More on Learning by Doing (and with my apologies for raising this issue yet again)

There is some question, in my mind a big question, about how and where we best learn. Most would answer the question of where with the word school, meaning any building where the young are as a rule enclosed in a classroom, and the question how, by being enclosed but with a teacher who is paid to share with her students her knowledge, —be it music theory, art history, mathematics, woodworking, Chinese or any one of hundreds, thousands or more subject matters.

I have known, at least since dropping out of Medical School in the 1950s that this is not where or how real learning takes place. For all learning takes place not so much in a room with a teacher, but anywhere at all if, and that’s the big IF, the learner is actively involved in the learning. For one always learns best by one’s own efforts, by doing, that which means being actively and responsibly involved in the learning process. If there is, as in most schools, also a teacher present who is talking and explaining this may not hurt, it may even help, but the student’s own “doing’ is the essential ingredient of learning. And if the doing is not there, as it’s not in most school learning situations, most of these being rather listening sessions, listening to the teacher, there will be little or no learning. 

I realize I’m hardly the first to say this sort of thing, that such has been said over and over again, and not only by educators, most notably John Dewey who founded the “laboratory school” in Chicago in 1894, a learning by doing school. Now learning by doing is probably what most of all took place well before the time, our time, of schools and teachers. In fact during the some tens of thousands of years of the hunter/gatherer societies that preceded us people learned probably only by doing, right up until what may have been the very first school, the Shishi Middle School, founded in China 143–141 BC, and where kids may have first begun listening to a teacher. 

In my own lifetime (I’m now in my eighties) I have heard and read over and over again reports of the failure of our schools. And I have been fully aware, being involved myself in the creation of a school, of the seemingly endless reforms that would correct the just as endless failures of our schools to produce responsible and knowledgeable citizens of the country, the original goal for our schools of both Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann.

The failure of most of our schools, as well as of the subsequent reform movements, stem from the single fact that we continue to place on the school and the teacher the responsibility for educating the young. That responsibility, from even as earlier as the cradle, ought to have been placed first on the child and then a bit later on the young person, let alone the adult who would if things were right with the world become the carrier of what we call lifelong learning. 

At their very best schools are only an opportunity for learning to take place more readily and more efficiently than elsewhere. My wife and I founded a school and from the beginning we tried to create an environment, only in part made up of classrooms and teachers, that would somehow encourage learning. The environment for learning was what we would create. For we knew from the start that that was probably the most that we could do ourselves. Early on we knew that only the students themselves could guarantee that the learning, any learning would take place.

Now this is not the first time I’ve been writing about the nature of learning. What happened to make me write once again about the subject? It was an email from the Khan Academy which I’m very familiar with and have been since the Academy’s founding in 2006 by Sal Khan. The email notice says that KA is looking for teachers, or rather tutors to create additional subject matter videos for their digital school curriculum. They were successful last year and now they want to do it again. Here is the notice I received in my email box:

“We’re seeking brilliant explainers whose videos help students succeed in school and find joy in learning. We’re looking for help to build the world’s most comprehensive, engaging library of videos. Enter the competition and you can win $3,000 and be considered for a video creation contract with Khan Academy. We’re looking for submissions in a variety of subjects. If you have a passion for teaching and a knack for making challenging concepts seem simple, send us one of your videos!”

From Diane and the Khan Academy team.

I’m great admirer of Sal Khan and what he has created in less than 10 years. Has he succeeded? Do the teaching videos work? Are the probably millions of kids, and adults world-wide of whom I am one, learning? Well I am, learning or rather re-learning the calculus, and from Sal’s own videos. Are the armies of others also learning? I don’t know. There may be ample proof out there that the videos do work as intended but I haven’t seen it, nor have I looked.

But whether Sal’s digital videos are doing the job or not is not what I wanted to write about. Rather it does seem to me that the Khan Academy method is almost all “explainer” or teacher, and not much learner or student, not too different from the method used in any school.

Furthermore in KA, as in the public (and private) schools, the very best teachers, the best explainers are not going to diminish, let alone obviate what is still the most important variable in the equation, the responsibility of the student for his own learning. And probably no one knows where that comes from, how to make it a part of the learner. Yes the readiness for learning is all, and that readiness doesn’t seem to be under anyone’s control other than the learner.

But I have a few further thoughts about the “brilliant explainers” that Sal Khan of Khan Academy is looking for. Mostly thoughts about myself whom, I venture to say, I know better than anyone else.

On reading Diane’s notice I almost immediately asked myself, and I’ve been a teacher, or close to teachers and schools including the one I and my wife founded, most of my life, —could I be a Khan explainer? Is there any subject, I asked myself, that I knew well enough to explain it to someone else? The short of it was that I couldn’t think of any.

Does that mean that the world will have its explainers and probably many more who can’t explain anything? That never will the two meet, except in school? Now about this there’s a lot to be said. Where to begin? Why don’t I know enough about anything in order to explain it? I’ve often thought I was a bad teacher, even told that on occasion by a few parents. Could it have been for the reason that I couldn’t master a single subject?

But there are a few things that need to be said about subject matters. First they are open ended. They are without endings, and probably without beginnings too. If they could ever be enclosed in a box, “explained,” they would probably lose their intrinsic value and interest. Perhaps I always sensed that things ultimately eluded our grasp as we tried to get closer and closer and explain them, and therefore I’ve almost never bothered to try.

So what about the brilliant explainers who win the Khan competitions, have they mastered their subjects? How well could they possibly know a subject that has no beginning and no end? I guess the answer has always been they know it well enough to stay ahead of the learners. And that may be enough for them, staying one chapter ahead.

But there is something else. For a principal failure of the schools is that too many teachers go on explaining what they don’t understand. I know I used to do that. But this is probably not the case with the explainers of Khan Academy. In fact, Sal Khan himself does seem to know everything, at least to be able to go on explaining things to me without ever reaching an end to his knowledge of the subject matter.

But still talking about myself. Isn’t that a devastating thought, that I, now in my 84th year on this earth know absolutely nothing well enough to explain it to someone else. But it’s true, and to soften the blow a bit I think of Plato’s Apology that I read in school and where Plato relates that Socrates accounts for his seeming to be wiser than any other person because he knew that he knew nothing. So like Socrates does that make me too wiser, by not even being able to imagine that I know things that I don’t know?

But as a footnote to all this, while there may be a connection between my knowing nothing and Socrates there is absolutely no connection between me and the No Nothing Party that flourished in the 1850s. Furthermore, these people, much like Donald Trump today, thought they knew it all. The party was an outgrowth of the strong anti-immigrant and especially anti-Roman Catholic sentiment that started to manifest itself during the 1840s. A rising tide of immigrants, primarily Germans in the Midwest and Irish in the East, seemed to pose a threat to the economic and political security of native-born Protestant Americans. Again, all this was much like Donald Trump’s positions today regarding the Muslim immigrants from the MIddle East.

For an excellent article making the full connection between Donald Trump and the No Nothing Party see: The GOP: The New Know Nothing Party? by John W. Traphagan

Elephants having tea party


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