Thursday, June 9, 2011

Week 1 - An Education

It was so interesting how I’d registered for our class with preconceptions of, “Oh we’re going to tow the party line in Academia” and “Isn’t it great that we know we’re edu-ma-cated” and so forth…and then I read the first couple of readings. Then I listened to the first podcast and thought, “WHOA. Stop the press!” I love being surprised. It seems that this class is going to take more of a dynamic approach to our course topics.
What the heck does it mean to be educated, and who decides what makes us educated? Case-in-point: My dear friend is an “uneducated” Sri Lankan with the most basic of high school educations; in fact, I suspect there is a learning disability or two lurking about. However, put him in a kitchen, and he can make the most phenomenal 5-star cuisine, running rings around anyone else I’ve ever met. It gets better: In the jungle, he’s your man, knowing exactly which vegetation to eat, how to cook it, and how it will benefit you ayurvedically. And that includes ayurvedic massages, too. And flowers? He designs bouquets for royal galas here in Qatar. And folkloric dances? He can twirl 20 plates and do backflips in killer headgear looking like this,r:17,s:0&biw=1259&bih=590  (not all at the same time, mind you).
Yet he can barely read and write.
Yet he’s far more interesting, observant, and worldly than most “educated” people that I’ve met. I watch as colleagues here and there meet him and quickly dismiss him in a fairly arrogant manner.
Then when the colleagues are gone, my other half will imitate them flawlessly – their gait, their table manners – making me laugh so hard I tear up.
Just as we need to ponder what writing really is and just as we need to reconsider how we should educate the masses, we must also ask ourselves what it means to be educated in the first place. Different people learn in different manners. The vast majority of my students, Gulf Arabs, come from a distinctly oral / aural tradition, and they would often rather do ANYTHING than read or write. When I create lesson plans, I try to make activities student centered as well as adaptable to varying learning styles – tactile, oral / aural, visual, etc. With a big inshallah (‘Lord willing’), a lot more students grasp concepts, incorporate them, and struggle less when I approach activities from different angles.
As we read this week, professors are nervous. We don’t know what the hell the future holds for us, we certainly can’t take control of independent learners who actively pursue the information highway, and sometimes – oftentimes – our desperate attempts at keeping up with the times are underwhelming.
I suppose we have to choose our battles; for example, I’ll never allow Tweetspeak to enter the rhetoric of an English assignment. But we also have to be…more…fluid…in our approaches. Let information wash over us like water, try to digest information as we comfortably can and not worry so much, yet REMAIN LEARNERS OURSELVES. We have to be malleable to change; otherwise, we’re done for. With open minds and a positive attitude, education in the 2010s can be more invigorating and dynamic than ever before.


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  2. I didn't want to embed the video in case it didn't play, but here's the URL to Ken's TED Talk:

  3. Have you read Ken Robison? Read _The Element_. He talks about genius that goes beyond traditional boundaries. A very fun read. He has a fantastic TED Talk, too, that you should see.

    I think the crux of the issue is when we confuse intelligence with education. A faculty member I once knew told me (quite astutely) that "having a PhD means you're really educated about ONE THING."

    All "educated" means is that one has acquired education. It doesn't describe the quality of education, or whether one actually learned anything, and it has nothing to do with intelligence. But people treat as though it does. Worse, people treat those without education as though they aren't intelligent, which (one would hope we all recognize) is untrue.

    I think that once we realize our students are intelligent, even though they are uneducated (so far), we can give them responsibility for their own learning. We can respect (maybe even encourage, if we're lucky) their abilities to think up their own questions and find their own solutions. I use this technique in my class: I set guidelines for assignments, but the students must find their own path and solutions. As I explain it to my students, "I'm not you, and I don't know how you will handle this when I'm gone. So let's explore together and see what works for you."

    Students hate this, by the way, because it terrifies them. And it makes the teaching process incredibly unpredictable, messy, and time consuming. Being a control freak, I completely understand their anxiety. They don't believe in their abilities, either (as I didn't when I first started teaching). Every semester, I spend a chunk of time teaching them how to take a deep breath and trust themselves. They really can educate themselves (often better than I can educate them), with some guiding structure, as long as they feel respected for it.

    And, for the most part, I have found that the less responsibility I take for "educating" my students, the more they actually learn. It's a frustrating (terrifying) paradox.

    But as Fred notes indirectly, there is no one way to teach writing. This technique only pertains to my students: mostly American, white, upper middle class, and traditional aged. I'm very interested to hear how your students (and your techniques) might differ, given the cultural differences.

  4. As you both astutely and eloquently pointed out, being educated does not equal being intelligent. For the most part, I agree with you. However, sometimes it is just not enough to be intelligent--one needs the "book learning", too, to round out one's understanding and to be better.

    Years ago, there was no place in my life for formal education. I considered it a colossal waste of time and determined that my competency and success in my field could only come from practical experience. As I grew older, as good as I was at what I did, I came to understand that it just wasn't enough to know how to do something, but that I should--nay, must--also know why. And the only way to know why was through the formal education I'd so despised in my youth. So here I am, a late bloomer, come to learn in this program what I should have learned years ago. And I believe I'll be the better for it--eventually :-)

    I remember distinctly a discussion with a very learned professor before embarking on the PhD program. I criticized the technical communication peer reviewed journals, and said that it was evident their writings were not meant for practitioners, for the "real world" is what I think I said. He calmly pointed out that it is his role as a teacher to introduce me to concepts and theory, but my responsibility as a practitioner to connect the theory to my practice--no one can do this for me, he said. Only I can control what I learn...and why.