Cognitive Oxidization – The Rusting of Education
The status quo of our schools and universities
While doing the reseach for this book, I spent many hours at libraries and bookstores. Something that struck me was the enormous amounts of literature that called attention to the inadequacies of modern education. The quality of education was questionable, they said. Test scores were declining while student drop-out rates increased.Yet there has never been a time than right now when the demands for good education were so pressing. With the expansion of the information age and the increased demand for more people to know more about more things, education has become less of a luxury or status symbol, and become more of a vital and critical survival necessity. The shift towards a society of information and information workers has been well documented by authors such as John Naisbitt and Alvin Toffler. There is no escaping the new law of the concrete and blackboard jungles: People need to learn in order to survive.
A common theme to many books that criticize modern education is the assumption that problems lie within the so-called educational “system.” Suggested solutions include curriculum revision, extra funding, more parental involvement. Yet I have found few that directly tackle what I think is the key issue: Absence of effective learning skills. In my opinion, they are more important than effective teaching skills. While it is valuable to have instructors that can provide quality teaching, the students must themselves be equipped with the requisite skills, and motivate, to partake of that teaching ability. The highly trained doctor who prescribes the precise medication still requires the patient to take them properly, and at the required times.
In addition, I have perceived a background resistance to improving the technology of teaching, on the part of the school. In fact, it is ironic that although today we identify the classroom with the blackboard, when blackboards were first introduced as a teaching tool they were feverently rejected and denounced by the teaching elite. Likewise, new technologies such as computer assisted teaching, and accelerated learning methods are assimilated reluctantly, if at all, into mainstream education. Again, with the medical analogy, the patient will better benefit from the use of an advanced surgical instrument than if her doctor insisted on resorting to obselete equipment. While the intention may be good and well, the outcome of the operation and the livelihood of the patient depend greatly on proper skill and equipment, and not simply on doctor goodwill.
Having said all of the above, I am not making a revelation that the only way to improve education is by making students aware of learning skills, and at the same time putting computers into the classroom. What I am saying is that there should be more attention paid to these issues, than is presently being afforded. My own experiences have concluded as much.
When I sat in my classes, especially during my university years, I could not help but notice the amount of student frustration around me. While the instructor rambled on at the front, my classmates and I frantically scribbled down notes. Frequently, students may even try to record word-for-word on cassette tape, the entire lecture. Some of my friends even joked around and said that they were considering buying a video-camcorder for class, to record both the teacher’s voice and antics, and the vast amounts of material written on the blackboard. They might even get lucky and capture a piece for America’s Funniest Home Videos.
All humour aside, the inefficiency of the generic teaching pattern is quite evident. Students should be able to minimize the pressure on them to produce sharp pencils, clean while paper, a quick writing hand, and the transcription abilities of a court secretary. In class, far too many students hectically scribble on reams of paper, without enough thought as to how relevant the material they are writing down is to the present discussion. Their mental energies are sapped from worrying that they might not be writing fast enough, every micro-second of the lecture wound up like a provoked cat, waiting to pounce on the slightest hint that something will be included on an exam. . The pace is quite feverish, and in extreme cases the classroom can resemble a turn of the century sweat shop. To compound the situation, lack of educational funding provides fewer teachers for the job, at a time when enrollment was never so high. This mass-production of education becomes fast-food for thought. Although it may not be the best solution, I think an good alternative to this frenzy would be for students to be entitled to listen and participate actively in class, without any need of concern towards the pen and paper. At the end of the session, the instructor simply hands out printed sheets that summarize the material learned. If necessary, the sheets could easily be updated during the classroom session on a micro-computer and quickly printed out on a laser printer. This saves countless volumes of “notes,” and burnt out pens and pencils, from being piled onto landfill sites at the end of each semester. Charts, diagrams, and pictures could easily be included on these summary notes. Writing cramps, squinting eyes, headaches, and backpain would additionally diminish. With regards to the teacher, he or she can utilize slide projectors or even computer projected displays, to replace the outdated blackboard. Chalk produces a threat to respiratory health, and puts additional strain on hand and arm. Most importantly, it lacks impact. Slides and projections are multi-coloured, precise, clean, easily reuseable year after year, and conveniently editable with the new hardware. A teacher can produce her own slides for an entire course in the span of an afternoon, certainly no more than a few well-spent hours, with a computer system costing under one and a half thousand dollars. There is simply no good reason why all these improvements cannot be accomplished immediately. The prices of micro-computer equipment are astonishingly low, and modern software is easily learned, shattering the myth that computers are expensive and hard to use. The only real obstacles that I find standing in the way of these kinds of educational improvement are fear of change, adherence to tradition, and outdated misconceptions about the technology.
Awareness of memory and reading skills are also astonishingly low. Few students learn memory skills as a result of deliberate classroom instruction. The relatively few who are lucky enough to come across such training usually do so haphazardly, through introduction by friends or random accident. It is surprising that most universities offer free typing classes, yet neglect those for speed reading and advanced memory, the two most important skills in effective learning and comprehension. And yet, as the ignorance continues, information daily grows with every new discovery or insight by scientists and writers the world over.
Thus far, our discussion may spark the imagination of conspiracy buffs, yet I think that the problems stem not so much from conscious effort, than as byproducts of outdated beliefs and misunderstanding. In the July 1993 issue of Technology Review, Professor Seymour Papert wrote:
Some contend that it is inappropriate to expect education to undergo the same kind of megachange that has affected many other fields – such as surgery. According to this argument, the latter is susceptible to change because it is an essentially technical act. But learning is a natural act, like eating.
In other words, some people may demand technological uplifting of medicine or engineering, while allowing education the leeway of more “traditional” means of operation. Although, for instance, the computer may be seen as beneficial in certain respects to education, it is not seen as essential to the task of teaching. There is an acknowledgment of the value of the computer to some extent, but no real effort to actively incorporate it into the teaching process. Education has been myopic, fearful, and adamant. The situation is steeped in irony: An industry priding itself on teaching others what to do, fails to reassess its own situation objectively. It reminds me of people who have become so successful that they have forgotten that they first became that way because they listened to the valuable advice of others. Gradually, they succumb to arrogance and stagnation, and ultimately become withered and obselete. Dewey sounded the horn. The educational revolution must continue.
All new technologies, when first introduced, were praised and heralded in with similar proclamations. Electricity, for instance, was considered the bane of inequality, champion against all the tyranny that coal and the steam engine represented. Likewise, when the computer was invented, people expected it to magically enhance all life on earth, education being no exception. Many years later, people are now tired of hearing the same story, without seeing any real results. They may even now be waiting for the first glimmer of evidence that the computer can save them from their troubled lives. Yet any device, no matter how technically advanced or sophiscated, cannot automatically and autonomously spring up and announce the answer to the meaning of life. It is up to humans to properly apply the technology. New technologies cannot simply be inserted into convenient niches in the status quo, and left to mutate and evolve on their own. Advances must be deliberately made by reassessment of the total situation. Education has succumbed to the conservative and vacillating line. The computer has not been assimilated into the totality of the educational process, to aid the teaching of all subjects, but has been isolated, compartmentalized and hermetically sealed in its own niche, its own category: Computer Science. It is valid for computers to deserve a topic all their own but the educational system orphans it neatly, safely, conservatively in another world. The absurdity of it all can only truly be appreciated when one considers how the world would be if the telephone was spirited away into a discipline called “telephone science” while the rest of humanity satisfied itself with the less risky methods of pigeons and smoke signals. (Parents would then be hard-pressed to keep their teenagers away from the aviary and fire pit!) Papert states that:
- …a subversive instrument of change [the computer] was neutralized by the system and converted into an instrument of consolidation… The logic of the process was to bring the intruder back into line with School’s ways [as tradition dictated].
The fear of change cripples education so that it
- …does not have the capacity for local adaptation that is necessary to function and evolve in a changing environment.
The benefits of computer-assisted learning are multitudinous. The most obvious advantage is a lightening of the load on the teacher. The educator should not become a walking and talking equivalent of the textbook or video presentation. The scribe became almost extinct after the invention of the printing press. Imagine how backward the world would be today, if those in the high towers of educational policy-making in the 15th century had isolated and discouraged the printing of books via Gutenberg’s brainchild. Likewise, the classroom setting should delegate pure information presentation to the new mechanical instruments, to reduce the burden and tedium on the teacher. It is encouraging that in a few schools, teachers use computers equipped with cd-rom units that make available virtually the entire store of human knowledge to the student, as a miniaturized library. The teacher serves as the intelligent and human counterpart, the overseer, the guide, answering questions that the computer and textbook cannot, and engaging the students in creative discussion. The rest of education should take heed of these scattered oases of revolution. It cannot continue on its present path and still expect students and teachers to somehow cope with the increased need to learn and retain growing reservoirs of information. Technologies of accelerated-learning are generally regarded as nothing more than technical curiosities, reserved only for the peculiar few who dare take it upon themselves to make use of them. No wonder students and teachers alike show disappointment with the system. No wonder there is a loss of confidence.
While the textbook hails the theories of Charles Darwin and the marvelous progression of human achievements throughout history, the classroom itself has failed to sufficiently evolve.
The Paradigm of the Cyborg
More power to the people
When this book was being edited, one of the more common complaints I received was that it was not comprehensive enough in its coverage of the various topics. There is much more, I was told, on memory skills, strategy, computers. But my intent was not to produce the de facto standard and last word on the subjects. This book is not a desktop encyclopaedia. If I were to write completely about each of the various items in the table of contents, the work would span ten volumes, at least, and I would have long ago lost the interest of the aspiring reader. As it is, I have distilled the essence of the most powerful tools that a person can use, presenting them in a quick and concise format. This book contains all that a person needs to know to dynamically enhance her life. Immediately, and effectively. In addition, I do not believe that readers of this book would be so lacking in imagination and self-directedness that they must be spoon-fed an exhaustive set of actions that consider every single reader and angle. Nor can this be done by any book. Cyborg 101 simply provides the most important step: The start. Upon its foundation all else is built.
This book is relevant in yet another way: The major complaint that students have towards school is that it is boring. More precisely, the student does not feel that school is worthwhile. By adopting the paradigm of the cyborg, a student can feel that school is exciting. One reason is that there is more apparent control over the academic situation. Many people play so-called wargames, games that in themselves seem pointless, except for the fact that the players have the opportunity to use their mental skills in strategic and tactical decisions. Likewise, the student, when adopting the cyborg paradigm and treating school as an enormous wargame, will be able to see the complete situation holistically – and not be bogged down by the seemingly overwhelming number of assignments and classes – and appreciate the totality of the situation. As the wargame participants do, so the cybernetic students likewise enjoy “playing the game,” shifted as it were from a point of view haphazardly created over the years as a passive recipient of the “slings and arrows of outrageous [scholastic] fortune,” to one of mature and deliberate personal control and active – not passive – participation.
Tactical considerations such as memory and reading skills give the student the advantage of understanding that mundane skills necessary in top grade performance can be fun and painless. The banishment of the anguish normally associated with rote memorization and heavy reading therefore frees the student to enjoy the actual material being studied, much the same way that automation of text editing by the use of the computer word-processor frees the writer to concentrate on the material being written, rather than spending time on the drudgery of manual retyping and revising.
The strategic concepts outlined in this book further empower the student to make good decisions with regards to his continuing academic progress. In a sense, by putting control back into the hands of the student, the emphasis is on individual responsibility, and unlike the imaginary student examples above, treat the educational experience as a two-fold phenomenon, releasing the burden of proof, so to speak, on the school system.
The Classroom Crucible raises an interesting issue: “Teachers and students are ordinary.” Therefore, if excellence cannot be found – generally speaking – in innate individual traits, excellence must come from the external tools and techniques utilized in the classroom. The knowledge of special techniques to assist the student in learning, such as those covered by Cyborg 101, transform the “ordinary” person into an exceptional one. Unfortunately, the usage of the word “exceptional” here implies that the empowered student is a relatively endangered creature. A better situation would be a world with the vast majority, if not all, students and teachers schooled in such techniques and tools. With better equipment to grasp the educational experience, more control can be wielded by the students and teachers not in an adversarial relationship against “the system” or each other, but control and power towards uplifting the quality of education.
To summarize, here are the key advantages of the paradigm of the cyborg:
- Conscious and deliberate participation into the experience of school
- Direct and self-initiated control over situational and environmental events
- Holistic perception of the schooling experience
- Promotes active cognitive awareness and problem-solving
- Multi-term goal-setting
- Immediate feedback
- Consolidatory and coherent framework in which to operate
In addition, the underlying principle behind the entire cyborg programme is that the search for truth in nature and life cannot be accomplished with an arbitrary fragmentation of the many avenues of human exploration. The humanities and the sciences are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they are interdependent. The myriad of problems we have with the abuse or misuse of technological power today stand as sore monuments to this myopia. As such, learning in school cannot be a piecemeal event. The common practice of student segmentation and compartmentalization is a self-fulfilling prophecy. As will all true learners ultimately understand, life and truth can only be thoroughly known and appreciated through a holistic and multi-disciplinary approach. In the final analysis, the cyborg teaches us that what may be lacking in a certain system of function must be improvised and compensated for through our own extra-system initiatives. Only in this manner can we supercede the arbitrary limitations of the structure, and reestablish control.
Psychological Theory in the Cyborg Paradigm
A Brief Look
The capacity of control, above all, prevents learned helplessness, a psychological term coined by Martin Seligman during his experiments with animals and electric shock. Ethical considerations notwithstanding – as is unfortunately the case with many a research project in the name of scientific pursuit – dogs which were taught to avoid an electric shock would, when placed in a situation where shock was imminent and unavoidable, soon become apathetic and learn to become “helpless” – in a sense, become a passive recipient of whatever experience comes along. Interestingly enough, one major effect of learned helplessness is retardation of learning. The animal (or student) has “learned” that consequences cannot be altered by individual action, and therefore becomes apathetic. Even when control is relinquished back to the individual, this mind-set has become so solidly crystallized, that it takes considerable effort and time to unlearn this paradigm, and realise that outcomes can be controlled by active action. Thus, the student who has “learned” that there is no relationship between his grades and his effort will diminish active participation in schoolwork until he is considered “lazy” by teachers and parents.
The cyborg paradigm empowers the student by demonstrating that control can be accomplished and maintained, on a personal level, and that the individual is not at a hopeless and helpless disadvantage compared to the relative enormity of an entity called the “educational system.” Many people think of the “system” – indeed, any system – as a disembodied entity, to be treated with faith as if it were a divine spirit, and embrace whatever outcomes that fate and this entity would throw at them. Such is the common faulty and subconscious perception of students (and their parents) towards school. Thus also, the continued emphasis on changing the “system.”
The psychologist Edward L. Deci proposed the model of extrinsic/intrinsic motivation – as mentioned in the opening chapter – along with the closely related concepts of competence and personal causation. Simply put, he suggested that people not only needed to feel that they have control over their environment, but also needed to feel competent about that control.
Humans are born not only with the capacity to learn, but also the aspiration to overcome challenges. This is the biological drive that helped humans push their limits throughout history, and enabled them to start with the wooden wheel and end up landing on the moon. The application of military strategy towards school in a paradigm of an enormous wargame allows the student to relish each and every success, no matter how seemingly trivial, as a good “move” in this game of chess. Intrinsic motivation seeks to optimize stimulation, and bored students will find that they not only will do more, but will seek also to conquer challenges. In this manner, they will feel both competent and in control, and maximize the conditions of intrinsic motivation. The zeal that students are capable of in school is demonstrated by their “industriousness and eagerness that school seldom generates, in learning the rules and strategies of video games that appeared much more demanding than any homework assignment.”1 Cyborg 101 hopes to inject this same zeal into the student’s attitude towards school.
There is much that can be further discussed, but again, such material is beyond the scope and purpose of this appendix. It serves only as a cursory overview of the academic situation, and how this book fits into the scheme of things .(The sources listed at the end of this work include several books on motivational psychology).
The Future of Education – Plotting a Trajectory
How things are and how they might turn out to be
At present, the educational system as a whole is somewhat akin to a factory set-up. The analogy of students as workers, albeit far-fetched, is not entirely without ground. There are several key points that the system, perhaps subconsciously, emphasizes and none of them desirable:
- A requirement of student submissiveness, regardless of the actual merit of the material being taught.
- A marked emphasis on rote memory and rote learning.
- A suppression of creativity and disagreement in favour of authoritative (and final) knowledge.
These key points were summarized in a paper entitled Muckraking the Educational System.2 Although that paper was written in 1977, there seems to be relatively little progress made in changing those key problems. Granted, for the past couple of decades, there has been an awareness of the passive nature of the system, and more time has been spent on in-class discussions, for example, the fact remains that these twenty odd years has not seen a dramatic shift. Tradition again, clamped a lid on budding transformations.
To recap, there has to be a reliance, and faith, on advanced technologies in the learning situation. Innovations such as computers and telecommunications applied to education will have a profound effect on the evolution of academic endeavours.3 Flexibility seems to be the key. By removing the constraints of time and space, students would be able to learn whenever and wherever they want, without having their emotional preferences and desires forced and beaten into submission, to learn when they least want to, governed by an abstract schedule and the whim of an arbitrary “educational system.”
Finally, I wish to quote yet again Professor Papert:
- What can be seen today is certainly an intimidation of what will come, but only in the way the Wright Flyer [the first aircraft by the Wright brothers] prefigured jet transportation. Reading the significance of the Wright brother’s first flights required an effort of imagination to grasp the principles they embodied and the social and technological evolution they would seed.
The seed of the future, the continued evolution of education towards more knowledge with less pain, depends first on revolution.
And revolution requires, above all else, courage.
Angus T.K. Wong
Written circa 1993.
- Papert, Technological Review, July ’93.
- Laurie, Edward. San Jose Studies, November 1977. Pp. 41-50.
- Pelton, Joseph. Education in a Cybernetic World. English Education. October 1984. Pp. 131-142