Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Education and Embodiment

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Apr 26, 2002

We hear over and over again the idea that our online experiences are impersonal, disembodied experiences, and that therefore a full education, which necessarily involves bodily experiences, is impossible online. It is impossible because we are in an important sense detached from the physical world, and therefore unable to distinguish between the significant and the trivial, because there is no causal connection between ourselves and cyberspace, no consequences to our actions.

This view of learning and living online not only misrepresents cyberspace, it also misrepresents how we experience and how we learn generally. For we are not disembodied entities when we interact online; we remain feeling and breathing beings. Our experience of cyberspace is not one of disembodied transportation; it is one of embodied sensation. We experience virtual phenomena through the same mechanisms that we experience physical phenomena, by integrating such phenomena into a personal ontology. And by interpreting both virtual and physical phenomena from similar points of view, we are able to experience virtual phenomena in the same way that we experience physical phenomena.

As a consequence, in a fundamental sense the causal impact of virtual phenomena is the same as the causal impact of physical phenomena: we cry real tears at the death of fictional characters. The objective of education – and the root of foundational aspects of education, such as cultural awareness and expert learning – is not based in rote imitations of the teacher or master. It is not based, and could not be based, in physical phenomena alone. It lies rather in our being able to relate new knowledge to our personal ontologies, to root significance and importance in the construction of our personal experience rather than the ministrations of a master. Thus, the experiences necessary for education are available from virtual, as well as physical, sources.

1. The Experience of Cyberspace

Let me begin with the bit of Hubert Dreyfus, as quoted by Arun Tripathi:

"When we enter cyberspace and leave behind our animal-shaped, emotional, intuitive, situated, vulnerable, embodied selves, and thereby gain a remarkable new freedom never before available to human beings, we might, at the same time, necessarily lose our ability to distinguish relevant from irrelevant information, lack a sense of the seriousness of success and failure necessary for learning, lose our sense of being causally embedded in the world and, along with it, our sense of reality, and, finally, be tempted to avoid the risk of genuine commitment, and so lose our sense of what is significant or meaningful in our lives."

There is, as there is with most of Dreyfus's writing, a lot packed into a short paragraph. But importantly, what is here asserted is inconsistent with what one actually experiences on the Internet. Now one assumes that Dreyfus has worked on the internet, but one wonders whether he has really lived on the internet, lived with the internet, and come to see it as anything more than disembodied text. My own experience is that the Internet is a warm, rich, lush environment, so far removed from Dreyfus's barren characterization as to suggest that we write about two different realities.

At the core of Dreyfus's argument is the idea that we do not causally interact with the world when we interact with the world through the Internet. The Internet, therefore, in an important sense, keeps the consequences of our actions separate from ourselves, and conversely, keeps our selves causally insulated from whatever happens in the world. The idea here is that if we do not have a direct physical connection with whatever it is we interact, we cannot have a genuine experience of that interaction. Hence we are unable to distinguish the irrelevant from the relevant, the real from the unreal, the significant from the insignificant.

This is the sort of conclusion one would expect to hear from someone who is observing the interactions that occur online from afar, from one who sees and even uses the Internet but does not engage. It is the sort of reaction one would expect from a person who, while watching a person read a book would conclude that the experience of reading must be barren and artificial because there can be no direct connection between the author and the reader. Yet we know from our own experiences that the act of reading can transport us to rich and engaging worlds, and that the interaction between reader and author can be as intimate and as detailed as many experience in the world outside books.

It seems to me that Dreyfus overlooks entirely the possibility that the mind can engage, through intermediate sources, the reality that lies at the other end of the interface. Indeed, it should be remarked that this is a natural and normal function of the mind, and that this is something that we must do every instant of our lives. All experience is, to a degree, mediated, either though the waves of light and sound that interact with our senses, or even through the nerve impulses that carry the impact of a physical event in our toes to our brain. And what is normal and natural for the human mind is that it creates a story around these interactions: where there are gaps in our knowledge, it fills them; where there should be feelings, it supplies them. The tapestry that is our daily experience of the world is no less a product of our mind than it is of the world.

The entire scope of media would be impossible were this not the case. Observe the people at a movie theatre during a sad movie - or feel it for yourself - and watch as they are genuinely moved by the presentation of images and sound, images and sound that are, moreover, known to be fictional. Any person who cries at a movie would deny that there could be no causal impact from the movie to the self: there is indeed a causal impact, manifest by the tears or the laughter or the cheers. And yet there is no causal connection between the characters on the screen and the patron in the audience, no causal connection because there could not be: the characters themselves do not exist, being nothing more than roles played by actors; the actors, meanwhile, are sunning themselves at a resort in Tunisia, oblivious to any emotions their past performance may be at this moment evoking.

And just so with the Internet. It is a channel for information about the world, no more or no less than any other channel: like a book, like a movie, like our direct perception of the world around us. And when we receive information from the Internet, or when we interact with people on a discussion board or chat line, our senses engage in much the same manner. We reach out and we create the world with which we are interacting: that creation becomes what we understand as reality, and it is that reality that has a causal connection with our thoughts and emotions: a causal connection, because the reality and the reaction are in the same place, in our own minds.

We do not - as Dreyfus implies - ever leave our own bodies when we interact online. We do not "leave behind our animal-shaped, emotional, intuitive, situated, vulnerable, embodied selves." Quite the contrary; we remain all of these things: we remain firmly rooted in out chair, head and senses remain mere inches away from pancreas and liver, and the experience of our online engagement remains a physical one. What happens in cyberspace is not a transportation of the self, but an extension of the self: we do not 'go out' into cyberspace, but rather, we 'look out' or 'reach out' into cyberspace. Dreyfus's picture is like one who, on looking through a telescope, would imagine that he is actually on the moon: but of course that is absurd. We have merely extended our capacity to gather information from a remote location and transport it back to ourselves. Astral projection though cyberspace is an impossibility, and it makes no sense to draw conclusions about cyberspace based on the suggestion that astral projection though cyberspace is a representation of what really happens.

2. Meaning and Experience

Dreyfus argues that "if our body goes, so does relevance, skill, reality, and meaning." The theory is that our experiences of the world occur not merely in the mind, but are a function of an entire bodily awareness. Nowhere is this more evident than in the domain of skills, where in order to do something with expertise - such as to, say, throw a dart - we must train not merely our mind, but also our body: and indeed, even, the actions of the mind, if applied to the throwing of a dart, actually inhibit our capacity to make the throw. And so, similarly with what appear to be higher level cognitive functions: our ability to determine which information matters to us and which information does not. For our relation with information is, in the end, necessarily a physical relation, defining our physical interaction with the world, and a physical interaction with the world is necessary in order to understand what information would have an impact on that interaction, and what information would not.

But the question of whether a bodily interaction with information is necessary for learning is moot. This is, more precisely, the question of whether stimuli that have their origin in the world and which enter our system through the mediation of the bodily senses are necessary for learning. We can stipulate for the sake of argument that the creation of meaning, relevance, skill and reality are impossible without the bodily acquisition of information. To be more accurate, it is probably more precise to say that, without the body, our creation of meaning, relevance, skill and reality would be very different from what actually is the case. But let us agree that at least some bodily experience is necessary. We are left with two important questions:

1. Is bodily experience *sufficient* for the creation of meaning, relevance, skill and reality? In particular, is their creation the result of some sort of *deduction* from physical experience? Obviously not: for we know that our conception of reality extends beyond that which we directly experience. Even our development of a skill transcends experience, for otherwise we could never throw a dart better than we have before. I have shot three 180s in a single evening; there was a time when I could not have done this, and had no experience of having done so: and yet I produced in myself the skill to do it, to go beyond my personal experience. It is clear that experience, while necessary, is not sufficient. Something else happens.

Philosophers have of course suggested numerous theories as to what it is that we do. Some suggest that we have innate linguistic structures that organize experience in certain meaning-bearing ways. Others suggest that we have some sort of innate knowledge, such as the knowledge of our own existence, around which all our experiences are centered. For my own part, I aver that we do not add linguistic structure or additional knowledge to experience, but that we manipulate information, through a process of selective filtering and recombination, in such a way as to achieve balance or equilibrium. What is important here is that our personal ontology - our view of the world and our place in it - is generated through both experience and our manipulation of that experience. It is as though, as I suggested above, we fill in the gaps of experience: as though we add what is needed to the sketch we are provided to create the causally complex set of objects and interactions we call the world. But our personal ontology is wholly contained within the mind: it is not 'out there' somewhere, and though we may feel and believe that what is in our head resembles (or represents, depending on your theory) what is out there, the centre, for us, of meaning, relevance, reality and even skill is in our mind, in our head, and not external to us.

2. If bodily experience necessary for *every* instance in which meaning, relevance, skill and reality are created? Or, put another way, in *some* cases, could we, on the receipt of information only, with no bodily intermediation, attach to that information meaning or relevance? Or learn a skill? Or even say whether what we have experienced is real or not? Now of course, in all cases, we are going to receive information through *some* bodily channel, direct perception being evidently beyond our capacities. But the question is more like this: can information, accessed through purely cognitive means - such as by, say, reading - be given meaning, be identified as relevant, be designated as real, or teach a skill?

All experience comes to us through the body, for it wouldnÂ’t be experience otherwise. But our experience of some things is direct: we are in the physical presence of the thing, and can see it, touch it, or if necessary, taste it. Our experience of other things is indirect: we are not in the physical presence of that thing, but learn about through some form of communication, through some writing, for example, or a video broadcast. What we see, touch or taste is not the physical object itself, but some representation or image of the object. Viewed in these terms, the question just posed is thus as follows: can we learn about something even though our experience of it is indirect? Can we assess what we have experienced, identify it was relevant, give it meaning or place it into context?

And of course, the obvious and intuitive answer is: of course it can. You are in the act of reading this sentence. As you read it, you are posing (and answering) questions to yourself, questions such as, "Is he right?" and "Why do I care?" If you have a background in philosophy then as you read the paragraphs above you may have been saying, "Oh he means Chomsky" or "This sounds like Descartes." As with the previous discussion, it is harder to imagine one learning a skill on the basis of information alone, but there is no denying that the provision of information can help someone learn a skill: otherwise, when we want a person to learn how to, say, operate a radial arm saw, we would simply provide them with a saw and a lot of wood and tell them to get some experience. But we don't: we preface this practice with some sound, sensible, *cognitive* advice, from little things (like, "wear goggles") to big things (like, "don't put your finger in front of the blade").

The fact that our personal ontology is internal to the mind is what allows us to relate and to learn about things in an indirect manner, and indeed, teaching and learning would be impossible otherwise. Through experience and training we come to associate a visual perception of a cat and the words "a cat" in much the same way: while on one level knowing that a visual perception of a cat is not the same as someone uttering the words, we nonetheless draw the same inferences ("four legs, a tail and meows"), contemplate the same actions ("feed, pet, toy with a laser pointer") and feel the same emotion ("awwwwwww"). When someone describes the cuteness of their cat over the chat room window, my experience is analogous to a direct experience of that cat, analogous because I understand that the word "cat", a picture of a cat, and the direct perception of a cat, signify the same *thing* in my internal ontology, and thus, that what pertains to the real cat also pertains to the described cat.

Yes, I understand that the words on the screen merely represent the cat, and yet I understand that words are distinct from - and therefore have different properties than - cats, and yes, the cat in Romania is not rubbing on my leg. But being told, "The cat is rubbing my leg," signifies the same thing to me as a cat actually rubbing my leg, because I am able to understand that the words signify the physical event. And indeed if I am sufficiently engaged, if I am focused on nothing other than the words and what they signify, I can feel the cat rubbing on my leg, feel the pleasant sensations this evokes, feel warmth and fondness for the cat, even though cognitively I am aware that the cat is half way around the world.

Of course, if you have never owned a cat, much less seen a cat, it would be much more difficult for you to reproduce that experience from indirect experience alone. You would need to stretch the analogy a bit further, imagining it, perhaps, to be similar to your dog rubbing against your leg. Or perhaps, had you no experience with pets at all, you would imagine it to be similar to other exhibitions of fondness you have experienced in your life. Your direct experiences form the raw material from which you construct your personal ontology, and are essential in the beginning, but as you acquire a richer set of experiences, direct experience becomes less necessary in order for you to perceive an indirect, or virtual, experience in the same way you would perceive a direct, or physical, experience.

It may be argued that it is not possible to actually have a sensation of an event if the event is not occurring, but this again seems intuitively and obviously false. For if it were true, we would never 'hear' voices or music in our head (and yet, I can 'listen' to a tune endlessly in my head, so much so that the real problem is that I can't get it out of my head). Some people, such as myself, when they read or write, actually 'hear' the voice they are reading or writing. Visual perception works in the same way: it is possible for some people to visualize an object so clearly that the perception appears real. My guess is that it takes practice to attain such levels of visualization, but my own personal experience is that it is possible. When I dream, I have a sensation of being in a situation and feeling interactions: this sensation appears real to me, and it actually takes some degree of reasoning to understand that it was just a dream. When a person is hypnotized (and if hypnotists are genuine) then people can have experiences based on the hypnotist's suggestion alone.

Our capacity to have experiences without being in the physical situation that produces the experience is manifest: this capacity is based on our ability to comprehend physically different phenomena as though they were the same phenomena, in turn caused by our capacity to represent any given phenomena to our internal ontology in a way of our choosing. In an important sense, whether the experience is direct or indirect, we first construct the experience from both our sensory input and by analogy with previous experiences. Both direct and indirect experience of the same entity are thus remarkable similar, and as a consequence, produce similar effects in the mind. This is the basis on which entire industries are founded: the publication of books, the showing of movies, the playing of music, teaching and learning, simulations and role-plays, and numerous more artifices beyond mention, so many indeed that any suggestion that bodily experience is necessary in every case appears absurd and misguided.

3. The Web and the World

Whole ranges of cultural phenomena are completely inexplicable if Dreyfus is right. The shock and distress felt throughout the United States when Kennedy was shot. The triumph and exaltation we felt watching Neil Armstrong step on the moon. The joy and pride felt by Canadians when Henderson scored the winning goal in 1972. The disbelief felt by so many when Elvis died. The outburst of sorrow when Princess Diana was killed. The horror felt around the world during the World Trade center disaster. The anger people feel as they watch the continuing violence in the Middle East. None of these are events that happened *to us* - we experienced them only virtually - and yet they have a deep and continuing impact. In October of last year I was in Sydney and a large aircraft flew low over downtown to avoid a thunderstorm. I looked up and *felt* *fear* - a tangible emotion caused not by the low flying aircraft but by my virtual experience of the terrorist attacks half a world away.

Dreyfus (and others similar in thought) depict in their minds a scenario in which nobody ever enters the world. Arun Tripathi quotes William Bennett talking about, "A school where students never enter a classroom. Where their math and science lessons are done in cyberspace, from home. Where their teachers sit in front of a computer instead of a chalkboard, and communicate with them by phone or e-mail. And where parents act as academic coaches, guiding their children through it all." And Dreyfus writes, "E. M. Forster envisioned and deplored an age in which people would be able to sit in their rooms all their lives, keeping in touch with the world electronically. Now we have almost arrived at this stage of our culture. We can keep up on the latest events in the universe, shop, do research, communicate with our family, friends and colleagues, meet new people, play games, and control remote robots all without leaving our rooms. When we are engaged in such activities, our bodies seem irrelevant and our minds seem to be present wherever our interest takes us. As we have seen, some enthusiasts rejoice that, thanks to progress in achieving such telepresence, we are on the way to sloughing off our situated bodies and becoming ubiquitous and, ultimately, immortal."

And yet - as I write this item I am eating three bagels and a pear alongside my coffee. This is necessary because I felt hungry. I have been typing for about an hour now and I feel a little bit tired. I pause, and look out my window to the green forest. An air conditioner drones on the wall beside me, needlessly in today's cool April weather, and annoying as vibrations echo through the room. I'm in my office, here not because of the dictates of connectivity, or even of employment, but because I like to say "Hi" to Sophie in the morning, to exchange jibes with Rod out on the patio, to feel the wind in my hair as I cycle down the hill, to select my environment. Solitary? Disengaged? I am never alone! If I really wanted to get out of touch with the world I would put down my keyboard and take a walk through the trees.

Dreyfus and others depict a world in which cyber interaction replaces all physical interaction and yet it is a world that exists nowhere but in their own mind. No proponent of online learning (save, perhaps, Bennett, assuming (which I doubt) that he is a proponent) proposes that students be locked in their rooms to interact online only. Why that would be as absurd as forcing them to travel to a special “learning room” completely isolated from the rest of the world! But even more significantly - even at the *very* *time* I am online - such as now - I am intimately connected to my body and to the world. It is not as though my physical experiences cease simply because I am typing and reading a computer screen. No, hardly. Nobody escapes their body, and it is disingenuous and dishonest to suggest otherwise. Every minute of every day, one is in contact with his or her body, and as a consequence, is aware on a minute by minute basis of its feelings, its needs and its foibles. Yes, perhaps there may one day be a way to transfer our minds completely into a computer: but until and unless that happens - or even comes close to happening - concerns such as Dreyfus alleges are moot.

Indeed, I would take this even a step further. Douglas Rushkoff, in Cyberia, pointed out that people who work on the internet find themselves traveling a lot more than they used to. This is certainly my own experience: in the last couple of years, even, I have traveled further and wider than I could have imagined in any former life. I have also met more people, attended more conferences, and touched tangibly more and more people. As I connect with people around the world there is a *pull* that draws me from my desk and into the world. *This* is the genuine experience of cyberspace: we are drawn *closer* to the people around us, not separated from them by a wired degree of separation.

The advent of wireless and mobile internet - a development no doubt feared by some - frees me even from this office, keeps me connected even when I am in the forest, allows me to visit friends in Australia without losing touch of my correspondents in Argentina, allows me to react, to *be* *in* the world in a way I could never be before, changing my one-dimensional and merely physical interaction to a rich multilayered set of interactions with others, adding to and enhancing, not replacing, my physical presence in the world. The suggestion that the internet would somehow replace physical experience can only be a suggestion made by a person with no degree of involvement with the online world:. It is as though they are suggesting that seeing in colour somehow diminishes our ability to see in black and white. But they have never seen in colour and cannot know that only by seeing in colour are we able to appreciate the unique and valuable nature of the monochrome art form.

4. Culture and Telepresence

Arun Tripathi quotes Dreyfus, "Like embodied commonsense understanding, cultural style is too embodied to be captured in a theory, and passed on in courses. It is simply passed on silently from body to body, yet it is what makes us human beings and provides the background against which all other learning is possible. It is only by being an apprentice to ones parents and teachers that one gains what Aristotle calls practical wisdom -- the general ability to do the appropriate thing, at the appropriate time, in the appropriate way. To the extent that we were able to leave our bodies behind and live in cyberspace and chose to do so, nurturing children and passing on ones variation of ones cultural style to them."

Dreyfus's point here is that there is some knowledge that cannot be passed from person to person through teaching, that it can only be acquired through a process of direct interaction. He captures this point through invocation of what he calls "cultural style," an example that seems more appealing for its vagueness than its basis in fact.

No doubt Dreyfus is a cultured and cultivated man (I have never met him), popular at parties, the one with the nod and a smile at exactly the right moment, the one people want to be like, or to be seen with. My own experience differs. Culture is something I never really acquired: my experiences in high school and university form a mélange of one awkward social encounter after the other. I was a nerd and a geek in the classic sense of nerdiness and geekiness, more likely to be the one in the corner of the room weighing arguments with a pint or porter than the one exercising witty repartees with the cultured elite. I am still that way to a some extent, and yet this is due to no lack of social engagements: I have had many examples to emulate (and have even tried from time to time, but it appears that culture, like a suit (in which I am also uncomfortable) is much more a personal matter than a socially shared set of conventions).

I am by no means alone, though perhaps you need to escape from the centre of the party to see this: in my storied history of bowling allies and biker bars, malls, neighborhoods and back allies, classrooms and clubrooms, Legion halls and living rooms I have seen more than my share of cultural inappropriateness. Indeed, if anything seems to be the rule, it seems that people do *not* learn culture except via explicit instruction: that the mannered are well schooled in their manners, that breeding - as they say - shows. I am all too aware that what passes for being "passed on silently from body to body" to Dreyfus is experienced by many as "passed on from bully to victim" in the schoolyard: that our cultural awareness, if indeed any such thing exists, is nothing more than a complex set of coping mechanisms designed to enable a smooth (or at the very least pain-free) passage through the rites of childhood and adolescence. Even in my thirties and forties I find myself being given explicit cultural lessons ("You don't announce how many games you've won," I was told, after summarizing the results of a particularly good set. "Since when?" I replied.)

Children are explicitly told to mind their manners, to sit up straight, to chew with their mouths closed, and more. Everybody knows the day they were instructed in the use of the salad fork (and how it differed from the dessert fork), for no amount of observation and emulation seemed to riddle this mystical morass. In my own life, the moments of cultural awareness came as the result of explicit - and pointedly non bodily - instruction: I learned how to communicate in a corporate environment by taking a video course called "On the Way Up" while I was with Texas Instruments in Austin; I learned how to speak well publicly by reading a book (I believe) by Keith Spicer called "Winging It," and I learned how to be the popular (and humble) man I am today by studying Dale CarnegieÂ’s "How to Win Friends and Influence People."

On looking back on my education, I think that I would have been much better prepared for the world around me had I experienced less of Dreyfus's body to body interactions and more explicit instruction. It would have been very helpful to me to be able to enter simulations or practice environments where I could 'try on' social personas for cultural fit, to find a style I found comfortable and which did not offend the neighbors. I do not know what it is about cultural knowledge that Dreyfus feels can be transmitted only through body to body knowledge, but I am quite sure that as we press for the details we will find that this knowledge is very rarely passed except via explicit instruction, whether it occurs in the schoolyard, the classroom, or in very many cases (to judge by the self-help section in the bookstore), via books and audio tape.

5. Embodiment and Education

Nobody believes that (as quoted by Arun Tripathi) "the development of the Internet will solve all the problems within education." Nobody. To put it in philosophers' language: the Internet is a necessary, but not sufficient, means for providing a quality education for all.

The quote continues, "If the development goes in the right direction, they maintain, first class education will be available for everyone - in so far as they master the information technology. Thus the problems posed by too many students and too few universities as well as the serious problem of access to the good but expensive universities will be solved."

Again, more misinformation. Educators and designers work toward educational systems where it is not necessary to "master the technology". And online learning isn't about providing everyone with "access to good but expensive universities" - it is not about that at all. To many people - myself included - it is about replacing the *need* for "good but expensive" universities, about making education that is cheap, easy to use, accessible and applicable, making it available to everyone regardless of their income. The idea of online learning isn't to solve the problems that beset an array of nineteenth century institutions but to come up with a twenty-first century replacement for that array.

It will take much more than techno-dollars. Much more. We have to rethink in some fundamental ways just how we go about teaching people, how we *can* go about teaching people now that we have some real tools (as opposed to cave-people chalk-and-slate media) for teaching.

Here is the Dreyfus take on distance learning, as described by Arun Tripathi: “the imitation of the example of the teacher is a crucially important element in education at all levels. In many areas, the student can only learn to be an expert by imitating the day by day responses to specific situations of someone who is already an expert, or ideally, a master, and only by working closely with students in a shared situation can teachers pass on their passion and skill to their students. As the shared situation included community practices as part of what is learned and sometimes it will not, but in any case the actual presence of the coach or master is essential. So, in general, in so far as we want to teach skill in particular domains and practical wisdom in life, which we certainly do, we finally run up against the limits of the World Wide Web. As far as we can see, learning by apprenticeship can work only in the shared situations of the production sites of the crafts, or in the nearness of the classroom and laboratory; never in cyberspace. Thus the use of the Internet represents an impoverishment, not an improvement, of education. It can facilitate a kind of mass education, but it will only teach the students the rules and facts that can make them competent."

I think that people *do* learn by imitating, but I'm not sure it's always appropriate, and I'm not nearly convinced that learning by imitation in a classroom environment is the way to go.

I believe that people learn by imitating. I can recall numerous instances when I have done it. Most of my recollections, though, are of hilariously bad imitations. The day when our Scout Troop was camping by the shores of the St. Lawrence river and we found a particularly good wood for burning (called "punk") that the assistant Scoutmaster called "den-o-mite". Well, he probably said "dynamite," but I heard what I heard. Of course, when I repeated the word a few hours later, it was deemed ridiculously inappropriate by my fellow scouts. Or when I heard my boss Bob Avila say of Carly Simon, "She has the perfect life - a hit song and married to James Taylor" - I learned the hard way that only James Taylor fans would find being married to him anywhere near perfect. That's the thing with learning by imitation: it's hit and miss. When you learn by imitation, you fail to make those subtle distinctions between the imitations that will be genuinely useful in later life and the imitations that demonstrate clearly that you have *not* mastered the intricacies of cultural awareness.

In the classroom environment though my teachers were without exception well intended, they did not always make the best models to imitate. Over time I learned as every schoolboy learns that teachers are exactly *not* the people to imitate, for they embody everything (well, almost everything) that a person does *not* want to be. A know-it-all. A ruthless despot and enforcer of order. Sometimes inclined to allow personal preference to outweigh justice and fairness. Completely culturally unaware (one teacher of mine had the affront to confiscate my collection of hockey cards - the most serious and deeply disturbing action anyone could undertake on the playground, and action that would be, except for the imbalance of power evident in every classroom, a mortal sin).

In any case, if imitation is the source of learning, then teachers are (and always will be) vastly outnumbered. Even in special cases where the master takes the apprentice under his wing, there are numerous outside influences. In today's mass media environment, people are much more likely to imitate Bart Simpson than their math teacher (they see more of Bart Simpson, and in any case, he's popular). People hear the cultural wisdom of 'NSync dozens of times a day; no teacher could hope to match that. One's older brother is a much more pervasive influence than one's once-a-week geography teacher. And in the kingdom of the schoolyard and the locker room, as everyone knows, the teacher holds no sway whatsoever. What we find in contemporary education is that the influence (and imitation of) the teacher runs counter to many of the prevailing trends, so much so that there are concerted efforts to provide children with positive role models on the television screen, in cinema, in music and sport, and yes, even on the internet (through such sites as PBS's recent "It's My Life").

It is fortunate indeed that educators can depend on a much wider array of teaching tools than rote imitation. It is fortunate indeed that the primary role of the educator is to teach the student to move beyond mere imitation and into higher levels of cognitive awareness. One of the major arts the teacher practices is to enable the student to reason - and learn - at what might be called higher cognitive levels, to not depend on what embodiment for instruction but to be able to reason and integrate learning more abstractly. Yes, to a large degree, what we learn will be necessarily concrete, but from the first day of school the teacher - through the process of teaching language, art, mathematics and music - is teaching the child how to represent perceptual experiences in non-perceptual form, so that (for example) the student can learn about Spain without actually having to be taken to Spain.

The key to success in teaching is in being able to connect abstract thought with concrete experience, to represent new knowledge and new information (and practices and skills) in a way that connects with the student's accumulated body of experience. With a mathematical formula to evoke *this* reaction, with a turn of a phrase to evoke *that* sensation. Connecting language with experience is probably the most difficult form of learning possible, but it is also the most effective, for language is pliant in a way that experience could never be, and if I could, with words, *describe* the moons of Jupiter in such a way that you actually, physically, shiver, then this transcendence has been achieved and mere imitation is no longer necessary.

For what the teacher wants to do over the course of an education is to facilitate in the child what I have been calling a personal ontology, a world view full of causally connected experiences, populated with entities (necessarily constructs of the mind), where rules and principles apply, some by nature, some by society, where the consequences of actions and interactions in the mind resemble in important ways the consequences of actions and interactions in the world: no instructor can ever transplant his or her personal ontology into the mind of a child, for no child has the instructor's experiences and sensations, but through the generation of experiences and interactions, and through the provision of cognitive tools useful in creating a framework and interface layer, the instructor can foster the child's development of his or own personal ontology and the tools needed to use it as a means of understanding and interpreting all manners of information, real or virtual, in the future.

6. The Promise of Indirect Experience

So in one, trivial, sense Dreyfus is correct. Of course we need direct experiences in order to learn. Direct experiences are the raw material from which we construct our personal theory about whatÂ’s in the world and what it does, our personal ontology. The entities we touch, see and taste form the prototypes against which we evaluate, understand and assess subsequent experience. Were we to have no direct experiences, we would have no basis, no foundation, on which to learn anything at all.

Fortunately for the teacherÂ’s art, none of us is without direct experiences even for an instant. We are at all times connected to our body, at all times amassing and assessing a constant flow of sensory input. Even when we are watching television or surfing the Internet, the bodyÂ’s productions continue endlessly. The data we collect from the video terminal forms only one part and arguably even a small part of the experience of the moment.

True, what we experience on the Internet is only an indirect experience, but the words and images displayed on that tiny screen can produce a powerful impact. They can take us to distant nations, to introduce us to people from different cultures, expose us to difficult ideas. The power of the Internet is directly derived from the fact that it is indirect: a galaxy of worlds and ideas beyond our experience, beyond what we could experience, is presented to us. And yet, because we have in our mind a cognitive basis for the assessment of indirect experience, a personal ontology against which we can weight this wealth of information, we can experience these worlds and ideas for ourselves.

Of course the world on the computer screen is a virtual world. But the experience of that world is real, and in the end, thatÂ’s all that matters.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

Copyright 2024
Last Updated: Jul 22, 2024 10:40 p.m.

Canadian Flag Creative Commons License.