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New Designs for Old Educational Traditions of Change

by José Antonio Bowen

My new book, Teaching Change: How to Develop Independent Thinkers using Relationships, Resilience, and Reflection, argues that education needs to change, in part to reflect new technological and economic realities as well as new cognitive science about how the brain in the body actually learns. I believe that teaching is a design problem so the book is also a practical guide for new ways to create better classes that will help students learn to think for themselves.

My new techniques are grounded in the copious new research and science on what situations and designs lead to the most learning for the most students. There is plenty here that is new, but the book is also full of references to the long tradition of education hoping to stimulate change in students. Old wine in new bottles?  Hopefully, there are new techniques based on new science to help us fulfill what is really a long-standing tradition of educating for change.

The book begins with these two quotes:

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
           -F Scott Fitzgerald 

"The measure of intelligence is the ability to change."
            -Albert Einstein

Neither is terribly controversial, but in practice neither is really taken seriously. Who here is willing to suspend our focus on credits and "seat-time" for a graduation test along the lines Fitzgerald suggests? And while most of us would support Einstein's claim, we have a terrible time letting go of any of our critical content. We continue to focus on content while professing to teach thinking. Perhaps our highest hopes for education were easier to say than to do?
Socrates, at least, had the courage of his convictions and taught in line with his assertion that I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think. Our subjects and content matter—it is how we learn to think. But when we say "I teach history" and not "I teach change," we perpetuate the idea that school is about learning "stuff." If we really want graduates who can think in unique and individual ways (something else we say a lot) then we need to design education with this as a primary purpose.

This, of course, is hard. Galileo acknowledged the difficulty of this. You cannot teach people anything. "You can only help them discover it within themselves." Again, anyone who has ever attended a pedagogy workshop knows that discovery is a much more potent form of learning than our default mode of telling. We have all experienced moments when evidence, data, statistics, and facts failed to change minds. And yet we persist in telling without a better research-informed option?

Teaching Change

Einstein sums up a lot of my book with this. "I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn." 

The best we can do as teachers is to design a learning environment where students are more likely to discover new truths for themselves. This process of self-discovery is also the engine of change: in discovering something new for ourselves, we also learn that we can change and even regulate the process of our future change.

These design issues are similar to those in fitness: watching someone else do exercise (even intellectual exercise) is not as useful as doing it yourself. Our design goal as teachers is to get students to do more of the work that only they can do. Indeed, I think of myself as a "cognitive coach" rather than a "professor" of content. Like most students find me, I find fitness instructors a bit odd: they clearly like the gym and exercise a bit too much. (They probably do exercise for fun: sort of like how faculty like (!) to visit the library.) I go to the gym because I have to. I need the encouragement and motivation to get me to do the exercise. I can still go to the gym and not work hard but a good coach sets up conditions (the techniques or "teaching hacks" that I list in the book) that increase the likelihood that I will feel engaged, motivated, and able to do the hard work that only I can do.
           
The results are not guaranteed. Not everyone who goes to the gym really sweats enough, but a better coach or teacher creates conditions that increase the odds for success. While it feels like we are doing something for students when we focus solely on content, we are just doing the intellectual exercise for our students, but no one can exercise or learn for us. Like teachers for generations, we want to increase student success in becoming self-directed. There is no one perfect design, but new science and new conditions can give us new techniques and the motivation to try and redesign once again.