Zhengzhou, May 19: Diary, a discussion with students about their teachers has gotten me to thinking of my ex-governor of Georgia, Zell Miller, who said, “It’s easier to change the course of history than a history course.” It’s so contrary to Mark Twain’s description of an education as a dynamic process of unlearning. It is. An education is transformation. It is loss and acquisition. It is demolition and construction. It’s letting go of the familiar and venturing out into the unknown. It’s self-confrontation. It’s “creative destruction.” It’s an invitation to a new life. It’s the appearance of new possibility. It is a hint of a new self. It is growth. It is change. It is personal development. It is newness. It is nurturing new attitudes, information, performance, and achievement. It is all these for those on both sides of the podium, for teaching as well as for learning; for the teacher as well as for the student. Yet, it has become so “stuck-in-a-rut-like.”
Somehow so many of us academics in institutions of higher learning have a not-so-high view. So many of us have convinced ourselves that we are “complete,” that the know-how of teaching is proportional to longevity in the classroom, that there are no “new tricks to teach this old horse,” that we can remain exempt from the ever-changing mixture of creation and destruction that is called “life.” After all, wouldn’t it be interesting to see just how many of us change our classroom attitudes and way in response to those student evaluations of us, how many of us change our classroom in response to neuroscience’s latest findings about learning, how many of us actually change what we do in class after attending teaching conferences. Anyway, unfortunately, too many of us reach for safety and security and hold on to them for dear life. There are so few of us who believe that teaching is viable and vital only if it embraces the liveliness of change in accordance with all that we are unlearning and learning about the biological, emotional, social, and cultural processes that go into both learning and teaching. To the contrary, there’s an overwhelming stale odor of fearful “self-protection,” “sameness,” “entrenchment,” “in my sleep” and “oldness” about a process that should have a fresh vitality of some abandon, courage, “adventureness,” “creativity,” “imagination,” “inventiveness,” “discovery,” and “newness” about it. The consuming drive for professorial job security through tenure, the embracing of the myth of detached and unemotional “objectivity,” the confusion of deep and lasting learning with tests and grades, the acceptance of a classroom “amateurism” that rests on copying and perpetuating the old ways, the creation of a sterile and risk-free atmosphere, the demand for submissive and conforming institutional accreditation, the desire to reduce the teaching and learning process to a factory-like production line, the placement of classroom teaching low on the totem pole in spite of high sounding mission and evaluation statements, and the quest for renown through research and publication are not conducive to stimulating classroom creativity and imagination by either teacher or student. All they do is breed larger herds of sacred cows. Maybe that’s why Einstein is purported to have said that it’s a miracle when curiosity survives formal education.
I don’t know, diary. How do we expect students to change if we resist change? How do we expect them to experience personal development, if we can’t face similar emotional challenges? How do we expect them to pay the emotional price and take the risk to grow, when so many of us won’t? How do we expect students to have new experiences if we cling desperately to the old ways which may be tried, but research is increasingly proving they’re not true? Diary, am I naive? Maybe, but just think about this before anyone bring me up before an academic inquisition to accuse me of heresy and ask for me to be burned at the stake. What if physics professors in 2011 teach and do research using only Newtonian mechanics, ignoring the 20th century breakthroughs beginning from the discovery of quantum theory in 1905? What if biology professors in 2011 teach and do research ignoring the breakthroughs from the discovery of DNA? What if medical schools trained doctors relying only the idea of spontaneous generation, ignoring the germ theory of disease developed in the 19th century and the use of antibiotics developed in the 1940s? What if chemistry professors relied on alchemy rather than the discoveries beginning with Dalton’s atomic theory? Sound like ridiculous questions? I don’t think so. After all, that’s exactly what the overwhelming majority of professors do when it comes to the classroom teaching and learning. Let’s be honest, if we have the courage. Most academics operate in the classroom with distorted, inadequate, outdated, information about teaching and learning. Most are neither studying nor applying the emerging knowledge we’ve gained about learning in just the last twenty or more years. In a way, with all our moves for assessment, accountability, and answerability based on outworn criteria of what is considered valid data about learning, we’ve become more ignorant about the real students than ever before, more out of touch with the real individual student, and the gaps between what we do and what we should be doing grows ever wider. Enough for today.