Sparks fly around the table–of the seminar room or the lunchroom

There’s something seriously wrong when the dominant methods of education do not foster the skills most valued by potential employers.

In a recent spate of op-ed pieces in The New York Times, pundits have explored this disconnect, which seems to be grower wider as we advance into the 21st century.

David Brooks, making a distinction between what he calls “technical knowledge” and “practical knowledge,” says that online education is good for transmitting and measuring students’ mastery of technical knowledge, but does little for helping students gain the practical knowledge they’ll need to be successful in the workplace.

“Practical knowledge is not about what you do, but how you do it,” Brooks says. “It is the wisdom a great chef possesses that cannot be found in recipe books. Practical knowledge is not the sort of knowledge that can be taught and memorized; it can only be imparted and absorbed. It is not reducible to rules; it only exists in practice.”

Brooks points to the college seminar as one of the important incubators of important workplace skills, and as someone who teaches exclusively in seminar style, I agree with him.  The college seminar is where students learn how to listen to each other, build on each other’s ideas, articulate their own ideas clearly and concisely, and take away crucial insights that they’ll use to construct their more fully elaborated written papers (which in the workplace might be called briefs or reports).

But Brooks and I part company when he suggests that seminars should be used as laboratories for the dissection of intellectual exchange.  He thinks that a smart use of online education technology would be “to take a free-form seminar and turn it into a deliberate seminar….Seminars could be recorded with video-cameras, and exchanges could be reviewed and analyzed to pick apart how a disagreement was handled and how a debate was conducted. Episodes in one seminar could be replayed for another. Students could be assessed, and their seminar skills could be tracked over time.”

Deep groan.  This sounds like a perfect recipe for a disastrous seminar in which students—and faculty–would be made to feel increasingly self-conscious, where the delight of the “free-form” exchange of ideas would degenerate into a stilted, scripted, uber-careful caricature of what a seminar should be.

Occasionally taping a seminar and analyzing it might be fruitful, especially in one of those inevitable groups where the dynamics are terrible and everyone, by mid-semester, wants to just crawl under the table and hide. But making the focus of the semester the “how” rather than the “what” seems like a terrible idea.

It’s also in sharp contrast to the most cutting-edge ideas of how to spur human innovation and creativity, which lord knows we desperately need as the 21st century advances.

In his own recent column on education, NY Times columnist Tom Friedman interviewed Harvard education specialist Tony Wagner, also looking for ways that educational practices could better connect to workplace imperatives. According to Wager, who just wrote a book called Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, “because knowledge is available on every Internet-connected device, what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know. The capacity to innovate — the ability to solve problems creatively or bring new possibilities to life — and skills like critical thinking, communication and collaboration are far more important than academic knowledge. As one executive told me, ‘We can teach new hires the content, and we will have to because it continues to change, but we can’t teach them how to think — to ask the right questions — and to take initiative.’ ”

Critical thinking, asking the right questions, and taking initiative are indeed what should be taught at every level of education, from kindergarten to college and beyond.  Interestingly, Wagner also points to another important goal of education, which is to motivate students to want to learn.

“Young people who are intrinsically motivated — curious, persistent, and willing to take risks — will learn new knowledge and skills continuously,” Wagner says. “They will be able to find new opportunities or create their own — a disposition that will be increasingly important as many traditional careers disappear.”

Unfortunately, in our current education environment, where passing standardized tests becomes a goal in itself, keeping kids engaged is a serious challenge.

I saw this myself when I taught at a large state university, where the students were much more interested in finding the best watering holes for their weekend parties than in any of their classes.

As Friedman reports: “We teach and test things most students have no interest in and will never need, and facts that they can Google and will forget as soon as the test is over,” said Wagner. “Because of this, the longer kids are in school, the less motivated they become. Gallup’s recent survey showed student engagement going from 80 percent in fifth grade to 40 percent in high school.”

Wagner’s solution is to re-imagine the classroom, and the educational system, so that teachers are focused on “teaching the skill and will to learn and to make a difference and bring the three most powerful ingredients of intrinsic motivation into the classroom: play, passion and purpose.”

That is a tall order, really, and it has to do not just with the classroom, but also with the dining room table—with what happens at home, in students’ family environment.  How to inspire passion and persistence in students who are being reared on smash-em up video games?  How to foster critical thinking and collaboration in students who come from plugged-in families who rarely spend much quality time together?

Somewhat paradoxically, it appears that it’s precisely in web-based interactive technology companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo and others that the qualities of human innovation and creativity are most dogged sought.

And how are they trying to foster these skills among their workers?

Google350x233By going back to good old-fashioned lunchroom tables, at which, it appears, the unstructured back and forth of ideas is what prompts the greatest leaps in creative thinking.  Just like that other good old-fashioned table, the one in the college seminar room!

In a New York Times article provocatively entitled “Engineering Serendipity,” Greg Lindsay points to a recent study in which “researchers at Arizona State University used sensors and surveys to study creativity within teams.” The study found that “employees who ate at cafeteria tables designed for 12 were more productive than those at tables for four, thanks to more chance conversations and larger social networks. That, along with things like companywide lunch hours and the cafes Google is so fond of, can boost individual productivity by as much as 25 percent.”

If our best, most innovative companies most value creative, collaborative thinking, which is best fostered in face to face interactions, why in the world is K-12 education focused on teaching technical knowledge measured by standardized tests, while higher education is flocking to online learning, which isolate students in front of their computer screens?

Give me the old-fashioned seminar table any day, with a smart, dedicated teacher and a roomful of students who are absolutely forbidden to use their computers or phones or tablets for the duration of the class session! Give us some provocative material to discuss, and just watch the creative sparks fly!

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  1. 1-2-3-4-5: How to write an essay – Audrey Kalman

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