Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Back to Basics

It is interesting to see how TV depicts someone with substantial intelligence and education. Surely that must mimic our own stereotypes about such people. On my favorite show for the last couple of years, The West Wing, the resident genius was Jed Bartlett, a Nobel Prize winner in Economics and President of the United States rolled up into one. That is quite a combo. In terms of the scripts (are they instead called screenplays?), however, the econ knowledge hardly ever was on display. I recall one episode where Jed orders a battleship (or a set of ships, I can’t remember that detail) to the Taiwan Strait, in anticipation of some escalation with China, to be followed by a standoff and then ultimately a return to sensibility, and where during the course of the show he has Sam reason through the decision tree too, demonstrating it is not all hocus pocus but rather a well imagined but possible to conceptualize process. This was the economist qua game theorist in action and it was a good episode. However, this particular show was the exception, not the rule.

More often Jed’s knowledge was on display through his ability to quote rather obscure historical facts. Most frequently, he quoted passages from the Bible, where his encyclopedic knowledge was there not just to demonstrate his intellectual prowess but also to deliver the more subliminal message that it’s not just right wing conservatives who know their Bible and it’s not just right wing conservatives who rely on it for strength and inspiration. Be that as it may, the intellectual power of Jed Bartlett is captured not just by his ability to recall but also by his quoting the passage in a fitting context. That is intellectual power and it is not something that many of us do well if at all.

I know I’ve always been impressed by that ability. When I was a kid my sister, who is five years older than me, had friends over to the house who could quote long passages from Shakespeare and (my memory is vague on this) seemingly did so in regular conversation rather than as a request for a mini performance. Whether it is because my own inclinations run in other directions or for some other reason, this ability to repeat large amounts of prose or poetry without seeming forethought and to do so in a setting where it seems appropriate is something I admired greatly at the time and still do respect.

I have a better understanding now of the source of that ability. My younger son is able to quote passage and verse as well, but unfortunately not from Shakespeare. Instead, he takes his inspiration from Oblivion or The Simpsons or some like fare. Being able to quote from these sources is less impressive to me, though it obviously points to the need for intense immersion to generate that ability and then the recall of passages can be seen as a by-product of the immersion. Implicitly then, the Jed Bartlett character was immersed in the Bible during his formative years and my sister’s friends were likewise immersed in Shakespeare and then the quoting in context can be seen as signifying intellectual power not just from the apparent ability to do so but also from the prior immersion in the subjects, which could not have happened without intellectual fascination and deep enjoyment from the study.

Nowadays there seems to be fascination with how to promote immersion, as evidenced by this recent piece on Digital Game Based Learning from Educause Review, while at the same time there also seems to be an emerging consensus that instruction that focuses on content distribution is wrong headed, for example see this recent piece on Information Literacy from Campus Technology Magazine. I struggle with these ideas, all the more so because I have several good friends who are Librarians, some with a focus on Information Literacy, and among those some who want to bring games into the Library as an object of study. I am sympathetic with the issues that are driving their work, but I’m much less happy with the conclusions they are coming to. Indeed, I wish the expression “Information Literacy” was dropped from the lexicon and replaced with something else, something that I think is more fundamental.

The core questions for each of us are: how do I come to know what I know and how do I come to believe what I believe? Ken Bain of NYU, who was the speaker at our annual Active Learning Retreat, tells the story of students studying Freshmen Physics, but armed with an Aristotelian conception of space and motion, rather than a Newtonian one, who when confronted with experimental evidence produced by their instructors that would seemingly refute the Aristotelian view and force them to adopt a different mental model, instead rejected the evidence as exceptional and therefore not relevant. This story is indicative of the core issue.

A different but related story is told by Rand Spiro and Robert Alun Jones, who in talking about how students read the texts assigned by their instructor say that in the main they are “interpretive essentialists” treating the reading as truth to be learned as such in some disembodied way, rather than as information to be debated, analyzed, and modified in such a way that in can be incorporated into the student’s own world view. While I wouldn’t use their phraseology to describe the issue, I would instead say that students first and foremost memorize what they are required to read, I think they certainly are onto the way many students do indeed read, particularly in an academic setting.

We would prefer a world where when students hold something to be true they do so in a contingent way, where they welcome new evidence that they can employ to “test” their knowledge and their beliefs, at a minimum for consistency and perhaps further for predictability. We would further like students to be able to ask framing questions that drive their own personal inquiries as well as the ability to “play” with new ideas and new technologies so that in their explorations they can expand their “bag of tricks” and gain deep understanding. We would like our students to be well grounded in the fundamentals so they can understand how derivative ideas emerge and perhaps generate some of those derivative ideas for themselves.

Or would we?

* * * * *

My son, the same one who can quote chapter and verse from Oblivion, is taking Tae Kwon Do now. This is something he wanted to do and especially since he didn’t want to go to camp this summer, we encouraged it. He’s been doing it for several weeks now and just earned his “orange belt,” so he is one rung up from complete novice. The place where he goes had a “graduation ceremony” last Friday and I attended, just as if this was a regular school event. The kids had already been tested and this was more of a way to showcase what they had learned for the parents and other guests.

Of course there were the various blocks, kicks, and punches along with the screams that accompany these actions. And some of the more advanced kids also demonstrated fighting with sticks (I’m not looking forward to my kid doing that) which apparently costs an extra fee to get that type of training (I’m not looking forward to that either, but c’est la vie). None of this was particularly surprising. The part that made me take note was different. Repeatedly, they had the kids repeat a mantra to the effect that they will do what the parents say the first time they are asked. (This was in a class for kids 12 and under.)

The really amazing thing about this is that the Tae Kwon Do is having a noticeable effect at home. We’re having fewer negotiations on basic housework --- the dishes are ending up in the dishwasher after meals. There seem to be fewer of those family arguments about who should be doing what. And my son is taking pride in his increased sense of responsibility. He’s enjoying this. It isn’t punishment at all. He seems to need the structure and the discipline.

* * * * *

My economist training forces me to make arguments of the type – sometimes we want to have it both ways but in reality we’re forced to make tradeoffs. In this case, maybe we can have kids who understand that in some domains it is important to be well mannered, respect their elders, and obey the rules while in other domains it is important to follow their own curiosity and imagination, learn via playing with the ideas rather than to get good grades, and keep a healthy skepticism both about truth and about authority. I can even see making the further argument that when kids are very young and immature they need more of the former and as they get older they need to swing more in the other direction.

But it is certainly true that school embodies both of these notions in very strong ways and school does so all the way from pre-K through doctoral education. Surely in many cases the kids get confused about which domain they are operating in – the obedience-respect-authority regime or the play-and-follow-our-own-inclinations alternative. Further while we are instructors, learning technologists, or librarians at work many of us are parents, grandparents, or aunts and uncles at home and there really isn’t anyone holding us accountable about whether we are consistent in our own wishes across these realms.

I think this is where we need to start. If we favor one of these regimes and deny the other entirely, we’re missing something important and can’t be right as a consequence. We need to make sense of how they can co-exist. Information Literacy and Gaming and the rest can follow from there. Treating them as primitives unto themselves will surely get us into trouble, if it hasn’t done so already.

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