I didn’t learn to drive in my dad’s Porsche 912. Even if he hadn’t sold it before I started driving, I wouldn’t have learned it. I was fated, like every driving student, to learn to drive in an underpowered boring sedan, midsized or smaller. Once I mastered that, I advanced to larger vehicles, like an SUV, or more powerful car, like my girlfriend’s BMW.
I’m old-school enough that I didn’t use a calculator in class until college. The teachers made sure we could do the math by hand before letting us use calculators to speed things up — and even then, it was our fault, not the calculators, if weak batteries made the calculator malfunctioned and we didn’t question implausible results. Those same professors in college taught us how to interpolate by hand, even if they knew we’d do it with a computer, because knowing how it was done was fundamental.
All of this comes to mind because my brother led a Twitter chat last night about teaching with large amounts of bandwidth. Contrarian that I am, I called the Internet a very fast, very large library. If it wasn’t Twitter and its 140 character limit, I’d have added that it was a poorly curated library with lots of poorly written or just plan wrong material. For example, Wikipedia. It’s not a source. It’s a summary of sources. Students need to learn to chase the references and see if the entry correctly summarizes the source — which means understanding the source.
Some of the teachers in the conversation asserted that the ‘Net is now age-appropriate for young students. They may be growing up with things like tablets, but I don’t trust use to convey understanding. Do they learn the rules to solitaire, or do they just figure out what the game allows. Do they understand the probabilities, or do they just play and hope for something good to happen? Do they trust Fox News for their climate change news, because it’s on both TV and the Internet and therefore must be right twice, or do they learn to read critically?
My brother concedes that teachers have to curate the ‘Net. That’s fine, but that’s the whole problem. Attempts to narrow the Web usually are defeated. Maybe students really do need to read sites that use the word, “breast,” or maybe they’re just twelve-year-olds determined to read what adults read, even if most adults don’t read that sort of thing. Even adults spend lots of time defeating limits on the Net, whether it’s political censorship under dictators or paywalls on their less frequently used media sites. People learn that limits on the Net are weaker than the soundproofing in cheap hotels.
In theory, fine. In practice, it’s a can of worms. I say, teach the fundamentals in an old-school way and then advance them to faster, more powerful tools, be they sports cars for new drivers, power tools for novice wood workers, or the Net for novice critical thinkers.
I remain firmly committed to the idea that education is about imparting understanding. If you want to learn a technique, you need a trainer. If you want to learn why something is done a certain way or what happens when you deviate, you need an educator. Maybe some kids can only handle training in some areas, but if you want to educate, strive to make them understand, not merely do by rote correctly.
…says the non-parent with no formal role in education except a passion for learning.