some of their education (as they will have to do for the rest of their lives once the leave the academic community) and the traditional teacher directed classroom. Even the most motivated students need guidance from time to time and student interest cannot be the sole criteria determining classroom content.

If I structure my classroom around what students want to know or what they think they need to know my job becomes much easier. But if I structure my class around the more difficult skills that students resist and maybe only a few will go on to use in their working lives my job becomes much more difficult. And this has always been at the heart of reforming the classroom, the choice between what is easy and what is difficult. I also think students see through this. They understand that if they are not being pushed to do things they do not like or that they think are beyond them that their time is being wasted. They resist because they want, like most of us, the easy road, but they also, like many of us, resent those that make things too easy for them. Some students after being coerced a bit to pursue a difficult line of study come to find it interesting.

When I was in school students were tracked. As a result of my dyslexia I was labeled in the mid 1950’s as “borderline retarded” and put into a vocational track that would not challenge me very much because the schools thought I could not do very much. So I was delighted when tracking was done away with and teachers were required to challenge all students at a “college preparatory” level. But what has happened in many of our schools is that more and more of the “college prep” curriculum has come to resemble the old “vocational” curriculum. If most students do not have the reading skills to handle Chaucer or Shakespeare, give them the current YAL (Young Adult Literature) favorites because these are easier for most students to read.

I have nothing against YAL and enjoy reading many of the titles that are classified under this label. But the challenge is not just to get students to read but to read difficult texts. There is a difference between reading Time Magazine and a poem by Keats. Students will not have to read Shakespeare or Chaucer when they leave school, though some may, but the language skills, the insights into human nature, the training of the imagination that these books provide cannot be provided by “more accessible” texts.

It is the difficulty of the traditional texts that make them valuable. It is like those things in music that enable the music to survive. The best opportunities often come to those that have learned to master difficult tasks and developed the tenacity and patience to work their way through a difficult problem. The issue is not relevance to the world of work but the mindset that is developed within the student.

It is also important for students to understand that the more difficult aspects of all the academic disciplines should at some level be mastered if only so they start to realize how a fundamental knowledge of those disciplines that do not attract them have relevance if only in broadening the scope of what their minds can grasp. Many students do not see where a math course applies to a language course or a history course to a science course. Though there is much about each discipline that is unique to that discipline (which is why it is a separate discipline in the first place) there is much that is transferable. I learned this in high school geometry. As a student more attracted to literature and language than I was to mathematics I always struggled in my math courses. But in doing proofs in my geometry course I learned the importance of evidence in making and defending an assertion. I still use a geometry proof I learned in high school that ends by “proving” one equals two as an example of a spurious argument in my A. P. Language and Composition course.

I think if the new technologies are to be made relevant to the modern classroom those that advocate for them must come to realize the importance of the content of the traditional curriculum to the classroom. I think one reason some educators resist the new technologies is because the defenses made for these technologies by their advocates appear to argue for a lowering of academic standards or trivialization of those aspects of the curriculum that are important to the practitioner of that discipline.

If the classical literature that is at the heart of the English curriculum is irrelevant than why keep the discipline? The examples of authentic assignments I have seen for the Language Arts classroom in articles advocating Web 2.0 technologies suggest to me that it is more important to prepare students for an occupation than to help students master language; that I am being encouraged to offer job training not exposure to an important literary tradition.

Plato and Aristotle walking and talking together

I do not think our students will ever have cause to quote Plato or Aristotle in the work place, but if they learn to follow and structure an argument as Plato and Aristotle did they will probably have significant advantages over those they are competing with for the best jobs in the work place. These philosophers challenge us to think not just deeply but broadly. They were wrong about many things. My mother used to tell me Aristotle set learning back a thousand years because what he taught was accepted as the final authority. I think there is truth to this, which Aristotle would probably recognize, but which he would also find a bit troubling, seeing in it a sign that he failed as a teacher.

It is said that when students of Pythagoras could not explain a difficult concept they had learned from Pythagoras they would respond, “ipse dixit”, which in Latin means “He himself has said it” (though being a speaker of Greek he probably said something else, though the points remains the same). They said this because they believed there was no higher authority than Pythagoras, so if he said something it must be true. I think we often encourage this kind of thinking in our students. It is easier to deal with students that just do what they are told than with students that question everything. When we give students what they want as opposed to what they need we are more likely to create this kind of complacency.

I had a professor in college who told us to accept nothing anyone says at face value, even anything he said, but exhorted us to challenge in our minds everything and verify everything for ourselves, or at least those things we might come to rely upon or try to teach to others. Like that old Russian proverb Ronald Reagan was so fond of quoting “trust but verify.” Perhaps we should take this attitude with the new technology. Trust people when they tell us the new technologies can improve the classroom and experiment with them, but verify for ourselves that they actually live up to their expectations.

Ptolemaic orbits, from “Harmonia Macrocosmica” by Andreas Cellarius, 1661, from

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509, showing Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), from

From Symphony #7 in E Major, “Adagio”, by Anton Bruckner, Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter Conductor

Working Our Fingers to the Virtual Bone

Working Our Fingers to the Virtual Bone

The illustrations and the film clip suggest various attitudes toward technology that, though by no means typical, often are given a bit of credence at least at the visceral level. In the film clip a mad scientist has created some flying robots that are performing robberies of one kind or another in the city of Metropolis. Lois Lane follows them to their den and of course Superman follows Lois Lane. The view towards science and technology is one of distrust; that those with technological no-how are somehow using that knowledge to do harmful things to the rest of us; they are at some level corrupting our culture. There is, I think, a bit of irony here in that the tools that allowed the Fleischer studios to create this animated film were themselves new technology. Do we trust the message or the vehicle containing the message?

In the 1920’s Technocracy, a belief that a society run by scientists and other experts from various fields would be a happier more prosperous society, enjoyed some popularity. Technocracy, Inc. maintains a web site that anyone can visit to this day. By the 1940’s, though, this movement had lost much of its public appeal. The Superman film clip is from 1941 and perhaps reflects a changed attitude towards technology. Though, I remember in 1968 driving down L. A.’s Harbor Freeway and passing a billboard advertising Technocracy as the cure for all that ails us. The sign had seen better days and I imagine that by now it has probably disappeared.

Rube Goldberg invention that behaves like an alarm clock

Rube Goldberg invention that cools soup

The illustrations suggest another attitude towards technology, that though it can come up with some ingenious solutions to troublesome problems the solutions are often more troublesome than the problems. The Rube Goldberg machine probably got its definitive treatment (at least in my view) in Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times where the Little Tramp is hooked up to a machine that will feed him his lunch while he continues to work the assembly line, thus increasing productivity. The machine, of course, breaks down, and the overworked little tramp has a different sort of breakdown.

These views of technology are comic but I think they reflect attitudes (taken to hyperbolic extremes) of some educators toward technology in the classroom. If they do not find it an “evil” intrusion upon their classroom time they see it as a bit silly promising much more than it can deliver and, like a Rube Goldberg machine, being too complicated to be effective in the classroom. And hyperbole aside, the resistance to technology on the part of some is real and it is intense.

Those that have made use of the technology think those that have not are needlessly working their “fingers to the bone”, while those that do not embrace the technology maintain a similar attitude toward the “technocrats” in their midst. The issue, though, has little to do with silliness or malevolence. The issue, at its heart, revolves around the skills students will need when they enter the adult world and which of those skills ought to be taught in the public schools. When I started teaching in Massachusetts in the early 1990’s technology in the classroom was very popular and there was a lot of state support for it. But within about five years or so people began to realize that the technology quickly becomes obsolete and is very expensive to maintain and replace. About the same time, budget problems caused state funding to disappear.

The argument for technology in the classroom at some level has to address the economics of the classroom if it is to be successful, especially when it comes to equality in the classroom between districts that are well off and those that struggle to make ends meet. Those in poor school districts will enter the same world of work as those in more affluent districts and if they are to compete they ought to have the same educational opportunities. The 21st century student, the 21st century school, and the 21st century high school graduate should look the same no matter on which side of town they are found.

But to address the key question, does Web 2.0 (and whatever technologies that follow) have a place in the schools; are they important for our students to know and understand? Paul Anderson writing on the impact of Web 2.0 in British schools wrote, “The report establishes that Web 2.0 is more than a set of ‘cool’ and new technologies and services, important though some of these are. It has, at its heart, a set of at least six powerful ideas that are changing the way some people interact. Secondly, it is also important to acknowledge that these ideas are not necessarily the preserve of ‘Web 2.0’, but are, in fact, direct or indirect reflections of the power of the network: the strange effects and topologies at the micro and macro level that a billion Internet users produce.” The six technologies that he goes on to identify are blogs, wikis, social bookmarking, Multimedia sharing, podcasting, and RSS. He sees value in making effective use of these tools.

He is writing about the impact of Web 2.0 on the way universities do what they do but the arguments he makes are also relevant to secondary education and perhaps elementary education as well. And if the universities are going to expect students to use these tools then they should be sent to university knowing these tools. He goes on to say, “In short, these are ideas about building something more than a global information space; something with much more of a social angle to it. Collaboration, contribution and community are the order of the day and there is a sense in which some think that a new ‘social fabric’ is being constructed before our eyes. These ideas though, need technology in order to be realized into the functioning Web-based services and applications that we are using.” The strength of Web 2.0 is that it helps build communities and assists collaboration. But he is concerned that there is not enough research (as of February 2007) to adequately evaluate its usefulness. He wonders what will happen to libraries and more traditional sources of information and research. Anderson’s report was peer reviewed to authenticate the validity of the conclusions he reached. I am concerned that effective peer review is difficult on the web.

I began by asking myself how do I know that the articles I am reading are reliable? I found them all on a web search using Google Scholar, but does that mean the articles that the search engine finds are reliable? How do you verify sources; why should I trust these articles or what they assert? The implication for students is that I am teaching them to use materials because they can be easily found and not because they are reliable.

My personal conclusion is that the 21st century student needs to be taught the rigorous content of the traditional curriculum for each of the academic disciplines but that they need to be taught this content in a way that takes into account the technologies and tools they will be using when they enter the work place or the university. Part of that, especially for those students that go on to the university, requires they know how to research effectively using the Web 2.0 tools and can recognize the difference between real and dependable research and that which has little more than unsupported personal opinion to recommend it.

I do not think we should be telling students what to dream, what to be, or what to do. But we should be helping our students get the skills they need to pursue those dreams and aspirations. As a teacher I need to help students master the content of the discipline I teach and the tools (conventional and technological) of that discipline. If I teach students to use wikis, blogs, and the rest of the Web 2.0 suite of tools it is not because it is important to know those tools (it is but the tools as tools ought to be taught in technology classes, the 21st century equivalent of the typing course I took when I was in high school) it is because these tools will help them to more effectively master the discipline. By teaching these tools within a context, an academic discipline, students not only learn to use the tool but they also understand the relevance of the tool, its value for accomplishing a task.

John Thompson argues that colleges and universities are incorporating these technologies more and more into what they do. I personally find it troubling that the reason he gives for introducing these technologies into the classroom is because they are so popular and widely used by our students. While this is true it is not an argument based on academic merits for the classroom. Many things are popular, not everything that is popular can be exploited in the classroom.

Should schools change what they do to accommodate the interests of their students and the direction the technology is taking the culture? Time Magazine in an article on this changing technology imagines a 20th century Rip Van Winkle awaking in a 21st century world. After watching people playing video games, walking around with pace-makers and hip replacements he walks into a school. “But when he finally walks into a schoolroom, the old man knows exactly where he is. ‘This is a school,’ he declares. ‘We used to have these back in 1906. Only now the blackboards are green.'” I think there is a bit of hyperbole here. My blackboard is white and I use erasable magic markers in various colors. There is also a television in the classroom used for showing videos and the like. Still, that said, there is a bit of truth to the joke.

The article goes on to say, “This is a story about the big public conversation the nation is not having about education, the one that will ultimately determine not merely whether some fraction of our children get ‘left behind’ but also whether an entire generation of kids will fail to make the grade in the global economy because they can’t think their way through abstract problems, work in teams, distinguish good information from bad or speak a language other than English.” I think this captures the essence of the problem for the public schools and technology. It also captures what our use of the technology in the classroom must accomplish if it is to be used effectively. Using a wiki or a blog because it is fun does not really address the problem. These tools must be used to lead students more deeply into the subject matter. If it does not do that the new technology will fail them just as surely as the antiquated academic practices schools now employ.

Schools need to assess their roles in the realm of technology. Oftentimes schools are given by those behind the curtain (usually politicians) impossible tasks to complete. Often these tasks are like the one given to Dorothy of getting the Wicked Witch of the West’s broomstick (Edith Hamilton after playing the role of the witch I am told used to wear a pin with “WWW” on it, perhaps the first suggestion of the diabolical origins of the internet). These tasks are more a way of diverting attention away from addressing the real issues at hand. Instead of recovering a broomstick educators are required to waste significant amounts of time (usually doing things to make schools look more like those the voters attended) so that those behind the curtain can appear to be addressing the problems with education. Schools need to be encouraged to prepare students for the world that is and not the world that was. The problem is the technology is expensive and schools need more than just the right mandate and a list of academic outcomes that must be reached; they must be given the funding to carry out the mandate and to achieve the outcomes.


“Innovate: Is Education 1.0 Ready for Web 2.0 Students?.” 13 Aug 2008

“ Print Page: TIME Magazine — How to Bring Our Schools Out of the 20th Century.” 13 Aug 2008

“What is Web 2.0? Ideas, technologies and implications for education.” 13 Aug 2008

Rube Goldberg Machine Cooling Soup,

Rube Goldberg Machine Alarm Clock,

From Superman and the Mechanical Monsters, Director: Dave Fleischer, Production Company: Paramount Pictures, Action Comics & Superman Magazine,

From Boney Fingers, Written and Performed by Hoyt Axton, From Bread and Roses

The Place of Technology in the Classroom

The Place of Technology in the Classroom

Victorian Classroom

Writing slare used in Victorian classroom

The YouTube video gives a simple demonstration of the circular slide rule, a huge improvement over the writing slate that was used to do calculations in the Victorian classroom, though of course the slide rule, a seventeenth century invention, significantly predates the Victorian classroom. I remember in high school everyone had one (though like many of my classmates I never figured out how to use the thing). What could be done with a slide rule was absolutely mind-boggling at the time. Of course with the desktop computer the slide rule became more of a curiosity than a necessity. I do not recall many complaints, aside from price, about the personal computer replacing the slide rule. The point here is, that the technology has always been changing, from slate to paper, from slide rules to computers and those that would educate effectively have changed as the technology has changed.

I know in my own case that the reason I had to wait until the 1980’s to go to graduate school was my inability to effectively master the typewriter. Every paper I turned in had typos and not just a few, each page had its share of mistakes. I could never type a clean page of text and I could not figure out how to correct the mistakes I found without destroying the appearance of the page or doing harm to the surrounding text. I was an English major so this was a significant problem. I did all my editing and rewriting in handwritten drafts. When I was satisfied with the quality of the handwritten text I began typing. I dared not proofread because I did not have the time to correct the problems I knew I would find. Being dyslexic I have a tendency to this day to transpose letters and numbers, which complicated things further.

In the 1980’s, however, I got a word processor, a little Magnavox machine (if you ever see the film Broadcast News you will see my little machine used in one of the newsroom scenes). It had one font, courier, and printed a clean text that looked like it came right out of a typewriter. It had a problem when it came to starting a new page because it regarded the end of a page as the end of a document and I had to force the text at the top each page back to the margin because the machine wanted to indent the line, believing I suppose it was the start of new paragraph. But I did not care, I had a backspacing key and every mistake I found could be fixed in the fraction of a second. I was in heaven and what was better, I was in graduate school. I have always loved going to school and learning stuff so to me heaven and graduate school were much the same thing.

My experience has taught me that technology, whatever problems it brings with it, is a friend. I moved on from my Magnavox to my first Macintosh computer (it had a huge four megabyte hard drive, who could ask for more) and began using a wider range of tools and resources. Technology was liberating. In the classroom technology has improved the quality of the materials I use and the presentation of the concepts that I teach.

That said, of course, it brings with it many problems and I think it is also important to consider which of the new technologies can be used the most effectively in the classroom. The answer to a significant part of this question will vary from teacher to teacher and perhaps from discipline to discipline. I cannot see how some things (Instant Messaging for example) can be used productively in the classroom, though I have read articles that argue that it can. I am sure there are some teachers who can use this tool effectively and they should do so. I just don’t think that I can.

But this is part of the problem. In their enthusiasm those that advocate the new technologies often see in it an answer to every problem in the classroom. Those uncertain about the benefits of technology often see it as an intrusion. I do not think the tool will work for anyone that cannot make the tool work. It is the skill and imagination of the wielder of the tool that makes the tool effective. I think those that keep their distance are probably making their lives more difficult, at least in the classroom, but they have to realize this for themselves.

My concern is for the content of the class. As an English teacher I see real value in teaching literary works that have stimulated the human imagination for centuries, even millennia. There is an exercise I do with all my students called “The Stories That Tell Us Who We Are”. The lesson tries to teach students that stories help us define our values and ethics; they provide examples of what it means to be courageous or faithful. By entering into the lives of characters students learn something of empathy. Faye Weldon in her book Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen writes, “You can practice the art of empathy very well on Pride and Prejudice, and on all the works of Jane Austen, and it is this daily practice that we all need, or we will never be good at living, as without practice we will never be good at playing the piano.” I think the literature of the traditional “canon” does this very well. I know that modern novels and stories can do this as well, but part of teaching an English class is exposing students to those who have used the language with exceptional skill; and it is because the works of the canon have used language with such skill that they have survived.

I have to be convinced that some of the new technologies (like Instant Messaging) can be used to expose students to writing of this quality. But other technologies can provide platforms for students to comment on literature, to explore the cultural and historical contexts that produced the literature, or to interact with teachers and other students to discuss the ideas, values, and concepts found in the literature. However, for a student to be an effective and enthusiastic student she or he must be curious. Students that use the technology for entertainment or keeping in touch are not likely to be any more motivated to engage a difficult text by asking them to discuss it in a blog or to analyze it with others in a wiki or to in some way wrestle with the text in a format that employs some other aspects of the Web 2.0 universe if they have not first been made curious. Students may enjoy making a video but will they read the literature deeply enough or at all in order to make a video that adequately captures the essence of the work.

What the teacher must do is stimulate, provoke, the students’ curiosity and that task is as difficult with the technology as without it. Though it should be added that by using these technological tools teachers would be helping students to become familiar with the tools they will be using in the worlds of work or the academy when they leave high school. And we should not fool ourselves. The real problems that surround educating young people that do not want to be educated are old problems.

William Langland in his poem Piers Plowman wrote, “What is more, even Grammar, the basis of all education, baffles the brains of the younger generation today.  For if you take note, there is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter.” Langland was a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, a fifteenth century poet. I remember reading this shortly after I started teaching and thought things do not really change very much. It appears that each generation looks on the generation that follows them as underachievers and this view goes back a number of centuries. Besides students in the public schools are children and children, almost by definition, are immature. They do not know what is in their best long-term interest.

To make matters worse today’s school children live in a culture that is challenged by the concept of delayed gratification. If the child’s parents want what they want when they want it, should we be surprised that their children are impatient with anything that does not give immediate satisfaction. This is a problem technology cannot solve nor is it reasonable to expect it to. The purpose of an education is not merely to teach our young people valuable skills, it is also to help make them wise, which is, I suppose, a large part of what it means to be mature.

Film clip from YouTube – Circular Slide Rule

Images from the Victorian Web


Teaching, Trades, and Professions

“Cleaning Windows”

Van Morrison

Teaching, Trades, and Professions

Painting shows many working and a few watching

Ford Madox Brown, Work (1852–63).
Source: Scanned from the cover of the following book:
Herbert F. Tucker: A Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture. Blackwell 1999, ISBN 0-631-20463-6

The difference between a tradesman and a professional is a tradesman is paid for what he accomplishes and a professional is paid for what he attempts. Some may find this distinction a bit facetious and I admit that it probably is, but as Sidney Smith said, “You must not think me necessarily foolish because I am facetious, nor will I consider you necessarily wise because you are grave.” Beneath the facetiousness I believe there is a useful grain of truth, especially as it applies to education.

When we hire a tradesman to do some work for us, say build and install some cabinets, we do not pay for the work, at least’s not in full, until the work is done according to pre-arranged specifications. When we seek the services of a professional, a doctor for example, we cannot know beforehand if these services will be rendered successfully, at least not in the sense of producing the outcome we desire. If I visit the doctor with a cold, or some other incurable disease, the doctor can give me advice but he cannot make me well.

In any occupation there are three necessities, the right skills, the right tools, and the right materials. The first two items are the same for a tradesman and a professional but the third is very different. Both the professional and the tradesman can acquire the training they need to do the work required by their occupation. Both the tradesman and the professional can acquire the best tools for that occupation. It is the materials that make the difference. A tradesman can select the materials he will use. If he is building my cabinets he can select the best woods and the best fittings for the project, or we can agree on materials of a lesser quality and agree to a finished product of a lesser quality. The materials of the professional, on the other hand, are his patience, his clients. They must be taken in the state that they present themselves and the degree of success that the professional can achieve will be determined by that state.

The question then becomes are teachers tradesmen or professionals? I think, for the most part, even those critical of the results that teachers produce in the classroom think of and refer to them as professionals. However, the attitude many of these critics take towards education suggests they see teaching as a trade and expect the outcomes of the classroom to resemble the outcomes of tradesmen and not professionals. Critics of classroom teachers seem, often, to operate from a premise that all students can achieve at the highest level and that teachers ought to be able to evoke that level of performance from all of their students.

If we assume for the moment that those who assert all students can achieve at the highest level are right, and I think that teachers ought to begin with this premise with each of their students in any case, a student, unlike a piece of lumber, can make choices and some students may not choose to work at the levels of which they are capable. If a student persists on pursuing unwise choices, the teacher is limited in what he can do. But I think the problem goes a bit deeper than this.

I think this can be seen most readily in the area of standardized testing. These test are premised on a belief that all students can perform competently on these tests. Assume for the moment that this is true, I am not sure it is, but that is a different argument. There is also the issue of the skills these tests measure. The impetus behind this testing is among other things the dissatisfaction those in the world of work have with the skills students bring to the workforce upon their graduation from high school. Employers have been concerned that our students enter the workforce unable to perform the tasks that are being asked of them and that these tasks require skills students should have received in school.

What is the purpose of education, to develop the mind and imagination of the student or to prepare the student to complete a task? We talk of making our students life long learners, but is that really what the work place wants from them. John Ruskin in his book The Stones of Venice writes about the craftsmen employed by architects in the Gothic Period of the late Middle Ages. He praises the architects of this age because of the opportunity they gave to craftsmen to develop and use their imaginations. This resulted imperfections in the workmanship, but those imperfections produced a building of greater beauty. He wrote:

You must either make a tool of the creature or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them. All the energy of their spirits must be given to make cogs and compasses of themselves. All their attention and strength must go to the accomplishment of the mean act. The eye of the soul must be bent upon the finger point, and the soul’s force must fill all the invisible nerves that guide it, ten hours a day, that it may not err from its steely precision, and so soul and sight be worn away, and the whole human being be lost at last – a heap of sawdust, so far as its intellectual work in this world is concerned; saved only by its Heart which cannot go into the form of cogs and compasses, but expands after the ten hours are over, into fireside humanity. On the other hand if you will make a man of the working creature, you cannot make a tool. Let him but begin to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing; and the engine-turned precision is lost at once. Out come all his roughness, all his dullness, all his incapability; shame upon shame, failure upon failure, pause after pause: but out comes the whole majesty of him also; and we know the height of it only, when we see the clouds settling upon him. And, whether the clouds be bright or dark, there will be transfiguration behind and within them.

Often what the workplace wants is a tool, an employee that will do the work they are given exactly as they were instructed to do it. Some students may be looking for this in an occupation. They may want a job that does not make too many demands upon them so that in their free time they can focus on other things that challenge their minds and imaginations but have little or no relationship to the work they do to pay the bills. This to me is why teaching is a profession. We cannot control, as much as we may want to, all the outcomes in our classrooms; all the choices our students make.

We can do our best to give our students the skills, knowledge, and insights they need to succeed in the world of work or the university; we can help them to realize their ambitions but we cannot make their choices for them. Nor ought we to prepare them to do little more than follow instructions. The measure of a teacher’s success is not in how well they have learned the alphabet or to manipulate numbers or to remember their grammar rules. The measure of success is in the students’ ability to do meaningful things (meaningful first for the student but hopefully for the larger society as well) with the skills and concepts they have been taught.