on the cliffside
Nodding at the canyon
by Jack Kerouac
L.’s teaching practice is informed firstly by her own desire to help her “…students to grow into the fullness of their humanity.” To aid her understanding in this endeavour she has called upon the works of various scholars such as Giroux, hooks, Freire and Noddings. But there is still much that goes on in her classroom that remains unexplained. She seems to feel that there is more she could be doing, if only she knew what it was. This sense of professional unease reached a crisis point when she introduced a web based civic simulation into her class. It’s introduction into her course was deliberate attempt on her part to be ‘relevant’ to her students. They had grown up with computers and the internet, so incorporating a web-based component to her program would be in some ways familiar to them. All of which sounds fairly innocuous. Where she found new challenges was in the degree and depth of her students’ engagement with the simulation. Their involvement exceeded her expectations and comfort level. After reading her paper a couple of times, I’m not sure there’s anything I can say that would help to restore her sense of balance and provide her with the firm footing she desires.
It seems to me that we’ve been here before. In the place where the rules are changing. In the uncertain transition zone. Where what we used to do feels out of alignment. The old touch points have been hidden on us. Our accustomed role is ill-suited to the stage we’re on. The other players are performing their parts fluidly, while we stand around awkwardly, wondering if we’ve missed another cue.
Let’s go back a few hundred years to a time when there were no books, and no papers. All the teaching was oral. Teachers professed and students listened. They monologued and dialogued. A large part of the curriculum was the Bible. But very few people had one. Books were laboriously made and extremely valuable. Then Gutenberg came along and invented the printing press. Suddenly, many people had their own Bible and learned to read it for themselves. And the teachers were called to account for their teachings. “Where does it say that in the Bible?” Students could read ahead or discuss or even read other text without their teacher. The boundaries of the classroom had expanded and the balance of power had shifted.
In more recent times, teachers wrote on chalk boards while students used slate tablets because writing materials were so expensive. As production costs came down more students had paper and ink. Now their works had permanence. They could make drafts. They could collect their writings. The boundary of the classroom expanded and the balance of power shifted again.
Another example, in the 70s calculators started to replace slide-rules. More people could use them, do more complex calculations and do them faster and more accurately. Teachers initially opposed them because their curriculum was no match for the speed and processing power of the calculator. The realm of what was possible expanded and the balance of power shifted.
Here’s a concise list of some educational technologies: speech, drawing, writing, tablets, paper, books, computers, the web, laptops, handhelds, what’s next? Moving through the list the range of what is possible increases. Technological change begats social change. As the possibilities expand the established order must change in order to accommodate them. Denying the new possibilities, repressing the new found freedoms, comes at an escalating cost the longer they are denied. The question becomes how do we incorporate these new abilities with their concomitant expectations? There is resistance because doing so upsets the established order. That established order is usually the result of a great deal of work, not to be cast aside lightly. How do we integrate this new thing into the existing system while making use of its new potential?
How do we carry forward what is useful and valuable in the presence of this new thing?
There are two kinds of technological change: incremental and disruptive. Incremental changes can be woven into existing systems without too much stress. They are just a better way of doing what is already being done. Most people can accommodate better fairly well. Disruptive changes on the other hand, by their very nature change everything. They can’t be fit into an established system without changing the system itself. Computers on their own, are an incremental change (from an education point of view). A faster calculator, a more forgiving typewriter, a more precise drawing tool and so on. Computers connected to the internet, the World Wide Web. Now that’s disruptive change. Nothing is the same once it tries to accommodate the web. Any system that tries is going to be transformed by it in unforeseen and perhaps uncomfortable ways. Education is starting to deal with this. The next few years are going to be painful because the web can’t be held back any longer.
So what do we do? Just what L. did. She tried something new. And her classroom, her teaching methods, her teaching strategies have been disrupted. She’s not alone in this. It’s as though she’s come to the edge of the map and stepped into the part labelled ‘There Be Dragons’. And they are there. They are called administrators, parents and veteran teachers. People who know what they’re doing, who know what to expect because they know the way things work. They know. But disruptive changes, change the rules. You do something they don’t know; in their eyes, you’re probably wrong. Applying the old standards, expecting the old results is a recipe for conflict in the presence of disruptive change.
Incorporating the web as an integral part of class instruction takes a new set of skills. A new way of thinking of course content and of leadership. What does it mean when every student has access to exactly the same information as the teacher—more than anyone can ever absorb. How does it work when anyone can talk to anyone else at anytime—without disturbing anyone else? What happens when the inert knowledge prescribed by the curriculum comes to life in the students’ minds? Standardized testing doesn’t account for that. The K-12 curriculum can be thought of as a set of expanding boxes each one slightly larger than the one before. The classroom has kept students in the box; the web lets them out. Like Pandora, we’re not going to be able to put them back. We are still early in this transition period. It is going to take a few years before we have a stable system again, and it’s too soon to say what it is going to look like. There’s more than one way to help students “grow into the fullness of their humanity.” The principles are the same though the particular tactics might change. I think if we can hold onto those principles that L. knows intuitively that we will be fine, and so will our students.