The Antagonistic Classroom Is A Dinosaur

It’s been a while since I’ve posted but, in that time, I’ve been doing a lot of reading and a lot of thinking. I’m aware that as a CS Ed person whose background is in CS rather than Ed is that I have a lot of catching up to do in terms of underlying theory and philosophy. I’ve been going further back to look at the changes in education, from the assumption that a student is a blank slate (tabula rasa) to be written on (or an empty bank account to be filled) rather than as a person to be worked with. As part of my search I’ve been reading a lot and what has become apparent is how long people have been trying to change education in order to improve the degree and depth of learning and student engagement. It’s actually mildly depressing to track the last 250 years of people trying to do anything other than rote learning, serried ranks of silent students and cultural crystallisation. As part of this reading, and via Rousseau and Hegel, I’ve wandered across the early works of Karl Marx who, before the proletariat began its ongoing efforts to not act as he had modelled them, was thinking about the role of work and life. In essence, if what you are doing is not really a part of your life then you are working at something alien in order to earn enough to live – in order to work again another day. I’m not a Marxist, by any stretch of the imagination and for a variety of reasons, but this applies well for the way that many people see study as well. For many people, education is an end in itself, something to be endured in order to move on to the next stage, which is working in order to live until you stop working and then you die.

When you look at the methods that, from evidence and extensive research, now appear to be successful in developing student learning, we see something very different from what we have done before: we see cooperation, mutual respect, self-determination and a desire to learn that is facilitated by being part of the educational system. In this system, the school is not a cage for students and a trap for the spirit of education. However, this requires a distinct change in the traditional roles between student and teacher, and it’s one that some teachers still aren’t ready for and many students haven’t been prepared for. The future is creative and it’s now time to change our educational system to fully support that.

Ultimately, many of the ways that we educate place the teacher in a role of judgement and opposition to the student: students compete in order to secure the best marks, which may require them to withhold information from each other, and they must convince the teacher of their worth in order to achieve the best results. In order to maintain the mark separation, we have to provide artificial mechanisms to ensure that we can create an arbitrary separation, above the concept of competency, by having limited attempts on assignments and late penalties. This places the teacher in opposition to the student, an adversary who must be bested. Is this really what we want in what should be a mutually enriching relationship? When we get it right, the more we learn, the more we can teach and hence the more everyone learns.

If we search for the opposite of an antagonist, we find the following words: ally, helper, supporter and friend. These are great words but they evoke roles that we can’t actually fill unless we step out from behind the lectern and the desk and work with our students. An ally doesn’t force students to compete against each other for empty honours that only a few can achieve. A helper doesn’t tell students that the world works as if every single piece of assignment work is the most important thing ever assigned. A supporter develops deep structures that will hold up the person and their world for their whole life. A friend has compassion for the frailties of the humans around them – although they still have to be honest as part of that friendship.

My students and I win together when they achieve things. I don’t need to be smarter than them in order to prove anything and I don’t need them to beat me before they can demonstrate that they’re ready to go out into the world. If I held a pebble out in my hand and asked the student how they could get it, I would hope that they would first ask me if they could have it, rather than attempting some bizarre demonstration of hand-eye coordination. Why compete when we could all excel together?

We stand in exciting times, where knowledge can be shared widely and semi-instantly, but we won’t see the best of what we can do with this until we see an antagonistic classroom for the dinosaur that it is and move on.

2 Comments on “The Antagonistic Classroom Is A Dinosaur”

  1. bridges2tech says:

    Totally agree with your post. It takes a long time for educators to feel safe enough to cooperate with students to bring them to a point of expertise in whatever we are teaching them. For me, the aha moment in education came when I read about Lev Vygotsky “All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals.” I admit, I have a brain crush on a deceased Russian, but his words enpower me as an educator.

    This site is also a great place to get perspective on the many learning theories out there!


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