Fingers, Moons, Trucks, and Groceries

Let’s go with the Confucius attribution for this one:
‘When a wise man points at the moon, the imbecile examines the finger.’

We do too much finger-examinating in education. Time and time (and time) again, teaching effectiveness is not readily attributed to the talent and insight of the individual educator, but rather to a vehicle that carries information. The reasons for this are comprehensible enough and you also see it time and time (and time) again when it comes to talent-based activities that everyone wants to be able to do well.

If you see a photographer whose work you admire and you ask what sort of camera and lenses were used as the strategy to take better pictures.

If you eat a complex meal that was well prepared and you ask what sort of oven and pots and knives were used as the strategy to make delicious food.

If you see a painter whose work you admire and you ask what sort of canvas and paints were used as the strategy to make better pictures.

If you see a builder whose work you admire and you ask what sort of tools were used as the strategy to make better furniture.

You get the idea? These are all examples of staring at the finger.

A talented chef can cook MAINLY because of talent, not because of tools. I do not want to put too fine a point on it, because clearly having a sharp knife and a food processor could be better than not having them, but all things being equal, an imbecile with a sharp knife is still an imbecile, while a chef with a stone club and a campfire can probably turn out a masterpiece.

People ask about what kind of camera I use ALL the time when they are paying me a sideways compliment about the pictures I take. It really makes no sense – pictures are composed by the brain behind the camera.

We have reached a point in higher education where talent is nearly universally denied in favor of “deliverable research-based classroom methods” (our data shows that there is a correlation between taking great pictures and using a good camera… so, incredibly enough, the converse must be true). If you participate in various classroom practices, then you are a better instructor and the students are learning more.

PLEASE – take me on and debate this point!

Culturally, we have repeated this error in confounding information delivery with education so many times that the profession probably ought to be brought up on misconduct charges. Books… the mail service… radio… television… computers… the internet… and, soon enough, AI methods.

Read this:

“The speed with which [the new technology] is spreading through the world is one of the technological phenomena of our time… At the same time, educators everywhere are faced with the challenge of a rapidly growing school and college population and the need for a new approach to the content and methods of teaching. [This technology] may provide one of the answers to their problems.”

When was this written and what was it written about?

Ready?

OK.

I’ll tell you later.

In 1983, Richard Clark, one of the founding contributors to ideas about technology-based instruction, wrote:

“Media are mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition.”

Talking about the truck (a tool of delivery, the finger that points to the moon) is not only easier to do than talking about the groceries (actual educational outcomes), it also removes the knotty and uncomfortable problem of idiosyncratic talent and expertise from the equation.

And, to make matters worse, the educational technology evangelists are pushing the idea of teacher-neutral automation as a way to deal with the (admittedly real)  financial crisis in maintaining higher education. This will end up with a class-based distinction in the value and quality of an education, and we ought to simply acknowledge and admit it and make the best of it, or we ought not to do it. But really, we should not be so delusional.

The quote, by the way, is from a 1960 UNESCO report:

“The speed with which television is spreading through the world is one of the technological phenomena of our time… At the same time, educators everywhere are faced with the challenge of a rapidly growing school and college population and the need for a new approach to the content and methods of teaching. Television may provide one of the answers to their problems.”

Just look how well that worked out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *