Shaking It Up, Part 3 — A Conversation with John Sener, Author of ‘The Seven Futures of American Education’

Judith McDanielBy Judith McDaniel
Editor, Web-based Course Design

[Note: This is the last in a three-part series by Judith McDaniel. Read part 1 and part 2. – Editor]

If we define learning as content delivery, much that we now “know” about education follows from that premise. Freire calls it the “banking” method of education where the instructor deposits knowledge in the head of the willing “learner.” When that is what it means to learn, what could be wrong with standardized tests that measure content knowledge? If the transfer of knowledge is what it means to learn, then WHAT is transmitted takes on importance and HOW it is transmitted can be fairly standardized. This basically describes education today.

But if the cyberization of knowledge has produced “an unknowable body of knowledge,” how can anyone maintain that learning is about content, about knowing what has been known in the past? Not that we don’t need to know history and government and science and math, but that we need to know them differently?

I asked Sener, “If learning is NOT about content delivery/transfer/absorption, how should we define it?”

He replied, “What I call the Old Smart is not going away, but the New Smart will augment it, transform it, and to some extent supersede it, all at the same time. Silos of knowledge will remain useful in some cases, but education that simply stays there is already out of date and increasingly useless.”

To my mind, something has to seriously disrupt the Old Smart before any change will happen. I see that happening in online education. We are rethinking the old models. Learners have so much information available that they don’t need mere content. They need content in context. In Seven Futures, Sener explains why the teacher’s role of contextualizer is so important:

Teachers at all levels often serve as contextualizers, helping learners make sense out of content by providing context — information, anecdotes, assignments, stories, and other ways to relate content to other knowledge domains, to the world of work, and to the rest of life. In fact, nearly every story about teachers who Changed Our Lives involves their role as contextualizers — how what they taught was valuable to students later in life. (106-07)

Last month I was having a phone conversation with a student in the M.A. Literature Program that I teach online. She is writing a thesis on the Beat Writers of the 1960s. As we talked about Kerouac and Ginsberg, I had my laptop in front of me and could bring up a page with Kerouac’s complete works on it. I could tell her which works to concentrate on, which to ignore. I haven’t studied this literature for more than twenty years, but I know the relationships among the writers, I know who influenced whom. Someone who had been listening to this conversation asked me why my student didn’t just do this research herself? She can, I said, and she will, but when she looks at those pages, she doesn’t see what I see. And thanks to Sener’s perceptive analysis, I was able to add: I have the context, and I can guide her as she creates her own knowledge. And inevitably she will learn things that I don’t know, could never have known, because — as one example — the variorum edition of On the Road hadn’t been published when I was a graduate student!

So part of the job of an instructor as we disrupt the old way of knowing is to realize that our students are learning by constructing new knowledge. And if we define learning as knowledge creation, then we can never be satisfied with the banking model of education. In Seven Futures, Sener says:

Learner-generated content is a particularly powerful strategy for sharing knowledge and making it more accessible when needed. For example, podcasts are commonly used to record lectures for later playback, but University of Connecticut psychology professor David Miller moved beyond “coursecasting” lectures a long time ago. Since 2005, Miller and his students have created a series of weekly discussions about the course content which answer student questions that are asked in person or submitted in advance by email. The length of each podcast is open-ended and student-driven, depending on student questions. Student feedback indicated that the process of making podcasts for other students enabled in-person attendees to “gain more learning skills by discussing” in a way which was not possible in large lectures. Students also reported that the podcasts were valuable throughout the semester by answering common questions, and the interactive, unrehearsed conversation format with repetition of lecture material was seen as an engaging combination which enhanced perceived learning for most students. (125)

If we define learning as knowledge creation, we must teach differently. We are facilitators and contextualizers, not (just) transferers of knowledge content.

In order to improve education, we need to do more than add new content or teach better or test better. We can’t measure creativity, curiosity, synthesis or the ability to make new connections, but we can demonstrate those qualities in our own learning.

We have to find a way to facilitate our students as knowledge creators.

[Read part 1 and part 2.]

5 Responses

  1. “We are facilitators and contextualizers, not (just) transferers of knowledge content.”

    Well, that’s what we always should have been. Surely, you must “learn” to read and write, to add and multiply. But, even those mundane memorization exercises, learning the alphabet, learning to spell, learning to construct sentences, learning multiplication tables, and so on can have an element of knowledge construction in them, can challenge students to think.

    For me, it’s all about just that — challenging students, not just with higher walls to climb, but with thinking challenges where this metaphorical wall doesn’t get higher but becomes more complex.

    I hope that online delivery of learning really will allow for “learning to mastery” to become reality not just for the few, and will allow all students to define the level of mastery for themselves. Then, the sentence quoted above will become reality, and our most valuable resource, the minds of our populace, will reach higher levels and will propel our citizenry to greater achievement than ever before.

    Can’t happen soon enough for me.

    • Harry, I like this comment: “I hope that online delivery of learning really will allow for ‘learning to mastery’ to become reality not just for the few, and will allow all students to define the level of mastery for themselves.”

      The old idea of CAI, or computer assisted instruction, takes on a whole new life in the web learning environments that are being touted as MOOCs. Open course services such as edX and Coursera aren’t really MOOCs, but some of them do include impressive drill and practice programs for mastery. A lot of the drudgery associated with learning certain basic skills and information can be relegated to self-paced interactive online programed learning. When done right, they could be fun, challenging, and very effective.

  2. It’s worth adding that allowing “all students to define the level of mastery for themselves” becomes more meaningful when learners understand better the consequences of the level of mastery they’ve chosen. At present, it’s generally very hard for students in most cases to do this, because so much learning is decontextualized from most everything else…

    • I suggest, initially, helping students discover what their passionate interests and concerns are, how they would want to fulfill them after college–providing both income, personal growth, and self-reflection–and then, assisting them in “mastering the skills” necessary for manifesting such individual-created projects.

  3. I guess discussions on blogs are an example of knowledge creation that wasn’t possible before, on second thoughts I’m not so sure, I think whats happening is that knowledge content has increased so much that processing it into new knowledge has become more important. Context is a form of content as well?

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