Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Emerging Connections

We are entering the new age of education that is programed for discovery rather than instruction. As the means of input increase, so does the need for insight or pattern recognition. - Marshall McLuhan

The Cognitive Cholesterol of Fast Food Epiphanies

The results-oriented fast-food culture of instant gratification permeates most aspects of modern life, including education. Inspired lesson plans strive to package the "aha" moment within the confines of one, or at most, a few sessions. Kathryn Hutchon Kawasaki, a teacher librarian who co-authored City as Classroom with Eric McLuhan, was a student of McLuhan's at the University of Toronto. She recalls his unpopularity as an undergraduate lecturer, as he tended to deviate into topics that were a far cry from the modern poetry they were ostensibly meant to be studying. He would spend an entire class discussing Picasso, and the next day discuss Eliot's Prufrock. Students would leave his classes frustrated and confused. 

It was only years later, while she was carrying out graduate work on Anglo-Saxon kennings, that she had her "aha" moment and understood the connection between his seeming disparate lectures. Many of her classmates, all of whom pursued a variety of diverse fields and careers, reported having had similar experiences. Years after the enigmatic lectures, they were overcome by a powerful sense of how McLuhan's subjects connected. McLuhan was willing to forgo the gratification of immediate buy-in by his students. Instead, he exercised a rare patience in planting a more complex seed, confident that, in time, it would produce a more powerful and lasting result.

Teachers work within regimented schedules and cannot afford to indefinitely postpone the desired outcome. By virtue of time restraints, a focus on the immediate and the democratic need to service all students equally, teachers will all too often make the connection for the student. This is harmful for two reasons. First, and most obviously, the teacher thinks for the student and thus denies the student the opportunity to exercise critical thinking, reasoning and creativity. Secondly, the teacher imposes a specific, preordained connection. This is undesirable, because there may be alternate connections and/or patterns at play that will be overlooked due to the confines of schedules and outcome oriented lesson plans. As Martin Wilcox pointed out in his paper, recognizing those patterns we are conditioned to receive is a danger, primarily because a great deal of reality is overlooked as a consequence.

Free-form, open-ended and discovery oriented classes pose the danger of being rudderless and unpredictable spectacles, where chaos lurks behind every corner. Teachers want to work within structured boundaries, but it bears emphasizing that the best learning often occurs in emergent environments that allow for the growth of complexity. Unfortunately, for the time being, this type of educational philosophy cannot be systematized, and thus resists large-scale application. It will only occur with the right teacher under the right circumstances.

 Connections and Patterns

Even the most rudimentary understanding of the brain tells us that increased neurological connections produce more complex synapses and, therefore, enhanced brain functions. Social relations, networks, scientific discovery and symbolic logic can all be reduced to variations on the process of making connections. It is an essential process for survival and success. Pattern recognition goes hand-in-hand with the ability to make connections. Teachers should encourage the opportunity to build these cognitive bridges whenever possible. In practical terms, English teachers (for example) can have students
  • Discuss connections between a painting and a poem.
  • Explore how a particular paradox relates to their lives.
  • Connect two seemingly dissimilar objects and write how they relate to each other.
  • Rationalize abstract art
  • Write a story that is based on a scientific or mathematical principle.
  • Hyperlink multimedia and other material to portions of complex texts
McLuhan liked to package many of his ideas as metaphors. He compared the modern media landscape to the whirlpool in Poe's "A Decent into the Maelstrom". It is by discovering a pattern in the chaos of the water-vortex that the sailor survives. The pattern the sailor discovers is unexpected and seemingly counter-intuitive, but it ends up saving his life. That is why he admonishes: "It’s inevitable that the whirl-pool of electronic information movement will toss us all about like corks on a stormy sea, but if we keep our cool during the descent into the maelstrom, studying the process as it happens... we can get through."

1 comment:

  1. Reading a little about the Montessori system and talking to a principal of a Montessori school yesterday, it appears that the limitations of the traditional classroom with structured lesson plans is eliminated. Students are treated like adults and they are mainly involved in projects. They are free to work at their own pace and to explore any connections that are relevant to them. Teachers are guides. Critical thinking is a main ingredient. Technology is actively used and supported. It may be that a potential revolution in the mainstream system is already being modeled in alternative systems such as the Montessori.