Unguided learning: Subversive Activity (Part 3)

Independent thinking rightly belongs at the heart of education, as I suggested in Part 2. As students get increasingly adept at using tools of sceptical and imaginative enquiry, they become unstoppable lifelong learners. In this respect, I think, the authors of Teaching as a Subversive Activity are right on target – but many of their other proposals are wide of the mark. Their view of the role of the teacher is particularly dubious, so it’s probably just as well that it is as unpopular today as it was back in the ‘60s.

To be fair, some of Postman and Weingartner’s prescriptions are perfectly reasonable: of course teachers should pose meaningful problems, ask divergent questions, expect reflective responses, promote student collaboration, and encourage self-directed learning. And Postman and Weingartner make the legitimate point that if students are to produce knowledge themselves, they’ll need practice in methods of inductive enquiry – like making relevant observations and generalisations, verifying findings and suspending judgement where there is insufficient data.

More vexingly, the authors suggest that teachers shouldn’t prepare lesson plans at all, nor indeed any logical structure for sharing knowledge. Neither should teachers tell students what they ought to know, at risk of depriving students of an opportunity for discovery learning. What’s more, Postman and Weingartner say, teachers shouldn’t judge the quality, precision or relevance of students’ ideas in case this interferes with students’ developing their own criteria for judgement. Finally, teachers shouldn’t summarise students’ discussion because – the authors claim – this closes off further thought. In my view, it’s quite a good thing that each of these ideas has fallen by the wayside.

It seems to me that each of the repudiated techniques is helpful, if not indispensable, for teaching certain skills and bodies of knowledge. Using lesson plans and presenting subject content serve to open students to a rich and coherent world of ideas, while modelling good judgement and taking a synoptic view serve to induct students into useful habits of thought.

There’s been a great deal of debate among educational theorists about the value of discovery learning, in which students conduct their own investigations with minimal guidance. On the one hand, advocates claim that things discovered independently are better remembered than things explicitly taught, and that the process of discovery is more engaging than direct instruction. On the other hand, critics say that free exploration tends to overload working memory, causing poorer recall – and that pure discovery learning might confuse students, or lead them to adopt erroneous beliefs.

I don’t think the debate can be as easily settled as either camp would wish. Too often, educational methods – like discovery learning or direct instruction – are justified with reference to ‘quality teaching’ or ‘effective learning’: concepts which are either so vague as to be almost meaningless, or else so narrowly-defined as to be almost useless. In order to decide sensibly which teaching methods to employ, we first need to agree on what our educational priorities are, and what exactly they entail. Is it more important to nurture students’ curiosity, or to instil a sense of clarity? Is it more important for students to remain engaged and enthused, or to grasp an organised body of knowledge? These are deliberately tough questions. Probably, we want it all. So we’ll need horses for courses: different methods for different purposes.

Despite Postman and Weingartner’s protestations, there will surely be times when direct instruction is most appropriate, if only because teachers – if they’re worth their salt – are more knowledgeable and more sophisticated thinkers than their students are. As Massimo Pigliucci explains: “The teacher here plays the role of a subtle but always attentive guide, with a clear goal in mind. Postman is correct that simply telling people what to think won’t work … but he is wrong in assuming that the student ought therefore simply to be in charge.”

The Philosophy Club runs extra-curricular workshops for children in Australia.



One response to “Unguided learning: Subversive Activity (Part 3)

  1. Pingback: In dispraise of Teaching as a Subversive Activity | Improving Teaching·

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