The following is now virtually anathema in many modern educational circles. A teacher or lecturer walks into a classroom/lecture theatre. She delivers a lesson/lecture based on prepared notes consisting of a combination of an established, ‘traditional’ body of knowledge in a particular subject area enhanced by the most up-to-date results and findings in that subject.
The pupils/students will sit taking notes and the class/lecture will last for about 45-50 minutes allowing for 10-15 minutes for questions and answers relating to points of clarification or difficulties in understanding.
This then is the traditional class or lecture. An overwhelmingly didactic presentation of objective knowledge transcending any local, cultural or personal viewpoints, based on verifiable and corroborated facts which can be open to clarification and elaboration in the form of questions and discussion but, neither the authority of the educator nor that of the subject matter, is open to dispute.
For almost all of humanity’s recorded history where education has been subject to formal teaching, this is the form that it has mainly taken. For those of us over, say 40, the foregoing will be instantly recognizable as the format by which they were taught at both school and in higher education. But for those under 30 this style of teaching, whether at school or university, is increasingly seen as outdated and unfashionable. A teacher/lecturer invested with unquestioned authority, both over the class/lecture and the subject matter, is now viewed as a relic, a throwback to a conservative past (with both a large and small ‘c’).
Apart from being regarded as too didactic, this form of teaching is now criticized because it privileges the educator, i.e. the teacher or lecturer over the students. It thereby encourages a passive concept of learning whereby students are virtual empty vessels waiting to be filled by knowledge from the all-powerful teacher. In the current way of thinking this is incorrigibly elitist.
Instead the focus is now on ‘learning’; this is not a passive activity but is interactive wherein both the prime mover in the learning experience (what we used to call the teacher, lecturer or educator) learns alongside the students. Learning, therefore, is interactive, participative and non-elitist. It is also a journey which is, to use another favourite expression, ‘lifelong’ in scope and not confined to any one age.
So in the current model, we have interactive learning sessions, where students try and directly experience the subject matter by relating it to their own lives, culture and, above all, experiences. The theory is that this style of presentation is much more conducive to learning than the previous format of formal learning.
This form of learning is now so pervasive throughout education and training, that it seems almost perverse to question it. But let’s take a typical modern learning format. I am going to use a hypothetical example. A group of people are sent on a day’s training to learn about drugs and their effects, including their legal status. In a previous era this would probably have taken the form of perhaps, one, possibly up to three one-hour lectures spread over several weeks.
Now it will consist of the following: Up to 15 people will assemble in a room for a day’s training session. The trainer or ’senior learner’ (so as not to differentiate herself too much from the students or trainees) will introduce herself and do a quick round robin among all the participants getting them to introduce themselves and what they do. She will then outline the purpose of the day’s session and what the outcomes are intended to be. She may also do the first of that day’s group exercises by asking the trainees what they expect to get out of the day. The answer will almost certainly be to get a greater knowledge of drugs, their effects and their legal status.
What follows will be an ‘icebreaker’ an invariably silly exercise which is intended to loosen formality and let participants get to know each other; it will have no bearing on the subject matter to be presented.
After the icebreaker, there will be a short presentation from the teacher giving a broad overview of drugs and effects. This will be followed by further group exercises in which the participants will break into small groups to discuss various aspects of drugs, effects and the law based on what they think the effects of drugs are and their legal status. Participants will then reconvene and give feedback on their answers or solutions as discussed in the small groups. The trainer will them summarise and give the ‘correct’ answers based on what in objective reality the effects of drugs are and what the legal situation is. Note that the trainer will not tell any of the participants they are ‘wrong’, as would happen in a conventional academic exercise, but gently nudge them in the right direction. Great store will also be placed on participant’s personal experiences, even if it is not remotely applicable to the subject matter in hand.
At the end of the day, the trainer will deliver an overview followed by another round robin where every participant will be encouraged to say what they got out of the day, what they learned and how they are going to apply this in their own workplace and practice. Finally, in most cases, the group will be handed out an evaluation sheet which they will be enjoined to complete there and then, in front of the trainer, and which asks them to rate how well the training and the presenter was. These last sessions, unless something has gone catastrophically wrong, are usually exercises in glowing praise and tribute to how relevant and good the training has been, and how well delivered it was by the trainer and this will be reflected in the almost unanimous high levels of satisfaction that are recorded on the evaluation sheets (sometimes referred to derisively as the “happy sheets”).
There are five observations to be made about this:
1) Time: Material and information which can be easily be condensed into one, at most several hours, is spread over an entire day. Proponents of this form of ‘learning’ would argue that, apart from being a better way of taking in information and applying it to practice, it is good to spend time out from work and get to know other people in a groupwork setting. But that is really conflating two objectives, developing teamwork or groupwork and being taught new information; these two do not sit easily together.
2) Input: The actual trainer/presenter does little work. To be sure there will be preparation time and the trainer will be going around ‘facilitating’ discussions, intervening, encouraging and cajoling here and there, and ensuring the day keeps to time, but by and large they will take a back seat as the participants do most of the legwork. This is an astonishing contrast to the past where the presenter/trainer did virtually all of the work.
3) The personal: There is a lot of emphasis on applying information and material to personal experience. It is almost as if it was impossible to impart new information to people without attempting to filter it through individual’s own personal, local and cultural frames of reference. The idea that objective knowledge transcends such parameters and thereby is accessible to all people, irrespective of ethnicity, faith or background is thereby severely compromised.
4) Entertainment: Almost everything about the training is premised on making it as easily understood and most importantly as entertaining as possibly. From the icebreaker through to the group discussions and small group exercises, nothing is to be made too difficult or challenging. And even on the few occasions during the session when the presenter/trainer has to revert to being a lecturer and directly present material, she will apologise for this, emphasising how quick she will be and flagging up “health warnings” if material is going to be difficult. The sociologist, Frank Furedi in his book Wasted: Why Education isn’t Educating (Continuum Books 2009) has described this phenomenon as “the infantilisation of education”. Education, information and learning have become reduced to entertainment in the belief that attention spans are incredibly limited and to appear as non-intellectual and academic as possible (as these are deemed to be inherently elitist).
5) Manipulation: The whole package as it is delivered by the trainer is intrinsically manipulative. At the end of the day in this particular case, drugs have identifiable and predictable effects and their legal situation is enshrined in law. There is only one correct way to describe this information. As long as the information is accurate and objective, the duty of the presenter is to impart this information as clearly and concisely (which is not the same as entertainingly) as possible. The information is not reducible to personal feelings or experiences.
And this is the point. A spurious equality is being set up here where the presenter is learning as much as the students. This is in fact nonsense and false, because the presenter has an agenda to get through and material to deliver. The whole learning situation as has been described, from the ice-breaker, the overviews, the group discussions, the round-ups and summaries, the material handed out and the evaluation are all carefully planned in advance. Behind the façade of informality, spontaneity, brevity and entertainment is a carefully stage-managed product with the presenter firmly in charge.
No such dubiety, spuriousness and ambiguity attends formal academic teaching as there is no attempt to posit a false equality between teacher and student and everyone is quite clear that an authoritative figure is in charge imparting objective non-local, non-personalised knowledge. As such modern forms of teaching and learning are actually quite devious in presenting this illusion of equality and learning as participative. As Furedi quotes an authority on education in his book:
“Direct authority is at least honest and open in its aims: the nature of the relationship is not disguised. The progressive educator exercises authority through manipulation”. (Furedi page 85)
There is nothing wrong with trying to liven up education and make it more accessible. But don’t dress mutton up as lamb. Infantilisation, the emphasis on entertainment, knowledge as only having value when filtered through personal feelings and anecdote, gestures towards pseudo-equality side-by-side with manipulation all equate to dumbing down, of reducing knowledge and the various formats of imparting it: in school, university, in training as a series of sound-bites. Education and the dissemination of knowledge generally thus becomes part of a general, superficial celebrity culture, implicated as part of the promotion of a false equality which behind the tacky gloss hides the fact that power, control and real decision-making are still controlled by a small number of people. Our modern forms of learning and teaching are every bit as elitist (if not more so) than those they replaced and which proponents of modern teaching methods strongly condemn. So to add to the charge of manipulation in contemporary education lets add another: hypocrisy.