Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Refuting Every Point

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Sept 23, 2011

It's not often that you get a series of points like this just begging to be refuted:

I don't think most of us want our dentists to be "out of the box" thinkers.

I do. I totally don't want my dentists practising the way they did when I was a kid, I appreciate the dentist who put "Where's Waldo" on the ceiling (this prompting one of my best insights about knowledge), and I think Nitrous Oxide and the iPod are the greatest boons to dentistry ever. All totally out of the box thinking.

I don't believe that when teaching a pilot to fly 747s we encourage a "don't memorize facts, look it up" training.

Nobody wants 747 pilots to rely on memory. That's why pilots (and other staff) are given detailed checklists to follow. When new planes come on stream, or new procedures are implemented, we want the pilots to be "looking them up" instead of relying on remembering what they did when they were first trained.

Do we really want the accountants preparing our taxes to take a constructivist route to learning new tax laws?

Yes. Tax laws change every year and there's not going to be anyone around to teach them. If they don't learn how to figure it out by themselves when they're in school, they will be hopeless as accountants - and will cost us money.

Do we really want an engineer learning how to learn when she designs the bridge we travel over for work each day?

Yes. It's important to be alert for factors that might never have been taught in Engineering school. New materials with new strengths - and new weaknesses - are developed all the time. The engineer has to learn how to observe these new materials, to work in new environments - and to be able to pick up cues that may be very different from place to place. Not only that, engineers work for clients. They need to understand their needs and constraints. The first thing an engineer needs to do on any job is to learn how to learn everything he or she will need to complete the bridge.

I shudder to think of a world in which hospitals were run like schools: every doctor allowed to do her own "thing" with no accountability or practices based on the best research and information available.

Doctors that simply follow procedure, no matter how "evidence-based", make the worst doctors. While there may be a great deal of similarity between one illness and the next, the reality is that every patient is different, and that the doctor has to make an evaluation based on the facts at hand.

That's not to say doctors are completely free-range, with no accountability whatsoever (though it certainly feels like it at times). Doctors, like teachers, are probably held more accountable than most other professionals. A doctor who loses all his or her patients will face the same sort of questions as a teacher who fails all his or her students. And actually - if doctors were as accountable as teachers,people would blame them when people become obese, develop genetic disorders, drive carelessly or drink too much alcohol.

Every hospital does not need to be a research establishment, gathering data via "action research" related to any spurious brain-fart a teacher might have which could even remotely impact learning.

Every hospital does act as a research environment, participating in clinical trials, training interns through hands-on practise, monitoring reactions, effectiveness of procedures, and the rest. There's nothing wrong with collecting a lot of data and subjecting it to analysis, provided (a) privacy and security are protected, and (b) it's not used as a club to punish employees who had no power to control the outcome.

Children are not rats on which educational experiments should be endlessly run. Until we have a body of evidence, hopefully gather by lab schools or non-commercial researchers, we ought to be following best practices as outlined by our professional organizations.

Children are lab rats on which endless experiments are run. Coaches try out new practice regimes, advertisers try out new commercials, toy companies test out new games, media companies experiment with new genres (and retread pop idols), clothing manufacturers try out new fabrics, and hospitals try out new treatments. There's no way to get the evidence other than by experimentation - demanding "best practices" with no experimentation is inherently self-contradictory.

Educational technology experts may be doing both students and themselves a significant disservice by advocating a single, unproven approach to educational practices.

They would be, if that's what they were doing. But for the most part, if not entirely, education technology experts are not doing that. The things advocated by technologists - everything from serious games to social networking to online writing to immersive simulations - have been tried and tested. We know they work. We don't say 'everything should be a simulation' or 'all students must blog'. Nobody does that.

Mr. Warlick and Mr. Richardson, I am a huge fan and appreciate the challenge. But don't discount the value and honor in learning a craft or a research-based profession and doing it very, very well.

Maybe think about how this craft was learned. Most teachers, although they went to school and university, learned much of what they know about the classroom is a slow, painstaking, hand-won fashion, from the time they were student teachers, trying things out with real students, to the time they were veterans, learning some new technology along with their students.

Every time a teacher faces a new class in September, the learning begins again. The students don't come with any 'best practice' manual (though if the teachers communicate well there might be some reports). What worked in a research environment might well fail with the current group - there's no way to know except to try.

I want our schools so serve those who wish to be future plumbers, mechanics, and nurses as well as future politicians, bureaucrats and school administrators. Those folks who need a actual body of knowledge and skills that they can apply reliably and effectively.

There is no such thing as a "body of knowledge" that characterizes the education needed by plumbers, mechanics, nurses, politicians, bureaucrats and administrators.

If you even think about that for a moment, you see how ridiculous such a statement is. Take me, for example. I'm 50. When I would have been learning plumbing or mechanics or the rest, it was the 1970s. Back then:

- there were no PVC pipes in wide usage, aluminum wiring was just fine, asbestos was widely used for insulation and fireproofing, and building codes covered a fraction of what they do today. Even the knowledge of 'how to seal pipes' or 'proper drainage for a house' changed in that time.

- the '351 Cleveland' was the engine of choice, there were no electronics or computers in cars, ABS brakes didn't exist, and farmers used purple gas

I have written on numerous occasions that to learn how to be a plumber or a mechanic or anything else is not to memorize some 'body of knowledge' - not only would this knowledge be useful just a few years out of school, that approach to learning would render you an inflexible, and ultimately terrible, plumber or mechanic.

What the evidence tells us (if people would just look at it) is that becoming a plumber or a mechanic or whatever is to adopt, and embody, what Wittgenstein would call a form of life - a way of seeing the world, a way of looking at problems and learning solutions, a way of experimenting, communicating, imagining and thinking.

It's when we rely on an old set of 'best practices' that are anything but that we do the most damage to children and students. It's when we think we know, but do not, that we callously commit the most grievous damage.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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