Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Baby, The Bath and The Bathwater

Kia ora tātou – Hello EveryoneThe Baby, The Bath and The Bathwater
Tony Karrer’s Big Question for the month of December is, ‘What did you learn about learning in 2008?’

This has certainly been a year of learning for me. I was involved in several projects, not all of them employment related. But they were all to do with teaching and learning.

The long and the short of it all is, that I’ve learnt so much about learning this year; I can’t possibly cover it all in one post. So I’ve prioritised my list down to one item.

Bookshops as big as supermarkets:

Fifteen years ago, I listened to a soliloquy from a work colleague, at a meeting on learning resources. The proclamation was that books would be out of date in 5 to 10 years. I wondered about this idea. At the time, I couldn’t easily imagine the book being surpassed, and eventually replaced, by digital equivalents.

Well, it didn’t happen. Instead, bookstalls became bookshops, and now we have bookshops like supermarkets. During most of this year, my older daughter has worked part-time in Borders, New Zealand. It is a huge new bookstore - easily one of the biggest shops of its type in Wellington.

The demise of the textbook:

But I was reminded of the prediction of the disappearance of books when I came across Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach’s post in September this year, and listened to her video. She spoke of the demise of the textbook.

I reflected on the meaningful consequences of getting rid of books, and all resources like them, to do with content. This is what Sheryl is proposing as a panacea for enabling learning in the twenty-first century. She posits that what we have to do is ‘to unlearn’, for ‘learning doesn’t work that way anymore’. There is merit in some of what she says.

Meaningful, authentic, passion-based scholarship:

She speaks of ‘meaningful, authentic, passion-based scholarship’ while talking about preparing learners for an age that isn’t here yet. And again, I wonder.

I speculate, as she does, on what it is that we should be teaching our students, if we don’t really know what they will need in the future. But I also wonder about the long-term consequences of eschewing content.

Closely related to this theme are my experiences with some new projects that I have been involved with this year. These projects have not gone according to plan, for the plan involved dismissing previous experience and knowledge as past history.

The accumulated experience and knowledge - the content - that could have assisted some of these projects, if only by consideration of what didn’t work, was simply not permitted to happen. The projects were all to do with learning. In particular, some were to do with elearning.

Leaky buildings:

I won’t be specific here, though I’m willing to discuss this fully in a different forum. But it’s all too much like the so-called leaky building syndrome that struck the property industry in New Zealand earlier this century.

Through the introduction of new standards and materials, and by discarding established building practices – content – the building industry in New Zealand plunged itself into crisis. Houses were constructed that simply rotted from the inside, due to a number of unforeseen conditions that were fostered within the wall cavities of the buildings.

Examination of the old standards, and consideration of why they had been established in the first place, showed that many fundamental portions of knowledge had been overlooked when introducing the new standards and construction methods. Implementing the use of a combination of new building materials, and new, untested building standards, caused a minor disaster in that industry that’s still being cleared up today.

Leaky pipes:

A minor crisis also occurred in New Zealand, near the end of last century, when unleaded automobile fuel was formulated and commercially introduced to the public.

Insufficient testing, of a fundamental nature, led to several instances of fuel hose erosion resulting in the withdrawal and reformulating of some newly introduced automobile fuels. This came about through a similar lack of consideration of what had gone before.

Learning to read:

Some twenty years ago in New Zealand, phonetics as a method used in teaching reading, was removed from the curriculum, in favour of so-called word-recognition. My oldest daughter would have been severely affected through this curricular move, had I not given her necessary coaching, using phonetics.

Luckily, I had enough common sense to help her myself, when I eventually found she was having difficulty learning to read. Phonetics is now being re-introduced as one of the methods for teaching reading in schools.


It is as if it is part of a growing culture – some say it’s a manifestation of postmodernism – that infuses the thinking like mycelia, whenever innovation is called upon. Innovation is a wonderful thing if it works.

Simply discarding past experience and knowledge in the name of replacing those with some new and seemingly innovative idea, may not withstand the test of time.

What we teach learners today, and what they learn, must withstand the test of time. This applies, whether it is process or content.

This year, I wondered if throwing out the baby with the bath and the bathwater is a useful technique for achieving progress in learning.

Haere rā – Farewell


Paul C said...

Thoughtful reflection about learning, Ken.

Your point about the devaluation of textbooks resonates with me. As an English teacher there is a move to turn one's back on the anthology partly because of their expense. We currently have several that are very good with a balance of poetry, narrative, essays, scripts. Selections now seem to be more sparse with less breadth or teachers are favouring single genre books.

Also there are new excellent textbooks which may not be used extensively enough; some teachers favour instead providing students with summaries.

Learning, it seems to me, involves processing a wide foundation of information using critical reading and writing skills. It involves motivating students to focus and to enjoy the pursuit.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Paul.

I watch my 14 year old. She is a bookworm. Do I care?

When she was little, she used to smuggle a torch to bed with her. After lights out, she would resume her reading - under the blankets.

When I saw her at this, I left her to it for a while. She never fell asleep during this activity, but, my oath! she learnt to read.

Catchya later

Ken Stewart said...

Ken, a wonderful article on change for change's sake.

So often we see expediency take the place of reason and common sense, budget concerns take the place of proper due dilligence.

I write about and think on the subject of change quite a bit, and the things I learn about change never cease to amaze me. People are so very intersting in their habits and decisions, and when combining them into a community or business environment - the decisions made are sometimes quite amazing and at others quite baffling.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Haere mai Ken!

I have no doubt that the Newspaper is under real threat. The Internet is a challenging adversary. The Net is also challenging TV. But TV is likely to survive, at least that's my prediction.

This year I was lucky to hear Jeff Cole speak at a conference in NZ. He spoke of change - of how TV threatened the Radio, and how the Radio found its niche in broadcasting music - probably its saving grace.

The Internet shook the TV, and still is shaking it, though the Radio was more or less unaffected. The TV rallied and found its own niche.

But the Newspaper has taken a thrashing with the advent of all these technologies from Radio to the Net. It is experiencing its greatest threat today, and this is mainly due to Broadband which enables the use of the Net in a way never before possible.

So far, the book has not seen a decline in popularity and is apparently affected by the development of the Net only through advertising leading to greater book sales!

Catchya later