The Facebook Philosophy of Education, Part 1
Currently, I am reading a (so far) fantastic book on how to do Socratic (highly discussion-based) pedagogy, called Teaching With Your Mouth Shut. So, a few of my coming entries will be about that book. In this entry, I want to reflect on how some of the book’s message reflects what I call my ‘facebook philosophy of education.’ I developed this philosophy when working at University of Delaware’s Center for Teaching and Assessment of Learning as a graduate assistant.
Let me explain. The dilemma the Center was having was that while they often advocated that professors do less lecture and more activity/discussion (“teaching with your mouth shut,” so to speak), professors would find that students often gave them lower evaluations when they did this, with comments about how the professor didn’t seem to do much teaching. (That led students to believe that the teacher who didn’t lecture was probably less competent than the teacher who did.)
My own observation has confirmed this a bit, and it is likely due to teachers and students falling for what I sometimes call the “labor theory of teaching and learning.” Like Karl Marx’s labor theory of value – where a thing’s value amounts to the labor used to create the thing – teachers and students often believe (wrongly, I think) that how much teaching or learning is going on can be surmised by looking at how much labor is visibly going on. This can be seen, for instance, when teachers believe that the more homework students do, the more they must be learning (and avoid assigning too few readings or homework for fear that the class will be too easy). It can also be seen when students equate teaching with lecture; if I don’t see the teacher up in front of the class lecturing, that means she just isn’t teaching. (Of course, we often get these ideas by absorbing what happened in our own schooling, where lecture often was what counted as teaching, and parents and teachers believed that a class’s workload was a proxy for how much learning went on in the course.)
So, that was the Center’s dilemma; evidence shows (and it does) that activity/discussion based classes lead to deeper learning than lecture, but students give professors lower evals when they lecture. This is where i developed my “facebook philosophy of teaching.” I’ll explain it through an imagined dialogue with a student:
Student: Dr. Currie-Knight doesn’t seem to be teaching us a lot. Most of the class, he just asks us what we thinks and sits there and watches us talk to each other.
Teacher: Hmm…. well, do you think the folks who work at facebook (or twitter, snapchat, dating websites, or other social media) are doing work for their money?
Student: What do you mean? Of course.
Teacher: But they don’t really generate any content. If they do work, I don’t see where that work is. What do you think they do that qualifies as work?
Student: Well, they create the website and all the functions that allow people on the website to have good interaction.
Teacher: But is that work? Isn’t the real work generating the content, and isn’t that the stuff that is done by site members, rather than by people who work for facebook? I mean, what an odd thing to say that the folks at facebook do work, when it seems that facebook users are the ones who do all the work by generating content.
Student: I don’t think so. I mean, yes, we generate the content, but in order for us to generate content, the people at facebook have to do the work of creating the entire space upon which we create content. They figure out how the layout of the site will be, how to let users know when there is a new comment on a thread, how to make the site as user-friendly as possible so that we can have flowing conversations, etc. So, yeah, we do work by generating content, but they do work by creating an environment where we can interact most effectively.
Teacher: Well, is it possible that that is what your teacher does as well? A good teacher will do things like create a flowing syllabus with assignments designed to maximize how much you learn in the course, will create good discussion questions (and/or a structure for you students to bring in your own discussion questions) and guide the discussion so that discussion progresses and flows well. Isn’t that sort of like what facebook’s employees do? And didn’t you say that that was work?
So, that is roughly what I call the facebook philosophy of education. Instead of seeing our job as creating all of the content each day students are in our class so that they can learn from it, we would do better to think of our job as that of an environment-designer. Our job is less to teach with our mouths open (which means generating content), but creating environments where we can minimize the amount of content we generate and maximize the amount of content students generate (or that we help them generate). This goes with the idea that students are not just supposed to consume knowledge and understanding, but produce knowledge and understanding.
This means (as is suggested in Teaching With Your Mouth Shut) that our job is more about figuring out what kinds of materials students should be exposed to and designing experiences that will expose them to that material, appropriately scaffolding that material so that they can get the most out of it, and designing (and facilitating) activities and discussions that will help students construct their own understandings and knowledge about the material. Direct instruction, of course, can be part of that, but for the most part, it is best to create spaces and opportunities for students to actively engage with the material.