– on education vs teaching

Non scholae sed vitae discimus

In a heated discussion with a colleague about one of the classes I occasionally teach, the instructor, who also happens to be the chair of her department, asked me angrily – and rhetorically  “why is it important for  students to learn the history of computers? this is irrelevant.” The class she was talking about is computers 101 where we teach basic computer components and software.  This conversation came at a time when I had been thinking for a few months prior to that, about the difference between education and teaching.  Seneca,  renowned 1st century statesman and philosopher came to mind…  “we do not learn for school, but for life.”  This, in my view, is why we need to teach the history of computers. But more broadly, this sums up what education is about as opposed to teaching.

Almost all of us have been brought up with the idea of learning and excelling at what we do. We are taught and trained to be motivated,  cut-throat and competitive to meet the ‘demands of the market’. Particularly when teaching disciplines besides the humanities, and more so when teaching programming or math, we as ‘educators’ tend to focus more on the topic at hand and how to make a student the best possible in his/her field. Some even want students to just pass this or that exam, generally multiple choice ones and get it over with.

This competitive phenomenon is not confined to schools but persists in pop culture too. The focus is always how to be the ‘winner’. Anyone who watches television will see a flood of competition programs that aim at making young people believe that winning is the carte blanche to success.  No matter how immoral, no matter how twisted the means, no matter how many people one tramples upon, the keywords are ‘success’ and ‘winning’. In the end, it is all about the numbers: you won by how much and how much will you make.

It is my view that there is something fundamentally flawed with this methodology. Is this what education is really about? While winning is a legitimate demand, it is the path to that win or that success that is troublesome to me. Education is about relating life’s experiences to the younger generation.  It is not about this or that software, but about showing that when confronted with choices, one has to always make the moral choice regardless of the consequence. Education is not about showing how a software works or how to differentiate between Perl and Php, nor is it about differentiating between an iambic pentameter and a ballad. Rather, education is about how to differentiate between doing what is right and doing what is wrong, regardless of religion or belief. It is not about making money but about how you are making that money.

This generation of students has been called, among many other names,  the ‘e-generation’ or the ‘entitlement generation’. Students come to class feeling entitled to privileges that should be earned. It is for this reason that many teachers simply teach; what’s the point in educating anyone if no one will support the teacher in his/her actions? And yet I pity this generation because they are graduating in a very tough world – one where they will be confronted with many choices, both ethical and unethical – a world where they will have to make money in order  to survive a bad economy.  But this makes it even more important to educate rather than teach.

I am not denying that there are demands of the market and that students need to be taught well in order to compete. But what about the demands of society? whose job is it to educate a generation? who will show this generation that among the demands of society is to give as much as take? that to make a moral choice and lose is more honourable than making an immoral choice and winning? that ‘money is not everything’ – and that this is not a pathetic cliche?

Whose responsibility is it to educate a generation? and if we want to do it, how do we go about integrating it into the classroom? The following are some suggestions which I had begun implementing – timidly at first for the past couple of years – and then in full force now:

  1. Eliminating multiple choice quizzes. I hate nothing more than those quizzes. They do not show the strengths nor weaknesses of a student, they are dry and they are plain useless. They test only what a student can digest or remember in his/her superficial memory – material that disappears as soon as that quiz is over.
  2. Basing activities in class on team work skills and strengthening collaboration between students. In fact this past semester I have even created a venue for two classes to participate on some issues
  3. Encouraging debate and discussion of real world topics related to the issue at hand – whether it be software use or any other. In fact I think this is why social media and social networking are such a success with the younger generations and we keep hearing how there is peer-to-peer teaching now. Social media allowed younger people to engage in debates and discussions on topics of their interest.
  4. Making a shift from “what the information is” and “how the information is” to “why the information is”. This is achieved through working backwards with the students: showing the end result and how it would impact their lives and then showing the “how to” accomplish that. [I got this particular idea from a student-written paper at MIT]
  5. Making connections: how is what we are studying now connected to a student’s real life? connected to life in general? connected to the past, present and future? In fact I came across a great paper on connections recently and here are some questions about connections that the study suggests:
    “This part reminds me of….
    I felt like…(character) when I….
    If that happened to me I would….
    This book reminds me of…(another text) because….
    I can relate to…(part of text) because one time….
    Something similar happened to me when..”  [http://forpd.ucf.edu/strategies/stratText.html}
    and you could also ask the students some of the questions suggested in that paper.

There is much more… but for now, any comments would be greatly appreciated.