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The more I think about it the more I am convinced that we’ve totally gone nuts. I used to be less hysterical. In one of my courses, we spend a lot of time not just lecturing but also discussing various ideas, and do our best to engage in something of a Socratic way of learning materials. Indeed, in the early part of this course there aren’t really specifics that I am trying to teach, but rather to get students to get excited about the topic, to be engaged with the topic, and to begin to appreciate what makes for good and sincere learning versus poppycock, to appreciate and understand what a good explanation is (even if wrong), and to develop an interest in asking questions about what we know.

In the midst of this, I’ve been asked more than once something to the effect of, “I’m actually a visual learner, so I am, having trouble following you.”

First the usual caveats: I am a pretty crappy teacher if I had to say so myself, so for the time being can we get that possibility out of the way. I am pretty sure this question comes up in the classes of better teachers too. And also, this part of what I am teaching makes no sense to provide visuals for, and if I did come up with them, I’d waste too much class time on them only to show some hokey diagrams that are not the essence of what I am trying to get through.

OK, so my view of the world is that no one really approaches us in real life with prepackaged, ready to handle questions. Life would surely be easier that way. The point of college in my view is to prepare us for an outside world where the unexpected occurs and where we have to think on our feet to get by and contribute. My life would be innumerably easier if I did not believe this and act on it. I think this is particularly the case when it comes to economics. How many times are we confronted with a question or problem in the world in a canned, visual way? And how often are you going to have success whipping out a napkin to draw a diagram to explain what you really mean to someone? I would politely suggest that the answer is not even “rarely” but closer to “never.” The “joy” of life and learning is to know how to use the varied and disparate tools at our disposal to deal with myriad unforeseeable problems. 

And now onto the comment about visual learning. Where have we gone wrong? Are we spending all of our time in K12 schools evaluating kids on the types of learners they are? It feels like it. And in this regard I have sympathy for public school teachers. Yes, I said that. Because I am SURE that if there are efforts to identify different types of learners, then teachers are going to be required to redo their lesson plans X times over in order to meet the X different learning styles of their students. I can only imagine how this then works itself out when there are students with serious disabilities in the class. So, now our Math teachers instead of teaching the fundamentals of math, have to craft the lesson on how to tell time in a way that makes it easy for visual learners, then for other types of learners (such as?). This is simply nuts. Once we do this, it’s only a matter of time before we start diagnosing kids learning tendencies as, “I’m a strong language learner,” or ,” not a good history learner,” and then what happens to what we are trying to teach in school? 

This is not a blog on education, but the prior paragraph needs many pages of expansion. But my point is, we coddle and nestle kids up in their “learning styles” and then they show up utterly unprepared for a college classroom, and certainly unprepared for life after college. So imagine that I figure out some way to teach epistemology with graphs and charts and movies, I am sure it exists, then we have the student NEVER learn to succeed in the things he is not good at, and NEVER learn to feel the pressure of an uncomfortable situation. What happens when this person is an attorney and the opponent in trial is kicking butt with logical arguments. Will he stand up and “object!” because he was not given a more visual view of the witness examination by the other attorney? Or what about when someone asks him why he named his dog Fluffy? Does he draw a picture? 

It sounds harsh, but this is really only scratching the surface of what I am perceiving to be problems. Remember, I am seeing the upper-crust of students and families, and am seeing things that would shock you. Indeed, I am recovering at this very moment from reading an e-mail that asks me, “are the course readings part of the course?” And this one on the heels of another question that asked me, “what are this week’s readings?” What’s wrong with that question? Well it was written to me as a Reply to Sender on a message that was sent out to all students telling them what the weekly readings were.

And if I started to tell you … wait, I have to stop now.

6 Responses to “We’re Doomed, Episode 3857992”

  1. Mike says:

    A good rant.

    I think these students have always existed, but now our greater wealth allows them to travel further through the system before they get whacked by real life. (Your observation on learning styles and teaching could be fleshed out into several books.)

    My daughter is a sophomore at Big State U. When I observe her environment, it has become clear to me that students are nothing more than feedstock for a machine that produces salary, benefits and prestige for tenured faculty and high level administrators. There are a great percentage of the students who don’t care about their role in this machine, they and their parents want only the credential. Actual learning is not something they are concerned about.

  2. blink says:

    You might enjoy Daniel Willingham’s book “Why don’t students like school?” He debunks much of the “learning styles” fad in Chapter 7. He argues that what we are calling “styles” are really “abilities” which can (and must) be developed independently. Catering to learning styles, then, is a red herring. So, relax!

  3. Harry says:

    I remember when my daughter, now independent and successful entered first grade. My wife and I got a lecture from the educationist establishment that the mission of education was to create self-esteem. Being aware of my mother’s disdain for Dewey and progressive education, and having been a kid myself, I wondered about this being important, but I have to admit that I questioned my approach, which up to that time had been laissez faire, with much guidance from my wife.

    My daughter’s first-grade teacher turned out not to be contaminated by progressive ideas. Her second-grade teacher continued with such outlandish ideas as math races, where a single student, often my daughter but not always, won — as opposed to everybody winning, and feeling good about themselves, even if they were too lazy to learn their times tables.

    Wintercow does not write an education blog — he writes an ideas blog that mostly focuses on what classical economists call political economy.

    Wintercow is too harsh when he calls himself a lousy teacher. Of course we all could have done better when we were young and callow, but teaching is not a profession where you can bat 1.000. He’ll, nowhere can one bat 1.000.

  4. RIT_Rich says:

    Well, if this is a freshman class, not all freshmen make it. Part of your job is to flush them out. I’m sure U of R is good at that. I Know RIT was good at that (I remember a bunch of kids at my dorm not making it to second year).

    • Harry says:

      My question about freshmen is about Wintercow’s nephew, who is a freshman at Lehigh, and has been billed to lead Lehigh football to the Fiesta Bowl.

      OK, I may have misinterpreted what I heard in the OTB parlor, but my bet is that his family will be watching for him to surpass WC’s punt return record which both at home and away was on an unlevel playing field. I will record the games, if asked.

      Maybe WC might respond with a replay of his previous post with the pic, or maybe a video. This will ensure that the international fans, not to mention readers in Florida, will go to other blogs devoted to more serious stuff.

      Is this guy named Rizzo, by the way?

    • Harry says:

      Rich, you are more part of the academic scene than I, so I will take your word that they flush them out, but is that true for all tracks? Does the sociology department in any college or university flush out any of their majors, as long as they use the required sparse toilet paper and nod yes to their Marxist professors?

      I am guessing that RIT weeds out its BS candidates with calculus and other meaty courses, but even with the huge demand for a degree, at the margin you have people paying the sticker price for an expensive education, and others who will raise hell if you flunk them, especially if they are the star athlete.

      There is also the pressure not to give a student a bad grade in an elite institution, knowing that other teachers in Ivy League universities, and even at Amherst, give easy grades to students they prefer.

      This is not to say that all of Amherst graduates have had an easy ride, or that all Amherst graduates cannot catch a kicked football, or do serious math. Just not at the same time.

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