Sunday, 1 January 2012

The Delicacy of Instruction

How important is it that educational experiences be challenging? How challenging? And from where should the challenges arise? If such challenges can be just as easily provided by technological sources does this spell the beginning of the end for teachers as we currently understand them?

In the early decades of cinematography it was believed that film had the potential to completely transform education, Thomas Edison even went so far as to proclaim:

"I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks. I should say that on average we get about two percent efficiency out of schoolbooks as they are written today. The education of the future, as I see it, will be conducted through the medium of the motion picture, a visualized education, where it should be possible to obtain one hundred percent efficiency."

With the benefit of hindsight we can see how misconceived this optimistic vision was, but how could Edison have got it so wrong? The most obvious explanation is that his conception of education was constrained by his meagre understanding of the ways in which knowledge is acquired. Following on from the work of Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, it is now widely believed that the most effective forms of learning involve an active process of knowledge construction as opposed to simple passive absorption. All forms of information transmission (film, TV, radio etc.) are therefore necessarily limited in their educational potential since they do not adequately engage the active construction of knowledge.

This may take us closer to the truth but it nonetheless fails to explain why video games for instance, fare no better in their instructive potential (though many games companies are investing significant resources in order to increase the educational value of their products). It would appear that mediated experiences of this kind are simply incapable of providing the necessary form or range of stimulation necessary to generate effective learning. Something else must be required, something that perhaps involves a more acute understanding and application of the role of challenge.

“When parents decide to intervene when a young child is having a bit of difficulty learning to tie their shoes is an important tactical decision. If the parent intervenes too soon, the child may become dependent upon the parent. If the parent provides too little help too late, the child may become frustrated. The parents task – like the teacher’s – is to be tuned in well enough to make the right decisions about when, how much and how.” -Elliot Eisner

As Eisner’s characterisation suggests, this process is an extremely delicate one which may explain why the job of teaching is often such a demanding and unpredictable task. Teaching, it might be argued, can be conceived very simply as a process of creating instructive challenges - challenges that are neither too difficult that they become overwhelming nor too simple that they prove tedious. Between these two poles, lies the productive zone of learning. However, the judgement of how best to pitch challenges in order that they operate as near to the point of being overwhelming as possible without tipping over the edge is an extremely subtle skill. One of the risks with constantly aiming at the most demanding challenges is that students eventually become so fatigued that their tolerance for challenge quickly diminishes. Similarly, if a challenge becomes overwhelming it is likely that students will be all the more wary the next time and the benefits of pushing so hard will have been lost. Optimising instruction in such dynamic circumstances is therefore a highly taxing operation in itself and it is not surprising that most teaching occurs at a more sedate level and pace.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from overwhelming difficulty we find the tedium of undemanding monotony. But, there is another far less obvious hazard that permeates almost the entire spectrum of challenge - it is often forgotten or misunderstood largely because it frequently receives very positive feedback from students. This presents itself as a form of mollycoddling that, while it might seek to support students, neglects to develop both their independence and resilience in the face of the very challenges through which learning most profitably occurs.

This human element, in particular its dimension of fallibility, may provide an alternative explanation for Edison’s grandiose claim. Perhaps he felt that by reducing the human element we might free education of one of its most fickle and uncontrollable aspects. Where human to human instruction is concerned, one hundred percent efficiency would appear to be nothing more than a fantasy. Nonetheless, without a capacity for perceiving and adjusting to the finest details of challenge and motivation it seems unlikely that artificial forms of education could ever reach the pinnacle of efficiency either.

Through the proliferation of online tools and networks it is now possible to engage in an enormously rich and edifying range of informative and educational experiences from the comfort of your own keyboard. Many of these also involve a significant portion of social communication and participation, a variable and adaptive mix of the formal and the informal, the social and the artificial. In this context the role of the teacher would appear to be increasingly threatened. But from a more nuanced perspective it is clear that teaching may not be quite as expendable as some might have us believe.

Since the days of Edison, recorded music, film, TV and the internet have become primary forms of mass entertainment, yet most people continue to value the uniqueness of one-to-one experiences to a far greater degree. Manufactured experiences are rarely as powerful and enduring in memory as those encountered individually and at first hand. Such experiences speak to us directly as the individuals that we believe ourselves to be and we place greater emphasis upon such experiences as a consequence.

Education can neither afford to dispense with the teacher entirely nor place them so centrally that they distract from the goal of learning. Distractions, like so many incidentals in education, need to be avoided as much as possible. The authoritative, domineering or even the nurturing presence of the teacher can become just as much of a distraction as anything else – perhaps even more so. If education is to be truly useful it surely needs to encourage students to generate their own challenges and to pursue them without fear of failure. Challenges that are sought for their own sake in this way are infinitely more rewarding than challenges sought for the transient thrill of institutional approval or a teacher’s praise.

Education then, becomes a process by which students are led to identify and originate their own challenges and to evaluate their progress as they accumulate new realisations and new skills that enable them to tackle yet more challenging tasks. And the teacher’s job? The teacher’s job, in Higher Education at least, is to lead the student to the point where they have no further use of the teacher.


Anonymous said...

Maria Montessori recognised this long before Piaget and Eisner. Montessori developed an incremental conctrete to abstract approach. Perhaps computer games are OK but they arevery abstract and need to be preceeded by many more concrete operations with observing rather than interfering 'teachers' who Can identify next stepa for development and prepare the environment accordingly.

Art educators could learn a lot from Montessori!


J. Hamlyn said...

Hi A,

That's very true. We could go even further back to Froebel (or Vico even) for example, but the reason I mentioned Piaget in particular was because he was the first person to use the term "Constructivism" in an educational context.

I think quite a lot of art educators do actually send their kids to Montessori schools - when they can afford it! I have to say though that I'm a little uneasy about the religious tendency in Montessori teaching.


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