On Teaching from Your Past

It’s been a long time since I’ve written on this blog, so here I am.

This morning I was in the Cousera course run by Prof. Cathy Davidson from Duke University, History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education. I’m not taking the course to completion but rather lurking in the Coursera classroom and participating in a study group based on the course in Second Life. Today’s topic—the first video of Week 3—had to do with teaching as if we were still in 1992. I haven’t finished watching yet, but wanted to write a quick note about the thoughts that came to me as I was listening to the beginning of the video.

Cathy was making the point that education seems to be stuck in 1992. Why 1992? That was the year before the internet became public, back when some of us who were online were getting chastised by the fledgling (and now defunct) Prodigy.com for engaging in “overuse” (as in “you’re talking to too many people”), filling up our phone bill with $3.00 an hour charges to connect to Bulletin Board Services and download clip art we didn’t actually need (which also filled up our maybe 40 meg hard drives), not to mention waiting endlessly for even the smallest download to finish up.

As I was listening I was thinking that as teachers we are, in some sense, immigrants to the land of the newest generation. We bring a layered and mostly unconscious historical culture to our teaching. We walk into the classroom with a multitude of images and feelings about education in both the near and distant past. Within us we are a mosaic made up of shards of our own experience and the stories about education we have heard from our teachers, parents, grandparents and others. Interspersed among those images are even more from art, books, television, movies, and the internet depicting teachers and learners from a multitude of centuries, cultures and countries.

I carry images of Mrs. Desmond from her active 2nd grade small town classroom of 1958,  Mr. Bisaha from his big city Intro Psych classroom of 1971, and Professor Morris in 1995 from the post-graduate consultations he held in his book-lined office at the University of Edinburgh, among many, many others. Buried deep beneath my surface memories are the powdered-wig-wearing, well-heeled tutor from a novel of the 17th century, Socrates in his long flowing robes with his hand in the air and his followers arrayed at his feet from a great work of art, the young and beautiful but oh-so-proper School Marm of many movies about the 19th-century American west, and that stern lady in a cotton dress and sturdy shoes who taught the Our Gang kids back in the 1930s. No matter what era of education is our own, we all carry bits and pieces of the history of education in our heads.

The classroom is a meeting of generations, in effect, and as students we shouldn’t be surprised that our teachers bring their own generation with them. That’s not a bad thing: We live in a multi-cultural, multi-generational world. It’s good for us to get experience with folks who are different than us, whose values were forged in a different context. Immersing ourselves in difference is how we find and appreciate our commonalities.

On the other hand, I suspect what I’m going to be learning today from Cathy Davidson is that we are all living within this technology-enriched modern milieu with the folks we teach and we need to adapt. As older people—whether we are fresh out of undergrad or grad school, or tottering on the edge of retirement or anywhere in between—we are immigrants in the present. Just like moving to a new town or a new country, we need to learn the ropes, understand the talk, and immerse ourselves in our new lives. The challenge is—for both teachers and learners—our new lives start fresh almost every day, with new technologies, new challenges, new needs.

Today’s culture requires a sea change from us: The emphasis in many quarters is on meaningful, immediate, self-constructed, creative, effective, connected learning. Teaching and learning is morphing into a life-long, ever alternating set of practices. That’s a tad scary for those of us from the everyone-in-a-row past; but it’s also energizing. I can listen to Cathy Davidson while I’m eating breakfast. I can sit in a virtual valley around a virtual campfire on the Tufts University campus in Second Life and chat away with fellow travelers in her MOOC from all over the world. I can learn art, history, literature and science from gaming, not to mention hand-eye coordination, scripting, coding, and virtual-world building skills. I can watch and re-watch a higher education lecture on science from a faculty member at the Autonomous National University in Mexico on Coursera until the experience embeds itself fully both in my understanding of science practice and my quest for fluency in Spanish.

Education today is the ancient Athenaeum, the one room school house in the rural backwaters of all our countries, and colleges and universities big and small, all with the walls blown off. We’re still together as a group of learners and yet now we can look around us and see not only into the distance but also into the future. Scary as hell. And liberating, enlightening, breath-taking.

Here’s me headed back to class.

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About nancyzingrone

An experienced Moodler, passionate about online education, psychology, history, exceptional experiences, survey research, and Second Life
This entry was posted in Appreciating Technology in Education, The Future of Education, What makes a Good Teacher? and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to On Teaching from Your Past

  1. Wonderful journey into your psyche Nan! I can see those wheels turning as you were writing this. You are right, of course. I visualized each of the teachers clearly as you mentioned them and they are as much a part of me as my own experience … and in order to really teach someone, we must speak the same language — and always be ready to learn in the process ourselves.

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