By Troy Headrick
I had this strange experience—perhaps it would be more apropos to call it an epiphany?—this morning. Part of its strangeness was that I’d already had a similar realization several times before. Can something be called an epiphany if it keeps recurring?
I’m referring to the sudden realization of how strange everything is right now, during this pandemic. This epiphany or moment of clarity or whatever you want to call it happened when I was “at work.” Today, because it is too dangerous for people at the college I work for to gather together, being at work means being at home, sitting in front of my computer.
So, while I was staring at my computer screen, waiting for someone to reach out, it suddenly occurred to me, with the sort of clarity that comes during one of those ah-hah! moments, that my life had become incredibly absurd. I’m talking Kafkaesque absurd.
I make my living as an educator. I manage a writing center at one of the local colleges. Here’s where the absurdity comes in. Education is, by its very nature, a very “warm” and interactive sort of business to be in. A lot of what happens during what can be called “learning” is a result of the very human relationship that develops between teacher and student. Today, though, all my interacting with others is mediated through an unhuman device called the PC.
I’ve been wondering about how successful this kind of education—this “remote learning”—is going to be as we spend the next few weeks (or months?) away from the traditional, bricks-and-mortar classroom. To help me in my thinking I’ve been reading lots of experts who are opining on this selfsame subject.
Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to. We’re going to need to think carefully about what we mean by “learning” when it comes time to decide whether this sudden move to educating students through computer has been a success or not. If we think of learning as the mere “acquisition of information,” then such education is likely to be found lacking by many. But, if we think of learning as analogous to “growing” or having a “memorable experience that was somehow transformational,” then we’re likely to find that using technology is a good way to go.
If I were teaching a writing class right now rather than running a writing center, I’d surprise the students by flipping the script on them. I’d let them pursue topics of their own choosing—people always get excited when they are encouraged to learn about things they want to know more about—and then I’d have them teach me something, via written texts, about what they’d learned.
I’ve long thought that the line that separates teachers from learners is an artificial one. Back when I was a full-time instructor of writing, I found that I always learned a lot from my students because they are such great teachers. Turning the tables on them in this way is likely to help them grow personally and intellectually, and it will help them acquire new information about their chosen subjects. Students mostly know how to use computers; they just need to be empowered to use them in the way they want to. They need to be encouraged to see them as tools that can be utilized to help them move beyond their comfort zones.
Before finishing up, I’d like to come back to the idea of seeing learning as growing because I think such a view, once embraced, has application beyond the classroom setting. To be “educated” (in the truest sense of the word) is the act of moving from one state of being—a less astute state—to another. When one comes to know or understand more, one is transformed by that knowing or understanding. Formal systems of education often trivialize learning by trying to measure it through the giving and grading of exams. When we think of learning as more than performance—school tests are tests of performance—we get to the heart of what learning really is: the fundamental change that occurs within a human mind and heart when that person grows intellectually and emotionally. It is hard to measure such growth, and often, it cannot even be observed.
Thanks for reading! I look forward to reading your comments.
Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.