Sunday, February 10, 2013

Content vs. Creation in the Classroom


I remember an undergraduate survey, when I was a TA in grad school, asking them what they thought made a TA great, in their opinion.  To my surprise, it wasn't how much their TA loved what they taught or how dynamic their classrooms were that mattered most, but rather how well they knew their subject matter.  In other words, undergraduates wanted masters of content, which has become a hotly debated word in education.  There are several ways to explain the survey results away, including the fact that the students simply cared about getting the highest grades possible.  But it's an important statement that deserves more thought in light of the growing criticisms of classrooms that excessively focus on content.

Mitchel Resnick's "All I Really Need to Know (About Creative Thinking) I Learned (By Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten" (found in the course syllabus) is first reading in the MIT media lab MOOC I'm taking.  It's a great read on the need for more "creative-thinking skills" in modern education, and I'm certainly in agreement that we need to move our classrooms toward this goal, with the help of various digital technologies.  But I already know how this argument will be perceived, at least at a school like ours, where academic content is privileged above everything else.

Our Foreign Language Department is in the middle of an internal review, for which each language invited a visitor to observe and evaluate our program.  Latin invited Prof. Robert Cape, the chief reader for the AP Latin program, and after extensively talking with him, I, who have been as critical of the AP system as anyone and hopes that what Dartmouth is doing only spreads, came away with new-found respect for the exam.  Rather than representing the ultimate goal that students should aim to achieve, Cape, a trained Classicist, adamantly argued that he sees the AP exam as representing a baseline of skills that should then enable Latin students to do more advanced work after the exam, or what most educators would now call inquiry-based learning.  I was very happy to hear him say this, since, without a set of content-based skills, students are unable to do the kinds of analytical work that the field of Classics is built upon.  Having gone through a PhD program myself, I also firmly believe in the importance of content mastery and skill-based inquiry.  This view of the AP exam as merely a doorway to future study isn't prevalent everywhere, however, especially among the crowd that places content-driven AP exams as the goal of study rather than a means to further study, and this is a problem.

With that in mind, colleagues have and will continue argue that "kindergarten approach" to learning cannot help students to learn the required AP content and skills and will thus quickly dismiss Resnick's argument.  Both our faculty and students are so under the gun to perform on AP exams that there's no time for creation and playing with technology, they maintain.  Moreover, the body of literature advocating creation over content is growing, and nearly every argument I've seen recently in favor of pushing for more creativity criticizes the "failures" of the current system, including Resnick himself, who argues that "today's schools are out-of-step with today's needs".  The majority of this literature, however, is unable to offer very specific and concrete examples of using creative methods in content-driven curricula, which only strengthens the "content" argument.

So, that's where I am right now.  I fully believe in Resnick's plea for the need for creativity in the classroom and I am a firm believer in the power of technology, but I also appreciate the fact that skills and content needs to maintained, in order to teach the next generation of inquiry-based leaders.  And I don't think that the current system, however traditional, is necessarily broken.  There are certainly some deeply-rooted problems in education today. but we're also doing some good things that should be more often identified.  In my own field, at the very least, Classical scholarship cannot continue without mastery the rigorous skills needed to understand and really engage with the material that we study.  But we also need creative thinkers who can look at ancient texts and think about them in new and exciting ways, hopefully asking new questions seeing things in them that no one has hitherto noticed.  The question at hand, now, is how to preserve content, while also embracing creativity and technology not in random games and projects, but as a pervasive feature of the curriculum.  I don't think anyone has seriously addressed how to do this, and that's a big reason why not everyone has warmly embraced the kinds of creativity that using technology can offer.  Blamed for current methods and already skeptical of new ones, they're left to come up with ideas on their own.

Content is important.  Creativity is important too.  I think that there's should be some ideal mix of the two that will look different in different classrooms.  I also think that educational literature that is quick to dismiss tradition and content-based learning, however broken, is ultimately unhelpful and only serves to widen the gap between sides.  Likewise myopic is the claim that using technology to create more opportunities to play can only be accomplished at the expense of content.  Ultimately, it's not the content or the creative technology that matters.  The single most important factor in quality education is the teacher, and I fear that too much of the pedagogical literature being shared right now fails to focus on this fact (cf. ASCD "21st Century Skills" for a good assessment of this).

In addition to MIT's LCL MOOC, I'm also participating in #ETMOOC, which has been fantastic.  Though I started the course almost two weeks late, I've already learned a lot about digital storytelling and have been thinking through some ways to use it to enhance the content that I'm teaching in my Latin courses, perhaps embracing some of the principles of "rhizomatic learning" (which I don't fully understand yet).  And as our school embarks on a 1:1 program next fall, that's what I want to get out of my participation in the two MOOCs, namely, find my own balance of content and creative learning:  not tools that will make be better at technology or smarter in content, but a balance that will help me to become a better teacher.