“Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts.”
– Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, 1900.
Recent visitors to this blog should recognize that my interest in educational technology didn’t come out of left field. For instance, I made fun of a book titled DIY U almost from the very first moment that I read about it. It must be out in paperback now because the author is recycling a big chunk of it in Utne Reader.
Perhaps I’m getting soft in my old age, but the author’s arguments actually seem less awful than they did the last time I read them. Perhaps it’s the extraordinary awfulness of the stuff that I’ve been reading over the last few months. Perhaps it’s the author’s obvious enthusiasm for the educational technology future. She clearly believes that these developments will help the students of the future learn better.
I still don’t. Looking at my previous post on this book, it seems that this is the exact same paragraph that got me all riled up months ago:
Technology upsets the traditional hierarchies and categories of education. It can put the learner at the center of the educational process. Increasingly, this means students will decide what they want to learn, and when, where, and with whom; and they will learn by doing. Functions that have long hung together, like research and teaching, learning and assessment, or content, skills, accreditation, and socialization, can be delivered separately.
OK, but just because you CAN deliver them separately doesn’t necessarily mean that you SHOULD deliver them separately. Take the obvious pairing here of content and skills. Perhaps you can teach my discipline adequately online if you believe, as Harry Truman did, that history is just one damn fact after another. Make the students read something, then give them a multiple choice test on the content they just read. Voila! You’ve taught your students history. That’s the popular perspective of people who think that a college education is about nothing besides getting a credential.
I happen to believe otherwise. I’ve come to look at historical facts as a means to an end – actually a means to many ends, namely developing a skill set that helps students better understand the world around them today, not just the dead world of the past. That’s why I’m so smitten with whatever the opposite of the coverage model of history survey classes happens to be.
This ProfHacker post calls it “uncoverage.” I’m not sure I like that name, but nonetheless I really couldn’t agree with these sentiments more:
[D]epth and breadth should not be pitted against each other. In fact, breadth is a key component of uncoverage, the weft to the warp of understanding. Breadth means connecting disparate ideas, finding news ways to represent what is uncovered, and extending one’s conceptual reach to the implications of the material.
Taken together, depth and breadth mean moving away from the prepackaged observations and readily digestible interpretations that go hand-in-hand with coverage.
Teach content and skills separately and you’ll be lucky if you get readily digestible interpretations and prepackaged observations. I suspect students will do nothing but spit back one damned fact after another. It’s no coincidence that Henry Adams was a historian first and a memoirist second.
Do people in other disciplines think like Adams too or are we historians special?