How to Teach, What to Teach?

In the last chapter of Roszak’s The Cult of Information he focuses on the power of thought and where thoughts come from.   The origin of ideas and the way our lives and the things that we do are setup as “projects.”

“…our life is made up of a hierarchy of projects, some trivial and repetitive, some special and spectacular.” (p. 237)

He compares our minds to computers and how we do register data, as computers do, but we are much more “selective” in the way that we do and we decide what to pay attention to and what to ignore, we form the projects.  These are things that the computer is not capable of, this type of higher learning.

Roszak discusses the teaching of values, how it was done by the Greeks and other societies.  We seem to give little thought to the way in which we teach these values now.  In the past we used mythology and fables to teach these values to our children.

“…images never lose the redeeming complexity of real life. The heroes keep just enough of their human frailties to stay close to the flesh and blood.” (p. 240)

Now, we often leave it up to television and movies to deliver these rules and morals.  Most time, these media do a poor job at delivering these ideas or have buried them so far beneath the terrible acting and comic relief that they go unnoticed.  So we have here a case where we know what we want to teach our children (values), but have trouble deciding how to teach it – in a way that will be meaningful and lasting…and also keep their interest.

Roszak goes on to discuss the use of computer in schools and places emphasis on the fact that if we are going to have students using computers, we must make the important distinction that computers will never possess the true power of human thought.

“…the mind thinks, not with data, but with ideas whose creation and elaboration cannot be reduced to a set of predictable rules.” (p. 244)

If we are going to use computers to teach, we need to determine how and what we are trying to teach.  This is an issue that often comes up when we talk about testing in our school or final projects for a class.  We come up with these arbitrary ways of making sure students know information that we can easily grade, but sometimes pay less attention to what we are hoping they will walk away with.  Do we want children to memorize when Abraham Lincoln was president or is it more important for them to know the impact he had on our country?  If a child can answer the question of when he was president, do they really know anything about him or have they just memorized a series of dates and maybe the first few lines of the Gettysburg address… If the goal is to have children understand the impact of this great president then dates really aren’t important, his ideals and the changes he made are much more significant.

“…all socieities, modern and traditional, have had to decide what to teach their children before they could ask how to teach them. Content before means, the message before the medium.” (p. 241)

Students might enjoy creating a photo montage of Lincoln while playing a voiceover recording of one of his speeches, but are they truly going to come away from this project knowing what Lincoln stood for or are they going to know a few lines and have compiled a good collection of pictures (that they likely can’t identify the importance of these photos).  Could they just as easily hand write an essay and discuss Lincoln’s speeches and their importance?  Are they likely to come away from that project with a better understanding of his presidency than if we allow them to get wrapped up in the technological details of the first project?  I think they would.

I agree with Roszak when he says the following:

“…skills of unquestionable value which the technology makes available — word processing, rapid computation, data base searching…” (p. 243)

These are certainly important skills, but there is a time and place for them, too many times I see projects that incorporate the use of a computer because it’s something different, the students have a more vested interest in creating something on a computer than by hand.  We again have to ask, what are we trying to teach them?

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One response to “How to Teach, What to Teach?

  1. I agree for the most part with what Roszak is saying with regard to distinguishing the difference between a human teacher and a computer teacher. The thing is, curriculum has changed for thousands of years, without the impact of computers. Early Greek teaching was predominately oral. It’s tough to say whether or not the Greeks had better memory capabilities than we do today … maybe they did. Or maybe they remembered the important aspects of legends and fables and just made up the rest. As we flash forward to the 19th and 20th centuries, we saw an emphasis on learning facts and memorizing things to pass tests. We still see a lot of that today, but it didn’t start due necessarily to computers. However, maybe there is a parallel between regurgitating facts and the explosion of technology in the U.S. that would be a good term paper topic 🙂

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