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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Galileo and thoughts on education...

I'm back from vacation! Here's a picture just to give you a taste of what I saw in Oregon and Washington...

"You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself." (Galileo)

As a teacher, I often think about learning: the things which aid it and which hinder it. Motivation is always a key ingredient in the recipe of learning. If you've read any of my other posts, you'll know I think Alfie Kohn had some great insight into motivation in his book "Punished by Rewards", in which he discusses the "Three Cs": Collaboration, Content, and Choice. He believes that when these three things are maximized and made relevant to people's lives, that they are more motivated.

I liked this quote above from Galileo because it summarizes so much of what I try to teach students and parents. I can explain something, I can demonstrate something, I can develop projects based around a concept, I can suggest readings about it, I can practice a skill with students in class, but if a student isn't actively engaged in the work, then it just washes over him or her without making any lasting impression. Each person must decide what's important for himself or herself, and pursue that with vigor and passion. Unfortunately, our education system isn't setup that way right now. So this is all a difficult sell to students who have had 8-10 years of what I call "sit, get, and spit" education. It's hard to break those habits. At school, we call this "shifting from a teaching centered culture to a learning centered culture". I think that sums it up pretty well.

This isn't a philosophy blog, and I don't want to get too deep into the realm of epistemology, but the second part of Galileo's quote reveals an interesting assumption: that the knowledge and skills we seek are already within us, waiting to be discovered or "found". This is a very "eastern" philosophy of knowledge. In the post-industrial west, we tend to think of knowledge as something that is outside of us that we somehow ingest and make part of us, like food. Even our colloquial verbiage around learning and thinking reflects this: "I need to sit back and digest that thought for a moment." or "I need to let that percolate in my mind." (percolation is a method for brewing coffee) "I need to let that soak in." Rarely if ever do you hear someone say, "Ah! Yes, you've helped me discover that idea in my mind!" Consider for a moment, the vastly different implications these perceptions of where knowledge comes from can have on how we approach the process of "learning."

The astute reader will have noticed that I haven't said whether I agree or disagree with Galileo's perspective on the origin of knowledge. Perhaps I'll save that for another day...

Happy reading!

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