Not All Cake

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Levi Heiple has graciously interacted with my post on technology and education here. As he notes, we have a good bit of common ground — and so what follows here is simply what I believe to be a necessary voice of caution. There are principles involved in education, and there are methods, and whenever you come across a dazzling new method, the temptation is to forget or slight the principle. I am not against the right use of a new method; I am jealous for the principle.

For me, the issue is not whether these new technologies are  going to affect education — of course they are. The issue is where and how we categorize it all — which was my point about the enhanced library. This is the basic distinction I was making there. You either learn from someone you know personally, or from someone you do not know personally. If it is the latter, then it is enhanced library learning — with the difference that I might be fooled into thinking otherwise with the new technologies. Reading Augustine is not likely to make the student think that he knows him, but if we had a recorded video series of that great man’s lectures, and we got to watch his gestures and that little facial tick, we might come to think (erroneously) that we did know him. This is a mistake I see happening everywhere, and which I am trying to head off. I don’t think the full force of what Jesus taught in Luke 6:40 is possible without face-to-face relationship at the beating heart of education.

Now I say this as someone who has used available technologies for spreading the word my entire adult life. So I currently stand condemned in all these ways — I blog, I write books, I tweet all over tarnation, my sermons are recorded in both audio and video, they are made available for smart phones, I helped edit the Omnibus textbook series for homeschoolers, and I will be teaching an online seminar for Logos Press in the fall. Mea maxima culpa.

My position might be compared, at some disadvantage to myself, to that of Jehu in his chariot, whipping his horses into a froth, while simultaneously yelling whoa.

In line with this, I recently got a note from a friend pointing to what he thought was an inconsistency between these Logos Press online offerings, and all the cautionary kibbitzing I have done in the past (and am doing right this minute). But again, as before, it is not what we are doing that concerns me — it is what we think we are doing.

So with that said, let me begin with Mortimer Adler’s breakdown of education into the categories of didactic, coaching, and seminar. I believe there is room for disagreement on the percentages he assigns to them, but for the sake of discussion, let’s start there.

I take Levi’s distinction between distance learning and blended learning in account, and also assume the coaching and seminar leading is face-to-face. This does address the concerns about “disembodiment” that I have expressed, but there are still a couple of other practical problems.

First, a bus company has to run on a schedule — they can’t have the bus go whenever ten or more passengers have collected at the bus stop. That would play old Harry with all the other potential passengers at all the other bus stops all over the city. So even if the students are self-paced in the didactic phase, they would still have to be ready “by the time the bus leaves.” And enough of them would have to be ready by the time the bus left. Otherwise, you won’t be able to keep your coaches employed. In other words, we find a host of logistical detail here that needs to be taken into full account.

And second, the coach or mentor (or seminar leader) will either be on top of the material, or he will not be. He will either be a true teacher himself, or he will be a facilitator/coordinator/study hall monitor. If he is the latter, it will be hard for the bright students to see the value added. But if he is the former, it will not be long before his students will want to hear his voice added to the didactic portion of the education — and we are back in regular old school where we started.

There is obviously much more that can be said about all this, and so I appreciate the thoughtfulness that Levi has put into this question. And speaking of questions, let me conclude by addressing the questions that Levi presented to me.

How do age-segregated classrooms prepare students for adult life?

The fundamental principle here is not age-segregation, but rather ability-segregation, for which age-segregation is simply the first rough draft. Students who surge ahead or who lag behind can always be sorted accordingly, and always have been. Sometimes proud parents want to believe their children are being hampered by “the system” when all they are doing is being a regular kid. We have to be careful here of the Lake Woebegone effect — where all the children are above average.

What are some resources that will correct the “nonsense being spouted about the history of education?”

I would recommend some of the footnotes I supply in The Case for Classical Christian Education. In particular, I would recommend histories of education written simply as histories. The point here is not a complicated one — we have had classrooms for a long time. It is not a modernity thing at all.

Do you believe that a lecture-based school is the best method of delivering information? If so, why?

Well, no, I don’t, but here is a common confusion — a classroom-based school is not the same thing as a lecture-based school. A well-run classrom is going to have a healthy component of each one of Adler’s categories. There will be didactic instruction, there will be coaching and mentoring, and there will be robust discussion. Those are good categories, essential to a good school, and is part of our common ground. A school that just has all its teachers talking 24-5 is a big dud.

Do you believe that there might be legitimate alternative methods in which a student will be forced to learn the lesson “life is not all about you?” Do you believe that our present school model is the best way to do this?

Yes, I believe there is more than one way to skin that cat. And I also assume that education will look very different one hundred years from now. But I also believe that the present school model is the best departure point for that future. I want a balance of maintaining what we have already attained while at the same time adapting to what God is giving us.

Postscript: technology also has its hazards. This post was delayed in coming because my new computer froze up yesterday, and ate the first draft of this response. So it is not all cake.

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