Schools Today are a Giant Game of Telegraph
Professor Charles Bingham, a prominent Canadian philosopher of education from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver is currently visiting HSE’s Institute of Education. As part of his visit, Professor Bingham gave a talk on schooled epistemology at the postgraduate seminar and conducted a master class on teaching techniques.
Plato as a forerunner of modern school system
In his talk, the professor addressed the systemic problem with education from both philosophical and sociological perspectives. As Professor Bingham posits, education today, despite the advance of digital age, is still based on the Platonic concept of prevalence of spoken word over written one. In terms of philosophical grounds, school system is built on the idea that students cannot interact with knowledge directly and require a teacher to explain and process knowledge for them. In this paradigm, knowledge is a property of a teacher and is bestowed upon students who act as depositories for it. In Professor Bingham’s opinion, such approach is inherently flawed as it treats students as objects of learning rather than subjects, and therefore deprives them of the opportunity to acquire knowledge themselves. Moreover, this model is anachronistic in modern times because written word is no longer holds the exclusivity it did in the past and poses no threat to oral discourse – something that Plato was concerned about.
McEducation meets Fordist production
From the sociological perspective, modern schools are based on the premise that schools are tantamount to education. Conventional type of schooling requires policies, procedures, regulations and above all, standardization. So, what fast food is to the art of eating, that modern schools are to the art of learning. In other words, schools offer processed knowledge that is packaged, tested and codified, thus feeding the society McEducation of a kind, hardly nourishing or healthy. Essentially, this is a Fordist, factory model of education whereby a school sends people through stages of knowledge, much like a conveyor belt does. However, according to Prof Bingham, schools are only equated with knowledge because society believes so on the strength of massive investment of time and money made into the schooling system.
It is erroneous to believe that teachers improve students’ learning outcomes by streamlining information for them or speeding up the education process.
In fact, students do not actually need teachers to act as intermediaries between them and the sources of knowledge. The ‘classroom-size game of Telegraph - when the knowledge from various original sources is summarized and repackaged in a textbook which requires oral explanations by a teacher whose words in turn are interpreted by a teaching assistant’ - is hardly efficient or productive. It is erroneous to believe that teachers improve students’ learning outcomes by streamlining information for them or speeding up the education process. It has been repeatedly proven that traditional school system slows the learning down in all subjects from foreign languages to sciences. Moreover, heavy emphasis on standardization is hardly beneficial for the society. In his personal experience of teaching in South Africa Prof Bingham saw educational standards being used with the aim of segregating the society and turning one group on the other.
What should a school be like?
Professor Bingham concluded by observing that modern school system is failing because it aims to remove the students from texts and sources of knowledge and therefore distorts knowledge and dilutes relations between people and texts. It is misleading to assume that the spread of schools means the spread of education. He then proceeded with some recommendations on possible improvements to the school system. Firstly, it is important for a teacher ‘to speak truly rather than attempt to represent the truth’. In other words, a teacher should not echo a text but rather experience the text with the students, inspiring them to learn more on their own, just like a coach inspires sportsmen to perform better.
The key idea is to make the educational experience memorable by engaging the students in the process rather than letting them be a passive audience.
Secondly, rather than pursuing standardization, schools should try to be unique in their educational experiences and messages. Standardizing, far from being a perfect solution, is actually a dead end for schools. Thirdly, schools need to be ‘places of human relations instead of places of knowledge production.’ Moreover, there is no need for schools to compete over knowledge or stake a market share of knowledge as learning should happen everywhere and should not be an exclusive property of schools.
Practical advice: ask yourself some questions
In his interactive master class, Professor Bingham offered some practical advice on how to make teaching more inspiring for students. The key idea is to make the educational experience memorable by engaging the students in the process rather than letting them be a passive audience. So, Prof Bingham encouraged the participants of the master class to contribute to the discussion and share their ideas on teaching. He also posed challenging questions to the audience to make the participants reflect on their own teaching habits and experience.
One of the questions any instructor should ask him or herself before going into a classroom is ‘Why am I there [in the classroom] and what does this class mean in my life?’ After establishing the relationship between the big picture and the specific class it is important to devote some time to brainstorming ideas and activities. Collecting as many ideas as possible takes away the anxiety over having enough material for the duration of the class.
Another question that should be answered is ‘what will my students take away from my class?’ It could be only one thing but it should be something that students will remember. The only way to make people remember things is to set up experience in classroom. Professor Bingham is convinced that adults in many respects are similar to children and they need to be able to enjoy themselves in class. It does not mean that classroom is only about having fun and joking but employing humor in moderation can be enormously beneficial. However, it is important to distinguish between bad, demeaning, type of humor that is based on negative power-related jokes and good, positive, humor when people smile or laugh as a group, relieving learning-related stress and sharing a bonding experience.
Class management techniques
Touching upon classroom management techniques, Prof Bingham emphasized the importance of ensuring that classroom is a comfortable space for students and that they are able to get to know each other. Professor believes that any kind of horizontal violence, or bullying, is sole responsibility of the teacher who has failed to foster friendly and positive atmosphere in his classroom. He also recommended maintaining eye contact with the audience, even in big lecture classes. Another useful tip was to give students time to process information and talk about the problem posed by the instructor to another student. What’s interesting, ‘the more technical the subject is, the more processing time is needed before a teacher can ask students to answer a question in class.’ After such discussion with a fellow student, people are typically less embarrassed and more confident when answering professor’s questions. Finally, surprisingly enough, it is important to be able to maintain pauses after questions and these pauses should not cause the teacher any discomfort. The professor demonstrated that eventually somebody from the audience will volunteer an answer, even though sometimes the question needs to be rephrased for better understanding. Finally, it is a good idea to ask what is called a ‘true’ question, the one which has not been answered before and to which the teacher does not know the right answer either. Such questions engage students in the thinking process and contribute to the production of knowledge in class, which in essence is the only true kind of education.
Maria Besova specially for HSE news service