Alexandria Online

Monday, May 3, 2010

Too Many Pages, Too Few Pages, Null Values.

I had to know something about the history of classroom practice, so I started reading How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms 1880-1990. In the introduction I found just the sort of gem-like, brief observation I had hoped to find:

Centuries ago, in European and American cultures, formal schooling was instituted in religious institutions with the aim of teaching students to spread the word of the particular gospel and to study its meaning. Books were rare and teaching and learning in church-related schools and colleges depended on those who were informed telling the uninformed what was important to know. Knowledge was a body of beliefs, facts, procedures, and opinions that largely went unquestioned.
I am suspicious of the idea that beliefs, facts, procedures and opinions went unquestioned. Western education has its roots in the inquisitive, combative minds of Ancient Greece and Rome. But the idea of too few books is very compelling to me.

Books were once expensive, rare, treasured by an exclusive few. And education was predominately oral. One wrote down the words of the master, creating one's own book. I have used the "listen and write" approach in my own classes from time to time, to add another dimension  that might appeal to different learning styles. It still works. Many kids respond well when it is used sparingly, to break up other learning activities. It's relaxing.

But if you don't have a book, it's just plain necessary.

Now we have too many books. Anyone with a computer has access to an almost infinite amount of information, most of which, by the way, is pornography. You can find exactly what you want, or you can find nothing of what you want. You can be confused, lost, overwhelmed, duped and ripped off. You need a guide.

Teachers, librarians, libraries, and textbooks all act as guides. They give you a frame, boundaries, a membrane that keeps you from dissolving into the Great All. They are dykes that keep the great digital river from drowning you but let some water through to irrigate the fields.

In his talk today, Alan November led us to a very amusing site: which is designed to help students learn about using the internet for research. There is a silly, patently fake biography of Sir Francis Drake . It's a great way to teach kids about internet research skills. But if you step back and consider the purpose and mission of the site you come back to the same issue of boundaries, frames, membranes, dykes. The site itself is enclosed. It was set up  by teachers specifically to teach research skills. And the person who brought me to the site was Alan November -- a well-known figure in the world of education, someone I am familiar with in a number of contexts, someone my friends and colleagues are also familiar with.

So in a world of too many books we are again dependent on a guide, a master, a trusted source, without whom we are lost in a flood of information that cannot be discerned as valid or invalid. Without a guide, all data becomes undefined, a value described in mathematics and in database design as "NULL."

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