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Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jul 09, 1997

Posted to DEOS-L on 9 Jul 1997

Simplicity is deceiving. Practise is laden with complexities. We need to be careful about sweeping maxims...

Teaching is: ongoing, and therefore, always appropriate.

I don't agree. Teaching is not appropriate at 4:30 on a hot summer day (especially in Manitoba, where we only get three months of summer) after eight hours of instruction. Teaching, like any other activity, requires intermissions.

What should be taught is beyond our determination. We will make offerings from which some learning will occur for us and the students.

What should be taught depends in aprt on the needs and interests of the student, in part on the discipline being covered, and in part on the general set of knowledge and skills required to function in a modern industrial society.

Given that a teacher usually knows more about the subject matter, in some cases it will be approprite for a teacher to decide what is taught and for a student to follow that lead (I am reminded of the car waxing activity in The Karate Kid). Or, put another way: if we left the determination of what should be learned entirely up to students, they'd never learn fractions.

When I teach, I do not "make offerings". It is not a case of me presenting and them either accepting or rejecting. Teaching is, first and foremost, a process of communication. First, a link or connection is established. Then information is transferred, usually (but not necessarily) from teacher to student. Then a dialogue occurs as the student (attempts to) assimilate the new knowledge with previously acquired knowledge, evaluate the new knowledge, and apply the new knowledge.

The focus should be on interpersonal skills, determining truths, and basic competencies for communication and evolution to personal actualization.

Learning takes place against a backdrop of critical thinking skills. Critical thinking involves the following components: - receiving new information (ie., reading skills, listening skills) - assimilating this information (recognizing patterns, finding similarities, drawing metaphors) - evaluating this information (testing for truth against previously accepted information, testing for applicability in different contexts) - applying this information (practise in controlled settings, practise in new situations)

Interpersonal skills, insofar as they relate to education, focus primarily on one's capacity to receive information and to engage in the dialogue necessary to assimilate, evaulate, and apply the information.

Anything beyond that is either: (a) an ethical matter, focussing on the mores and norms of conduct in society, or (b) an adaptive matter, that is, generating the skills needed to function usefully and happily in society. These items are content, that is, they consist of items of information to be taught. While it would be appropriate to teach ethics and adaptation in a social studies class, it would be a bit out of place in a mathematics class.

Determining truths is a background skill, one which forms the context for learning. While it is often treated as a subject which can be taught (as in for example logic classes) it is also reflective of an attitude which is valued in learning as it forms part of the learning process. My own view is that you cannot teach 'determining truths' in a vacuum - truth is always context-dependent and therefore requires a medium of information in which to function.

"Evolution to personal Actualization" is an ethical principle. It is the principle which forms the base value for societies depicted in Star Trek. It is reflected in the maxim "Be All That You Can Be". As a guiding principle for life, it's a pretty good one.

But it's not one which is universally adopted. Today's maxim in our schools seems to be to teach people to be entrepreneurial. This is a different ethic (since it often requires people to sacrifice personal development in order to spend time making money).

In the final analysis, however, it is not possible to "teach an ethical principle". At best, we can teach people *about* an ethical principle (or, in an ideal environment, several ethical principles). Whether the student in question adopts the principle in question is not so much a matter of education as temprement.

Individual human needs, and maturity, will of themselves provide the parameters for the learning to occur.

This is unlikely. People can have needs, and be mature, and yet be unable to learn. For example, if they are unable to receive information, they cannot learn. A surprisingly large percentage of the population (and especially the mature population) as a great deal of difficulty accepting information. Put simply: they don't listen.

The level of maturity of the "listeners" is less relevant than the semantical ability of the "teacher." Jesus could address any group: whether they wanted to listen (learn) or not is a separate issue.

Again, this is untrue. The number of people who misinterpreted Jesus almost certainly outnumbers the number of people who 'got it'.

It's a fascinating phenomenon, probably very difficult to replicate in a controlled lab environment, but when people converse, often what they hear has nothing to do with what was said. It is very common for people to jump straight to the assimilation stage without having gone through the receiving stage.

What happens is something like this: people hear noise containing certain catch-words or phrases. They search their memory for items of previously acquired knowledge containing the same catch-words or phrases. This knowledge is then substituted for the content of what was actually said.

For example, the lecturer says something like, "Beauty is individuality actualized to perfection". The listener hears: "beauty... individuality... perfection" Searching his memory (unconsiously, in most cases), he retrieves: "Beauty and individuality are perfection". Transposing this memory onto the new content, he now believes that the lecturer said that individuality is a form of perfection.

Theory in education today places a significant proportion of the onus for successful communication on the teacher. This is part of the reason why teachers who lecture are publicly chastised - it is thought that they are poor communicators, or more to the point, they are not taking the effort to make themselves and their material understood. But this onus is misplaced.

The onus to learn rests primarily on the student. This is because the student must engage - and consciously engage - in the four major steps of learning (receiving, assimilating, avaluating, applying). If the student is unable or unwilling to perform even one of these stages, learning is impossible, or at best, incomplete, no matter what the skill level of the educator.

[This ends my note - I leave the rest attached below for completeness.]

Cliff Layton In a message dated 97-07-02 21:27:06 EDT, Guy.Bensusan@NAU.EDU (Guy Bensusan) writes (based on a posting by J-M. Guillemette) : << WHEN IS TEACHING ? There are (hopefully) interesting related questions; I will attempt to post a few below. When is teaching appropriate? What should be taught? Should the focus be on the three R's? Should computer literacy be a required 4th R? Should evaluation of cultures re. human needs be considered in these matters? To what extent should the level of maturity of a learner be considered in allowing the learner to determine what should be learned and how it should be learned, compared to allowing the teacher (or instituiton, or culture) to make such determinations. How should level of maturity of a learner be determined? Cliff

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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