Fast Eddie and the Self-Directed Learner

I tried something in class yesterday and may have ticked off my students.  We've been reflecting on the value of vertical critical thinkers to society.  These are people who ask Should do we do X?  and not just How do we do X?   They demand evidence and sound reasoning before they accept something as true and don't automatically defer to apparent authorities.  They also have the irritating habit of thinking for themselves. 

In addition, we've been exploring the idea that such people inevitably get into trouble.  We read the Apology and Crito in which Socrates runs afoul of his fellow Athenians.  We also studied a bit of Machiavelli, who argued leaders that follow this model of probity are likely to meet with what destroys them.  And we just finished watching Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, which wonderfully illustrates what happens to those who speak truth to power. In the end, society may need its critics and truth-tellers, but it doesn't often like them.

Now we are reading Martha Nussbaum's Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, so I asked the students to bring three question about the reading yesterday.  Then I put them into groups and had them take turns leading discussion on Nussbaum's ideas.  Some hadn't come prepared; others had read the wrong chapter.  So I gave the class a chance to write a few more questions.  Then I got them into their groups.

The set up was this: you guys are on your own.  I'm not taking part in the discussions.  I'm off to Siberia for the next  35 minutes.  At first, the students  were shy and quiet.  Somebody would grudgingly  throw out a question and everyone would stare at the book until somebody felt too uncomfortable, broke and began mumbling a few hesitating words of response.  Slowly--it took nearly 15 minutes--the groups got going.  They got off topic, circled back on topic and eventually everyone had something to contribute.  I just watched as bunch of sleepy and a bit grouchy twenty-somethings went from "this is dumb" to a somewhat interesting conversation about Nussbaum's argument.

When we were done I asked them to evaluate their discussions.  Did their conversation provide any deeper insight into Nussbaum's ideas?  Most said it had, but they could have done better.  What would have made it better? I asked.  They threw out a few suggestions. 

Then I put the term "self-directed learning" on the whiteboard and explained that today they had asked the questions, they had lead the discussion and they had evaluated their own performance.  What if, I asked, I began allowing them to select the texts we read?  After all, what they had done was the most normal, natural, organic pedagogy in human history: just people talking to each other.  What's unnatural is a group of human beings sitting in neat rows listening to a so-called expert who selects the questions, has all the answers and is the only one empowered to evaluate performance and progress.  How would they like to blow up the system and learn in a much less contrived, top-down fashion?

A few shook their heads.  Too radical.   Never work.  That's a ton of work.  

"But if the goal is to turn out independently-minded critical thinkers, how useful is an authority-centered model of education?   Can we create vertical critical thinkers by training and rewarding people to be passive recipients of the sacred, authoritative truths?"  

No answer. 

So I told them the story of Fast Eddie, a high school classmate of mine, who always bore an illegal smile and (so the rumor went) occasionally huffed gas to get high.  Our government teacher assigned us one day to copy backwards word-for word the preamble of the U.S. Constitution and to have it on his desk by the next class period.  We all dutifully did as he commanded -- all but Eddie (who seldom completed any assignment).  Once we had turned in our backward preambles, the teacher announced that everyone but Eddie had failed because he was the only one smart enough to know that this was a ridiculous assignment and not worth doing.  "You people are going to be graduating soon.  You have to start thinking for yourselves."

My class glared resentfully at me as I finished the story.  I had just played a trick on them and they didn't like it.  As we started to leave, one of the students asked if they were supposed to turn in the notes of their discussions for me to grade.  I just kind of shrugged and said, "They were your discussions, not mine."

"But then we did all this writing for nothing?"

Sigh.  Learning means nothing if there isn't a treat doled out for the effort.

The entire class period made the larger point, or maybe it didn't.  In either case, I don't think it made me too popular.  Every system probably needs its critics, but that doesn't mean it really wants them.  Come to think of it, I rather resented that smug little jerk of a high school government teacher too.  Never forgot him, though.


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