Technological Change and the Pedagogical Problem
by Robbie McClintock
A talk given at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, April 14, 1999 (version 1); also given at the Polytechnic University, Brooklyn, NY, April 21, 1999 (version 2); and additionally (without transcripts) at Ohio State University, Columbus OH, April 15, 1999; Columbia University, New York, NY, May 6, 1999; and Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA, May 18, 1999.
Length: 2,200 andd 3,400 words
I really think of myself right now as really more of a warm up band to the focus groups that will follow as it is really your ideas that are what we want to elicit from this meeting today and to focus our attention on what we can do with our education institution in a period of sustained transition that is taking place around us. I am an intellectual historian and one of things that I want to accomplish this morning is to set a very broad context of what is happening in the world that we are working from. We are brought up in a process of communication change and we need to entertain the idea that that change may not simply introduce new tools and techniques into established frameworks and make those frameworks marginally more efficient and effective.
One of the questions that I think that is very important for us to entertain is how fundamentally the transformations that are taking place are going to effect the works that we do. By the pedagogical problem in the title that I want to address for a few minutes and then I would like to open things up for some sustained interaction with you, by the pedagogical problem, I mean that which not each of us individually addresses but the whole culture in a sense has to address in engaging effectively its educational tasks. If we think back to Middle Ages and earlier, prior to the wide spread availability of text and images, prior to the ability to stabilize those texts and those images that print brought with it, we might say that the basic pedagogical problem was to address the question, how much can a person recall having encountered the various cultural resources that were fundamentally and profoundly scarce so that the situation that people would find themselves in, if they were to get one shot at a text if at all, they would hear something once and they would have to, if they were going to use it throughout their career and life, they would have to carry that with them in their ability of recall.
Much of the cultural apparatus that is in pre-modern time is really a large scale mamonic. If you think of a gothic cathedral with all this sculpture and stained glass windows and images here and there, and a ritual, a lithegy that people pass through fairly regularly and they rehearse stories and the whole thing is designed to maintain the memory and to enable the memory to recall and hold in mind the important ideas of a culture.
The era of print I think has a significantly different pedagogical problem at the heart of it. It is no longer necessary to cultivate the memory and the recall to the same degree. Books are relatively inexpensive, they are relatively available to most. They are manageable in huge collections, libraries and the like. But lets think about the book a little bit as a material artifact. Its not a very convenient object in many ways. It weighs a fair amount. It has definite physical limits that people have to respect. Meditate on the relationship between our division of subject matter and the physical characteristics of a book. To what degree is a subject scaled to what will fit into a book so that one can lift, one can open, one can manage. Is our division of knowledge as we divide it up, an attribute of the world around us or is it a constraint of the way we have to manage ideas in physical form.
I raise these simply as questions but I think that they are part and parcel of the pedagogical problem of that period from about 1500 to about the year 2000 where the time means for working with ideas, for transmitting knowledge, for having resources available to people, is in print and there are very real physical constraints of that medium that are deeply entwined with the way we think, the way we teach, what we understand a curriculum to be, what we understand the proper and natural strategies for communicating the tools and ideas of our culture are. I would argue that in this period from 1500 to 2000, very roughly speaking, it is not what I can recall but what do I know out of all that print material because the act of taking the knowledge and applying it to the world is actually a fairly awkward act. The book, only so many can fit in our backpack of our children or in our briefcases. And a lot of our education is structured so that we select, out of the great collection of books, a certain amount of things that I know, things that you know, that you can bring to bare, quickly and physically in their movements, your actions in the world on the problems at hand.
The question that I think we face as we enter the 21st century is whether or not many of these communication developments are so fundamental that they are going to significantly transform these fundamental basic issues that the educational system must deal with. Are digital technologies significantly divergent from print material communication mechanisms that they will in effect change the basic pedagogical problem that our educational system at large is going to be structured, decade by decade, to deal with. I don't know and I am not going to propound any conclusive answer to that kind of a question but it is one that I think we have to entertain, continually as we act within our sphere of activity.
I would like to hypothesize for our exploration that indeed, there are features of our digital cultural resources that are profoundly different from our printed material cultural resources. That focus that have to do with what kinds of things, what aspects of our humanity we externalize into our cultural tools. Looking at what is externalized into books as a functioning apparatus in our culture, its by in large, the problem of storage and retrieval of information and ideas and the library as a system as it has been developed over the last 500 years, is a very powerful, very large, storage and retrieval mechanism. I think the Library of Congress is approximately equivalent to 20 terabytes of unique information, not a small information system.
Some of our scientific instrumentation goes beyond issues of storage and retrieval to greatly amplifying our powers of observation. Telescopes and microscopes and various kinds of instrumentation that is your business to know much more about than I do but they are very powerful ways of extending the human senses to make judgment about the way the world out there acts. But it seems to me that the digital technology as cultural tools greatly amplified our ability to externalize major aspects of our basic intelligence. I am not an enthusiast of artificial intelligence but I think AI should really stand for amplified intelligence. The calculations that we can make with our digital resources are vastly more complex than anything we can make with a slide rule and traditional tools. Our ability to sort, compare, our ability to simulate, our ability to create collective phenomena, statistical artifacts, to begin thinking about things like El Nino, or any one of many, many phenomena that we are now aware of as having powerful determinative forces in our environment that are apprehendable only by taking innumerable different measurements over extended periods of time and correlating those in extremely large scale data management systems. All of this is extending very significantly into our artifacts, major pieces of our basic human intelligence and amplifying the power of all of that. And making, in many ways, fairly trivial some of the skills and some of the concerns that, until very recently, have been fundamental to the educational tasks at various portions of our endeavors we deal with. I remember four years ago, discussing with one of the young Gateway faculty members at Columbia, in the Engineering School, saying, "Why don't you put some real design problems, open-ended design problems, and have a group work on them in your freshman class?" He answered, "Well, they don't have any tools of design. They don't know how to make the right, the necessary calculations. They will be at sea. It will be putting to them problems that they will only get frustrated over because this is something that you have to pass through a disciplined encounter, with calculus and through the various ... " And I, as a lay person, thought, yes, he must be right, he must be right. Now the same young professor is running a fascinating design introduction, putting to students in a powerful computer assisted lab, a task of creating whatever kind of toy you want to create. Figure out what you think would be fun for kids and use ALIAS and other computer assisted design tools to work on this. Think this is just one straw of many that indicate the ways in which a lot of the skills that had to be taught as pre-requisite to coming to grips with the basic activity of many different fields, are becoming so effectively computer assisted that they are no longer necessary pre-requisite, but in a sense can be work with from without leaping over them and if this kind of a trend continues for long, I think the fundamental question that we are going to be asking throughout the entire educational system, will be less and less 'what you know', but much more 'what can you do? what sort of activities can you engage in effectively? what sort of groups of people doing things can you stumble into and say "Oh, I know what they're doing". I have come to understand what an astronomer does. I have come to understand what a surgeon does. I have come to understand what a lawyer does. I have come to understand what an engineer does.' And that, I can participate in those activities. And that this becomes more fundamentally the pedagogical problem we face.
Now, we as transitional figures who all learned in an educational system fundamentally geared to ask the question "what do you know?". Our assessment is built on that, our motivation. We are goading the students to compete with each other. To know more than their peer. The way we organize information in textbooks and things, its to apprehended and that "I know this", "I know that". While we very often have very little attention to working with kids, to help them understand what people do, how we move from where we are to a possible future of this sort, is the task I think that we have to face. I felt that one point that Eli made is very, very important. The professional development is not only of us faculty members, but it is also a new form of professional development for students going through the work that we do and in many ways, I think one of the keys to bringing up as faculty members is the task of helping our students see that they can learn with us in new ways. To address such a change in the basic pedagogical problem.
I want to stop these thoughts here. I probably articulated it a little bit more assertively as a hypothesis than I should have. I think we are very possibly in such a situation rather than actually conclusively in such a situation. But thinking about ourselves in such a situation I think is a very important way of bringing ourselves up for exploring the new possibilities of what we might want to do with our educational institutions and it makes us, I hope, aware of how many sided the task is. That the point that Nancy raised about incentives. Unfortunately, it's the whole problem as I have been trying to frame it, is not one of doing a discrete thing differently but somehow the problem of changing the entire integrated\ complexity of our institutional activities of the inserting into incentives and our basis of promotions, altering curriculum, altering motivations of students, altering expectations of employers, altering the flow of funding for different kinds of activities, no single direction will do the job, rather it has to be through the whole complexity of it and that is the most frustrating thing in this and the reason why its going to take a long time for these kinds of changes to work into our institutions rather then, again, historically, the printing press as a technology spread through Europe from 1450 to 1500, its educational effects were not really fully manifested until 150 years from the 1500 to 1650 or so. And it is not because people then were more conservative or less responsive to new ideas, it is simply because of the human complexity of all of these institutional innerrelationships and the difficulty of inventing all the different new procedures, activities, forms of effort.
I am sort of a warm-up band for the real work that this session has which is to draw out your views about what will help you accomplish the goals of Gateway and the betterment of engineering education and the betterment of education at large and I simply want to raise some issues, some thoughts, some questions about why this isn't easy to do. And I am an educational historian and I was going to try to speak about things like engineering which I know very little about. I will set my remarks in a historical context and this rather blurry image up here which in a sense, is the topic, the theme of what I want to get across. It is taken from the archives of the Eiffel Engineering Company. It is an image that was done prior to the building of the Tower by quite a bit. As they began to think about what kind of things they wanted to submit to the competition to construct something for the World's Fair in 1889.
It is an image that simply shows the tall structures of Paris, piled on top of each other in 1880. Put next to the Tower that they were beginning to design. And it makes a point that I think is important to keep in mind and that is that in major fields such as architecture or education, transportation, what have you, from time to time, historically, sets of development comes together which fundamentally alter the constraints of that field. The Eiffel Company was recognizing that iron girdles, elevators driven by electric motors, made possible a structure that, up until that time, was really outside the imagination of the architect and the engineer. Up until that time, these other buildings which are the taller things, the structures, starting with the Cathedral at Notre Dame, which is probably a 7 or 8 story structure by our normal count and various columns and the Arc of Triumphe and other things like them. By in large, buildings couldn't go over 5 or 6 stories high because human beings wouldn't like to run up and down stairs multiple times per day, more than 5 or 6 stories at a time.
Developments come which change constraints and the basic starting point that I think that we, as educators, in the last part of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st century, need to think about is the question of whether the digital technologies of information and communication technologies are for education, somewhat like plate glass, forced ventilation, elevators, steel and reinforced concrete, were for architecture at the end of the 19th century, making possible an entirely different landscape of urban construction.
I think we need to hypothesize that we are in such a transition and what I want to talk about today are some of the factors that make that transition a very, very difficult one and that we, as educators, day in and day out, come up against as we try to do things significantly differently.
How many of you have thought about teaching your courses in a radically different way and concluded, 'Gee, that would be great. But you know I can't really do it'. I have certainly found that in most of my courses. I see a few heads nodding. How many of you have tried, structured or restructured, a syllabus, said to yourself 'I am going to organize how I work with my students differently this term, this quarter' and then gotten a little ways into the course and found that you had to cut or slide back into the old things you almost always done?
We need to meditate, we need to think about, why such changes are difficult and unlike, in some ways, building new structures that haven't been imagined before, we are trying to introduce radical changes in educational institutions that are very well formed. Our universities, our schools, our system of education is a technology and structure that has evolved and developed over the last 500 years in close interaction with the way printed intellectual resources function in the cultural life of the West and increasingly the world.
I am going to speak primarily from the perspective of schools but it moves right on into the college. The school as we know it was really invented in the !50 years following the introduction of the printing press in Western Europe. There were schools connected with cathedrals and other institutions prior to then, but they were very, very specialized in marginal institutions. Most education was conducted by apprenticeships in one form or another of people going to work as indentured laborers, or members of the household sent off to a noble community or what have you. The school was a relatively limited specialized institution. It was one which had very little intemal structure. It was a place where people would come to, somewhat desperately, to learn to read and write to begin with which, prior to print, was a very hard thing to do because you had to write your own grammar book, not really knowing how to write, in order to get a hold of one to work with.
The introduction of print really opened up a whole new pedagogical industry, that is a textbook and a whole new way of teaching and learning associated with the textbook and in many ways, the 500 years of educational history from roughly 1500 to the present is an educational history of institutionalizing and spreading a print based set of educational arrangements and they are difficult to innovate within because they are arrangements that have come to have many internal selfreinforcing factors within them and I want to speak about five of those factors.
- The way time and space has come to be organized for educational purposes.
- The way human energy has come to be motivated for educational purposes.
- The way human knowledge has come to be organized for those educational purposes.
- The way a horde of professional participants has been recruited, prepared and trained.
- And lastly, the internal, institutional and civic arrangements for mobilizing resources and managing human efforts within these educational institutions.
Let simply start with time and space. We are surrounded almost always by classrooms and this is a good case and point. Here is a classroom designed for new technology but it looks a great deal like a classroom designed in 1500 for print based recitation. It has structure in it. The idea that one or maybe two or three people are going to be the center of attention. The source of information. And that essentially, the 25 or 30 people in the audience are all going to be doing the same thing in response to that instruction. Now, if you look at our educational places. They are really places designed for fairly groups of 25 to 30, sometimes much larger numbers, to do the same thing at the same time. Whether it is a lecture hall, a classroom like this, or even something smaller. That makes sense with printed textbooks because the principle of a textbook is to break the subject up into lessons, to assign the lessons, to have each person read that Jesson together and to create recitation opportunities. That in one way or another, help us gauge who has gotten the lesson and who hasn't.
The technology that we are introducing. Let's think about those networks. Digital information and communication technology. What are their characteristics, features. They increasingly go everywhere. They increasingly have this incredible complexity of intertwined information, ideas, some of it of immense quality, others the dregs of our culture. But all of it there. All over the place. In such a way that increasingly we might say that the design principle of this Eiffel Tower of emerging pedagogical is that the resources of our culture are available to any person, at any place, at any time, in any major, for any purpose. And this is really very radically different then the situation that has pertained in the past 500 years of what people are dependent on books. I have often tried to imagine what it would look like if children had to study a truly integrated curriculum. Instead of little backpacks on their backs with 3 or 4 books scaled to the capacity of an 11 year old, they would be going off to school with a wheelbarrow and something like the Encyclopedia Britannica piled into that wheelbarrow in which, in a sense, any part of the integrated cultural resources of our time could be available. This question of the integrated curriculum and the problem of creating print resources that can genuinely sustain it, is, in a sense, shifting very quickly with the World Wide Web and the Internet and CD-ROM and DVD and the complexity of fluid information that is emerging in historical sense at an incredible pace around us, is being changed radically. I am involved in many advanced networking projects in schools for putting T1 lines and in some cases ATM lines into New York City schools and inner-city schools and hundred megabyte Internet into the classroom and small group work stations in those classrooms. Those kids do have the complexity of cultural resources that are our culture has available to it now at their fingertip and this is a deep and profound change in the constraints that educators in those schools are working under and these changes are just washing over the educational system as a whole at a historically very, very rapid rate. And this raises deep questions about the organization of knowledge for educational purposes. Why do we divide things up in all the different subjects that we divide things up into? We might, following our great philosophers, say it is something in the nature of knowledge or something in the nature of physical and cultural reality. We might also say its something in the nature of a manageable book. You can only put so much into a chemistry text or an American History text. So, if you are going to work at that level of detail, you will have to fmd multiple subjects to break things up into. Or you, as an embodied human being, cannot work with it. We have to be, I think, alert to emerging fundamental restructurings of our understanding of what people can and should know as they pursue various lines of activity.
In organizing time and space, pedagogically, and we just only touched very briefly on the implications of that, of organizing knowledge pedagogically, and we have very briefly touched the surface of questions that might be raised about that. Think about motivation. How we get people to do things as students? The idea of competition as a fundamental motivater of the student was really an innovation introduced by the Jesuits in the 16th century as they realized that students were more and more doing the same thing and if they are doing the same thing, then one way of getting people to do things with a little added vigor, is to pit one against other. Create a contest. That may or may not be fundamentally in accord with human needs, human characteristics. It is with something that works in that system and has tread or is the fundamental principle of student evaluation of the sorting activities of our educational institution. But in many ways, cooperation, collaboration, things that in a powerfully competitively driven system, use to be cheating, may in fact be very, very good principles of motivation. But things that we can't really institutionalize that easily. I know I keep trying to have collaborative work groups in my course and I come around to, 'Oh God, how am I going to grade this course?.' I know that in each group, there are people carrying the group and others who are along for the ride but I no longer really have a way of identifying that and I am not sure exactly, within the dynamics of a group, how to judge all of those things. These are fundamental questions that we, as educators, have to somehow come to grips with.
What we need to know, what it means to be a professional educator, has become, in many ways, been defined by the texts to which we teach. Has been defined in many ways by this fragmentation of this body of knowledge for various purposes. That defme my specialized expertise. But is that the case that we will continue to have the same kind of intellectual needs as professionals in this fast changing environment that we are working in. What I am seeing increasingly in K-12 schools where, all too often, we have a grievously poorly educated core of teachers. They are suddenly finding themselves working where their students not only know more about the technology than they do, but by virtue of the technology, when its well networked and they have access to a scope of knowledge, a scope of analytical skills that the teachers have never before encountered except perhaps in one another, faculty member, in their higher education. I think we are going to have to radically reconceptulize what we understand the professional training of a well prepared teacher to be, it is in one sense going to have to be much more humble 'I do not know better than my students', in another sense, it may have to be far more at the leading edge of many intellectual developments than it has been in the past.
Lastly, a fifth area that I think is all in cline in all of this is in a sense the area of public expectations which are at work, both in our institutions and that our institutions of education are embedded in themselves. Much of the drive nationally in K-12 for higher standards and testing movement, accountability, is in a very ironic tension with drives towards innovation and introduction of new technologies. New ways of organizing the classroom. We have, in many ways, mobilize as societies, the resources to conduct and build up formal education to the very extensive levels that it has been built up now. By arguing systematically that we need "x" increment of people who are masters of "y" increment of knowledge and we have really developed a kind of gigantic sorting and allocation mechanism in which we train mechanical engineers and civil engineers and we know that they know something different from each other. And then, this'es and that'es and people who only go through high school really have to get their working knowledge on the job in many ways but should have enough knowledge to participate intelligently in the affairs of an increasingly complex society.
We have been pushing this idea that a successful society must allocate the knowledge that it needs to the talents that it has and make sure that all of those are integrated into the complex population and work environment. In a certain sense, the natural, intellectual characteristics of these networks that we are building up means that everyone is going to have assess to everything all of the time and what is that going to do to this fundamentally gigantic sorting system. Is its rationale going to fully continue? Are we going to have the same balance between the need for specialized knowledge and skill versus the need for generalized capacity.
I would like to pose these thoughts, these five areas I think present a difficult environment to innovate and to produce change in because the same action that might alter motivation may not be feasible if you are given a space that was designed for the old ways and you may fmd yourself teaching an element of the curriculum that has been chopped off for reasons that are no longer entirely sensible in the intellectual environment that is emerging, and so on, and so forth.
Each of these things reinforces the other things and it is hard to fmd a single lever point to change the system. I want to close with one last thought that may be a little bit more hopeful to be found in a complex set of reinforcing factors. And that is a history of educational efforts is one of extreme continuity and resistance to change punctuated by periods of rather fundamental and radical change. The most recent one being with the introduction of printed technology into Western cultures some 500 years ago. When those basic periods of rapid change seem to take hold, I think that one can observe there is a basic pedagogical problem that a society has to face gets redefined. The way I look back on pre-modern, pre-print education, the basic pedagogical problem was to develop the memory. To expand the individual's capacity for storage and retrieval, things that they encountered of significance in their lives. Because the media constraints were such that other than architectural structures, it was very hard to go back to a culturally significant location. You read a manuscript once in your life. Went away from it and you had to recall it and many of the architectural structures were mamonic structures. Gothic cathedrals is a complex set of imagery of statutes and stained glass windows that tells stories and images all over the place and rituals and lethagies take you through those. Rehearsing their significance of each of the images. What could you recall? How well could you recall it? Gave way to an idea that people were working with books and other stored media of information. And in that I think we come to understand the contents of those books as knowledge and the educational or pedagogical problem was really to develop an answer to 'what do you know?' and if we look at the educational history of the last 500 years, it is in a very deep sense an effort to generate working answers to that question for each person participating in the educational institution.
Here are my answers to the question 'what do I know?' I think we need to ask in the emerging environment whether this question 'what do your know?' might be giving way to some other question and I simply like to leave us with the thought perhaps its going to be increasingly not 'what do your know?' but 'what can you do?". That a lot of the pedagogical reforms and I think Gateway and in many ways, engineers, are professionally acculturated to coping with complex selfreinforcing factors and may be a few of the engineering will be very much at the forefront of fundamental institutional responses to these challenged. Many of the reforms going on in engineering are based on a recognition that the quality of engineering graduates is being judged more and more by the companies that they go into and by the society at large. They are not concerned as much to test and ask what does an engineer know, but to ask what the engineer can do. How ready are you to enter into a working group designing this and producing that and this kind of a shift, and it is a subtle complex difficult shift, is one that I suspect may fairly rapidly, again in the historical sense, ripple through our educational institution and we will find a much more of a pedagogical built on introducing people into organized patterns of activity and action in which they can develop a sense and feel for what is done in this area and how it is done and if they can do that, then they have criteria built into their engagement and action for exploiting this incredibly flexible information and knowledge environment around us by being able to say 'I am doing this' and for this, this is the appropriate information that I need out of that system. I will stop there.