Monday, November 21, 2005

A Little Late, But....

Just when I thought it was safe to focus solely on my final project, I found there's another blogging assignment due. I'm a day late (nine hours to be exact), but I hope it's better than never.

So, without further ado I'll be responding to a fellow blogger's post on online course development and design. The quote I'm responding to is taken from AP's blog and goes like this:

Strength in numbers? Blaise Pascal said that " We must learn our limits. We are all something, but none of us are everything". If I know something, and you know something else... will we know more when we work together?

It's the final question -- If I know something, and you know something else... will we know more when we work together? -- that I'm most interested in, both from an instructional design perspective and an educational philosophy perspective.

I deal with the world of adult ed -- not "adult ed" in the sense of basketweaving and underwater ballet, the classes people take when they finally have time (often after retirement) to learn all the fun stuff they missed while studying to get a degree or a certification, or while raising a family and working to earn a living -- but "education for adults" as distinguished from "K-12 ed ." K-12 education seems to focus to a greater or lesser extent on transmission of facts: What was the date of the Battle of Waterloo? Who was the first President of the United States? While in some areas there does seem to be a noble move towards educating children in thought processes -- critical thinking skills, argumentation, problem solving and so forth -- for the most part kids are still expected to show up at school on test day with their number 2 pencils well sharpened and fill in all the bubbles alone, without asking the kid in the next aisle what the square root of 25 is or who invented the internal combustion engine.

I think this emphasis on retaining knowledge in one's own head comes from our ancient roots in pre-written culture. Long before humanity developed written languages, we maintained oral traditions. Even well into the days when writing was a well-established "technology," people who memorized shockingly long tracts -- think the entire Bible, for starters -- were not all that uncommon. Yet in the relatively recent past, there has been a general shift away from straightforward memorization. I'm reminded of a scene in the film Quiz Show where the middle-class Federal agent from Brooklyn goes to dinner with the clearly highly-cultured, very well-educated family of one of the quiz show contestants. During dinner, the family plays what is obviously a very long-standing game: they take turns reciting lengthy passages from Shakespeare, correcting one another when a word is gotten wrong. The Brooklynite is suitably impressed; more than impressed, he's just about floored at the effortless way his hosts toss around quotes like colorful M&Ms.

Yet, what's so impressive about memorization? I still have rattling around in my brain the detrius of a childhood spent memorizing much poetry, partly for school recitations, partly because I liked to read and memorization came easily to me then. I can still toss off most of The Walrus and the Carpenter, The Wreck of the Hesperus, We Are Seven...the list goes on. So, what does that prove? The channels carved in the brain during childhood run deep? Maybe...after all, I can still dutifully recite the address and telephone number of the apartment I lived in until I was ten years old without batting an eyelash, while I still occasionally have to pause and think about what my current area code is. My point is, what does all that memorization get me? A few admiring glances at a party, I suppose, if I ever decide to pull out all the stops and wow the crowd with an impromptu recitation. But am I really using my brainpower wisely by memorizing?

Albert Einstein, it's said, didn't know his own telephone number. When asked why he never bothered to memorize it, he supposedly replied that there was no reason to when he could just look it up. The implication, I suppose, is that he used his brain to solve difficult, as-yet-unsolved problems and not as a repository for information that could be found easily elsewhere.

Besides, once we leave school, how often are we really asked to solve problems in isolation, without referring either to other people or outside resources? We talk our personal problems out with friends and family; we attack work issues with colleagues; we confer with teachers, advisors and counsellors when our kids get off track. We all seem to assume that we do know more together than separately, at least if our actions are anything to judge by; in the real world, isn't every test open-book?

And yet, there's the small, non-pc part of me that bristles every time I have to help the cashier at the supermarket make change when the all-knowing cash register flakes out and calmly asserts that I should receive nine-million nine-hundred and ninety-nine thousand dollars' change on a two-dollar purchase. Shouldn't a person who handles money eight hours a day five days a week know that if I hand over a penny along with my ten dollar bill on a tab ending with 56 cents that somewhere in there I should be getting back a quarter and two dimes (or some equivalent coinage) with my change?

I know that there's an up-and-coming learning theory (the name of which escapes me now...so much for memory!) that claims that knowledge is out there to be found, so it's the techniques of finding that should be taught, not the knowledge itself. There's a part of me that agrees wholeheartedly; after all, if my finding techniques were a bit more up to snuff, I would have been able to find the name of the learning theory I'm thinking of instead of hoping that someone reading this blog will pipe in with a comment supplying the missing information. Still, if I wanted to stretch myself, I'm sure I could find the information: phone a friend, email a professor, do a more thorough internet search.

But, the Luddite in me points out, what happens if all this technology goes to hell in a handbasket one day? Like the cashier who can't make change without an electronic assistant, would I be stuck with nothing to fall back on if I couldn't rely on my supports, whoever or whatever they may be, to help fill in the gaps where my memory has slacked off? Should we all carry around our backup systems in our brains, hardwired into our memory in case all the calculators, all the computers, all the internet connections and telephone lines and library books one day disappear? If we really do know more together than we do separately, what happens when we can't work together any more?

1 comment:

Brownie said...

Hear Hear and Amen. Now friends are waving their 'memory sticks' at me and saying 'I have EVERYTHING in here'.
It's a new kind of Alzheimers when they lose the darn things I bet.

Your happy accident scarf is lovely.
Do you live near Krumville? I knew some NYC folks years ago who got out a map and chose it for the name and moved there because they were sick up rushing down from their West End apartment to move their car at 6am every day. Such a great name. As Neil Simon wroe: anyword with K in it is funny. Krakatoa!