Things I Know 72 of 365: Dichotomies can go more than two ways

Inquiry is fatal to certainty.

– Will Durant

Jon Becker asked what I took to be a serious question today on twitter, “All of you fired up about Kahn Academy and TED ED, how do you reconcile that with your belief in learner-centered, inquiry-driven learning?”

The question implies Kahn and TED ED stand diametrically opposed to learner-centered, inquiry-driven learning.

It sets up a dichotomous relationship where one need not exist. The thing about dichotomous relationships is they present hard choices in easy packages.

Reconciling the learning of someone walking away from a TED Ed or any TED talk with the learning of one in an inquiry-driven environment is important, thoughtful work.

We need not, as Samuel Johnson said in his “Rasselas” make our choice and be content. Building a learning environment need not mean choosing one path and forsaking all others.

It’s easier to treat the matter as such, but learning and teaching should be more complex than that. Acknowledging the value in something that appears contrary to one’s belief could put one on the precipice of doubting those beliefs.

Again, it need not.

If inquiry and learner-centered learning are keystones to my educational approach. Building classrooms or other places of learning around the curiosity and interests of the learners in those spaces is the best way for them to learn. It is not, by any means, the only way for them to learn. In fact, a monoculture spoils the soil of learning.

I played with LEGOS, spent hours by the creek that ran along our property line and tied sheets around my neck pretending I was any number of make-believe super heroes when I was young. I also sat listening on the laps of any family member who would take the time as they read me stories. I watched Sesame Street. I sat at my grandparents’ kitchen table as my grandfather explained who Casmir Polaski was and why we got the day off school because of him.

I learned in many ways.

My friend and colleague Matt has his G9 students complete a learning style inventory at the beginning of the school year. Students answer familiar questions of how they prefer to handle information. In the end, their scores show them the spectrum of learning styles with which they approach life. It’s a tremendous exercise with great value so long as its followed, as Matt makes certain it is, by the conversation explaining the results as a snapshot of where the students’ learning preferences stand in that moment.

Dichotomies over simplify the issues they attempt to settle. Perhaps dangerously, they sidestep the conversation and careful consideration of how new or different information can shift the paradigms through which we shape our understanding of the world.

I see value in Kahn and TED.

I see greater value in inquiry and student-centeredness.

I’ll privilege the latter more than the former in my classroom, but I won’t deny both can help students learn.

4 thoughts on “Things I Know 72 of 365: Dichotomies can go more than two ways

  1. Zach, I completely agree. I think that Kahn and TED can be a great resource for student centered learning, and it is not an either/or proposition. I think the mistake is not allowing for multiple methods for students to learn. It feels like the same type of discussion when people talk about content vs. skills, it is not an either/or issue.

  2. Hello Zac et al.I composed that tweet in one of my provocateur moments; I was poking at a hornet's nest and trying to “cause” thinking (see area E on this diagram):…So, I'm thrilled that at least one person was paying attention and thought about what I wrote. :-)I think a few important distinctions are at play here. One distinction is between schooling and education. The second is between teaching and learning. (NOTE: we don't yet know what TED ED will look like, so I'm probably referring more to Khan Academy (KA) here than anything). Education/Schooling – I can see how these video lectures/tutorials add to the growing body of open educational resources (OER); i.e. artifacts that one might bring to bear on one's education (broadly). But, I see that as almost entirely separate from the world of schooling. The only connection I see is that school-based educators might consider how the enactment of schooling should (or should not) change given what's now available by way of OERs. My great concern is with folks who see these videos as somehow a new form of schooling. This is not just limited to Bill Gates; the enthusiasm for these two resources among some of those I follow on Twitter amounts to much more than just “that's a pretty cool resource…”Teaching/Learning – So, if/when I have a plumbing or electrical problem around my house that I want to attempt to fix myself, the first place I turn for help is the Internet (e.g. YouTube, DIY Network, etc.). I have frequently encountered text and/or video explanations/tutorials that have helped me fix my problem. But, mostly, they document the steps I need to take. I'm able to follow those directions and to ultimately fix the problem. But, have I LEARNED anything? Similarly, when students watch the KA video tutorials, are they really learning? I'm not even close to an expert on facilitating learning around mathematics, but I suspect that some math educators will support me in my concerns over the emphasis on mechanics privileged by the videos.Thus, I know how we are all suckers for a good dichotomy. But, I do think that KA and TED ED may be harder to reconcile with learner-centered, inquiry-driven SCHOOLING than you suggest. I'm not saying they are not valuable, but I do want “fans” of those endeavors to think about how consistent they are with their philosophy of the teaching and learning they'd like to see happen in their schools.

  3. The dichotomy for me is about private and public and individual and social learning. In an ideal setting there is a natural flow between the two. Which is why online learning can be so powerful. We can choose when we want to interact, which I'm doing right now and when we want to simply learn on our own without interaction. I think Bud Hunt might argue all learning is social. The Kahn Academy idea reminds me a bit of the current thinking around technology in general. There was a recent discussion, I think led by a certain principal of a certain Philadelphia high school, where it was suggested that a one to one computing environment would actually see students using them less in class than a school that wasn't one to one. The value of being in school is to do inquiry and to me student centeredness, while it might point to choice and empowerment, also has to leverage the fact that they are in a building with other people. That's a wonderful gift that we take for granted every day. Kahn Academy, when used as part of the learning, supplements inquiry, offers the background knowledge and skills to be able to solve problems, create stuff and work collaboratively. I realize that many who are touting it, see it as a replacement. I see it as a new and better textbook. The idea of a textbook isn't inherently evil is it?Also anytime I've praised the Kahn academy it's not been for it's ability to replace or supplement learning as much as it is a model of sharing and generosity that everyone can participate in.

  4. Zac, I'm of a similar mind to Jon. I see a lot of classrooms and by my view (yes, less than scientific) the ratio of lecture/worksheet/test vs. exploratory activity is like 90/10. So to praise something that tips on the side of lecture, even “good lecture” seems to me fairly unnecessary. And to hear it proclaimed “revolutionary” just seems silly. The lecture side doesn't need more help.I want to push the needle the other way, because 90/10 just doesn't represent balance.Second – I believe that we have a solid misconception about learning math in this country that these videos reinforce. It's the notion that watching other people solve problems will always help everyone understand how to solve them on their own; the idea that we have to show kids the representation of a solution before they even really care or understand the problem. I believe for many kids, it reinforces the idea that there is a secret handshake that they just don't get. It reinforces the idea that there is just one right way to solve a problem, when math is often full of paths to the answer. It reinforces for the kids who don't “get it” that math is just something you either know or you don't, so there is no reason to try to puzzle out an answer. It destroys autonomy and self-confidence along the way.And Dean – I think you've accurately pegged this as a “new textbook”. Is that evil? I don't think that's the right question. I think textbooks are a salesman's answer to the question of education. It's about efficiency and scale and being able to sell a product to a lot of people. It's not about learning. And I think KA is exactly that as well.

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