I recently followed a link to this video:
I had never heard of Seth Godin before but a little research reveals that he is an author, entrepreneur and public speaker. It seems to me that he is an influential figure and worthy of attention. I will therefore respond to certain specific assertions that he makes in this video, explaining why I tend to disagree with them.
“School was about teaching obedience”
It’s not entirely clear whether this is meant to refer to the past or the present. It sounds like a statement about the past but he illustrates it with a bizarre tale of a present-day teacher who devises an activity of no obvious educational merit. Based upon her interactions with one of her students, Godin concludes that the objective is therefore obedience. Godin also has an hypothesis about the emergence of mass education in the early twentieth century; it was all to do with teaching children obedience so that they could work in grim factories. Even the seemingly innocuous call-and-response routine of, “good morning boys and girls,” followed by, “good morning Mr Godin,” or the seating of students in rows, have the purpose of reinforcing this sinister agenda.
I don’t think that schools are trying to teach obedience. If they are, then the ones that I’ve worked in aren’t doing a very good job. It may be that Godin is confusing correlation with causation here. Most teachers know that to manage a room full of thirty children, a certain amount of order, structure and routine is necessary; at least, that is, if you want those children to learn anything. This does not, however, mean that structure and order are what you want them to learn. And – to meet an anecdotal argument with another anecdotal argument – I have never met a teacher who thought that school was primarily about anything other than teaching the students content, skill or a combination of the two. Obedience doesn’t figure highly so, if this is the purpose, no-one has told the teachers.
I do concede that teachers will often express the wish to somehow develop the character of their students. The extent to which morals can be taught is contentious but many teachers would be trying to encourage moral behaviour. Yet, this is very different from blind obedience which can, of course, be amoral, immoral or even downright evil.
I don’t know as much as I would wish about the emergence of mass education but it seems unlikely that it was solely due to a deal cooked-up between factory owners, parties such as the “KKK” and the state. This argument has a touch of the conspiracy theory about it.
“What people do quite naturally is; if it’s work, they try to figure out how to do less, if it’s art, they try to figure out how to do more.”
This is what the philosopher Daniel Dennett might call a ‘deepity’: Read it on one level and it seems profound. Read it on another, and it’s trivially obvious. The key here is the distinction between art and work: What’s art for you might be work for me. As a teenager, I hated painting but I loved writing songs. Is writing an essay work or art? Is solving mathematical puzzles work or art? Neither work nor art can be cleanly defined and so we have a circular argument; if you enjoy it, it must be art and if it’s art, you’ll try to figure out how to do more of it.
Many homespun theories of motivation presuppose that we must somehow ‘engage’ students with an exciting example or context. However well this may or may not work, we are perhaps placing the cart before the horse. Becoming better at something is, in itself, motivating. What we once thought boring or esoteric takes on a more stimulating nature when we gain some facility in the area. This is part of the success of programmes such as Seigfried Engelmann’s Direct Instruction; subjects are taught sequentially with common difficulties anticipated and mitigated. Such an approach not only improves performance in the subject but also affective factors such as subject self-concept. Success breeds a positive disposition which in turn breeds further success.
“For the first time in history, we don’t need a human being to stand next to us to teach us how to do square roots.”
This is factually wrong. People have been able to read about how to do square roots from books for quite some time. The presence of a live, interacting teacher simply improves the efficiency of this process for most students because the teacher can tailor the instruction to the students in the room, answer and direct questions and help out as problems arise.
The concept of the flipped classroom is not so revolutionary. I remember being asked to read a section of a textbook before going to a class as a student. Although Godin seems to have a low opinion of textbooks, it is hard to see a vast qualitative difference between reading a passage and watching a lecture. Passages can be interesting and lectures can be boring.
The flipped classroom meme also exposes an extreme naivety about what teaching is. I rarely see a teacher stand-up and deliver a one-way lecture. Even in a period of explicit instruction, most teachers constantly question the students in front of them. A video of a guy on the other side of the world is fundamentally non-interactive and thus this is the chief weakness in the approach.
“There is zero value in memorising anything, ever again.”
This position is clearly absurd and I have dealt with it a number of times, most recently here. I highlight this point for a different reason. When I write about the value of knowledge, I usually receive a number of comments from people who really don’t seem to understand what all of the fuss is about. They accuse me of effectively manufacturing a false debate. “Nobody,” they claim, “is saying that knowledge is not important.”
Seth Godin is. And people are listening.
There are other points that I maybe should deal with. I am profoundly skeptical that computers will soon be able to grade prose essays in any way that cannot be easily gamed. I also find it ironic that, yet again, we have an example of an extremely well-educated man – in conventional terms – telling us that we need a complete education revolution. There are no such thing as good colleges, only famous ones, the successful Tufts University and Stanford Graduate School of Business educated entrepreneur informs us.
Education has a curious history of amateur outsiders chipping-in from the sidelines. Seth Godin is just one more example. Yet, I was alerted to this video by teachers quoting him on Twitter. I wonder whether education is so ripe for this sort of treatment because the insiders, those in educational policy and research, are incapable of mounting a coherent response.