20 April 2006

Pedagogical Patterns

Speaking about my daughter, and her fascinating Spiritual Youth project (and if you know someone between the ages of 12 and 25, please direct them to the site and encourage them to contribute), another assignment of hers got me thinking. As part of her English culminating project (they're big on culmination at her school), she's writing an essay on Lewis Carroll's classic, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

This happens to be one of my favourites of the classics of Western literature because of its richness of metaphor, allegory and meaning, not to mention Menippean satire (a perennial theme among McLuhan folk). But because it is so rich, there are few essay themes that haven't been done to death. And so my daughter was seeking inspiration to discover something new on which to write. Adopting my best role* interviewing stance, I asked, "tell me about the main characters." As she went through the familiar White Rabbit, Caterpillar, Cheshire Cat, Mad Hatter and March Hare, Queen of Hearts, and of course, Alice herself, she was describing (among other attributes) how each one related to passages of time and change or transformation. With a little more thought, she realized that each of the characters represented a unique expression of time and change, that the characters taken together were a Lewis Carroll treatise, of sorts, on various aspects of longevity, preservation, and the (apparent) inevitability of transformation.

"What were the circumstances in England just before the turn of the 20th century?" I asked. (Okay, here I had to help her - Queen Victoria, the height of the British Empire, colonial dominance throughout the known world.) And from that emerged an original essay theme.

What struck me was the way a random and open exploration led to the emergence of a pattern, that led to a new insight. Now this came juxtaposed with another conversation with a teacher (researching innumeracy among adults) about the sorry state of math education in schools - essentially, that very few math teachers realize that all of math is about enabling people to see meaningful patterns. Learn to perceive emerging patterns and algebra, trigonometry and calculus are a snap. Focus on formulae, solving problems and getting the right answer and math becomes a chore, or worse, a torment.

It occurs to me that the contemporary emphasis on testing and ranking precludes a teacher from enabling students to see patterns, and allowing insight to emerge. Despite much of the progress that has been made in some academic (specifically K-12) training, students learn that to get the marks, they must separate the testable wheat from the often more interesting chaff. Apparently open questions put by teachers are often leading questions, specifically designed to allow the student to discovery the "right" answer. In doing so, the process of pattern recognition is corrupted: the message of contemporary Western education is that patterns are only useful if they lead to what has been predetermined as being "right," with right defined by an authority figure.

While I do not advocate a return to the "anything goes as long as the student is being creative" school of schooling, reactionary curriculum reform cannot help but leave society a compliant mass, unable to perceive, critically question, or challenge authority. And most certainly, the last thing we want our learners to think about ongoing education is what Alice says about her experience with the Mad Hatter: "At any rate I'll never go there again!" said Alice as she picked her way through the wood. "It's the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!"
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