Vol. 15 : No. 2
The Writings of Guy Bensusan
Musical Pillars --- No One Is Out
By Guy Bensusan
In developing and discussing these twelve pillars as the basis for creating a learner - and learning centered approach to teaching, I have often had some teacher who will respond, "I love what you're doing with eleven of the pillars, and I think this transformation to Learning is long overdue. The only place where I disagree with you, however, is in the matter of number"
The first time it happened, I explained at length that each one of the dozen pillars not only was vital, but the entire formula could not function unless every one of the pillars were part of the system. The success of each element of the system depends upon others, while the success of the entire program depends on having made changes in ALL the other academic, curricular and methodological conditions, not just some, or many, or most, or even all-but-one. The transformation required every one of the pillars or columns --- all twelve.
It is similar to a game of musical columns rather than chairs --- only in musical columns, no one is thrown out or dropped! Everyone has a chance to develop and grow when all the elements are used. No one is excluded because he is slower, or doesn't have a computer, is too far from a library, must miss class because of work or cultural requirements of the community, and so on. The system can provide learning opportunities for all.
At the same time, you cannot change one thing in the existing system without changing another. For instance, if I decide to use class time for entering into higher levels of student interaction, then I must change the former way that I used class time for delivering information. And since I have to deliver content somehow, the students will have to get their nuts-and-bolts knowledge from the textbook, my lectures on tapes, some readings I have assigned, or whatever, in another way.
Since this step in learning the information out-of-class is a new idea, and students have had no training in selecting which course content items are more important, less important, more consequential or irrelevant facts, we must deal with that. I can't just throw these non-swimmers into the deep end of the pool -- after all, I have the wonderful rationale that I have NEVER done it that way. Instead, I have to acclimatize them, help them get ready for their next level of experience which I can do with some solid written questions which pose alternatives, their answers to which we will discuss in class -- and over the long run they will gradually learn to write for themselves through practice, while I gradually back away.
And when you get students talking about ideas, and how facts are used to build sequences that support particular interpretations, and when you explore relationships among ideas and levels, you are into new territory. The landmarks are not familiar to the students, and are hard to remember if you only do it once. So you have to keep going back again and again, revisiting the same place.
But if you always went back and did it the same way it would become boring and besides, students might think that the approach you were using was "the proper one" rather than only one way of doing it -- the path well-traveled may not go to where you want to get, so to speak.
When you keep going back by way of another less-well-traveled path, that may get you to the same place, while leading you past a different set of landmarks, opening up yet other ideas and possibilities -- which illustrates the multiplicity of paths, and take your pick. This is what I mean when I use the word "helper." I was a learner myself (and still am at 65 -- especially when it comes to all this new electronic high-tech stuff), and I know how to learn, which means that I know how to create the learner assisting devices which will help them to learn. But, if I keep doing it FOR them they will not learn to do it for themselves, which is the REAL and long-range goal. By doing that I can become a learner-helper or a learning-focused/ learner-centered teacher. Semantics, as one can clearly see, is part of the challenge.
People ask me what I do for a living and I say I teach courses at Northern Arizona University, and their next question is, "What do you teach?" If I say students, they grimace and growl back, "Yes, but what subject?" As if the act was one of transferring what I know into their heads. And that is when I will, with great patience state, "I help students learn how to learn humanities subjects at many levels of understanding so at the end of their courses with me they will be able to carry on by themselves for the rest of their lives."
Helping learners is not a difficult thing to do once one learns how and can leave behind a goodly part of the heavy rocks, antiquated baggage and outmoded tapes from prior lives that we carry around. There is much to think about at first, but it gets easier as you go along. After all, there were:
The Emotional Side of Learning
By Guy Bensusan
Genuine learning is not a neutral act and it has many consequences. As we learn, we change, and pass through doorways into one room after another in a huge mansion whole totality we cannot, and perhaps will not ever be able fully to see. We can imagine it, and I have done that enough times in my life, and then with the passage of time found out that what I imagined was both very incomplete and highly misleading. Believing what I had imagined, I would have actually perceived what I had believed for a while -- but then the reality would sink in as my paradigm shifted, just as in an Escher or a Magritte painting.
When you get to the new place and begin to feel some understanding of the shifts you have gone through, you wonder why it took so long to see the obvious. This feeling of coming to perceive the innate reluctance of the human to let go of security blankets, of the fact that the revolutionary you whom you believed was wide open to every experience, was in truth just as halting and timorous as others, and that you have no genuine reason to brag about being out front -- these elements can perhaps warrant your being patient with others who may be struggling to overcome their own deep, inner concerns.
And life is not and will not be exactly the same in this new place. What one learned before now is augmented, altered, perceived in a different manner, suffused with another type of light and simplified by simultaneously becoming more complex. That is, if one can leave old conditionings behind, one can seek to appraise new edifices with new measuring devices, and can shift out of mindsets that belonged to a former situation and accept newer ways of thinking, being, working, becoming and estimating worth and value.
It is difficult to do this without engaging in some sort of transition which carries with it a great deal of anxiety, loss of security in having familiar landmarks to navigate by and concern about the future based on how the past was perceived. In some ways it is like going to a foreign nation where the language is different and the foods are not recognizable and simple acts of kindness one used to perform in the old country now are irrelevant, out-of-place, or obscene -- which puts you in a terrible position because that was not your intention. As commonly stated in our era of change, "The future is certainly not what it used to be!"
Thus, as a teacher as well as student, the entry into this new world is fraught with uneasiness as we:
There is plenty to frighten us -- we have our own inertia and brakes; then there are the cautionary lights in others; then there are the hucksters who are trying to sell us the stars (formerly the moon). then there are our peers who caution us, then there is the system which gives us all the reasons in the world for not going ahead. There is also the school of hard knocks that punches us hard every time we get out of line. There are our bosses who pick away at us with slights and sneers, who appropriate out ideas as their own.
But deep inside may be the worst of all self-doubt, indecision, frustration, impatience, and demoralization.
Problems with Traditional Teaching and Learning
By Guy Bensusan
The number of alternatives are limited only by the creativity of the teacher who wants to find ways to get students extensively involved in the actual materials through their minds and mouths, not just their ears and note-taking! The point is basic: "he who doeth the work, learneth the lesson." That is why it is important (1) for the teacher not to lecture and (2) for the students to play with the information and its meanings. When the teacher prepares his lecture, writes it out and then delivers it, that teacher has engaged in three separate handlings of the material, thus reinforcing his or her learning of it solidly.
Meanwhile, the students, only hearing what is being said, are learning very little because they receiving the information only through one channel, and also have to receive it at the pace of the provider and not at their own best rate of acquisition. Moreover, they are not receiving for learning but rather receiving for recording in order that learning will take place later on. Here is another deterrent; the students are listening selectively to discern what is "important" -- meaning, what will be on the test. They are writing as fast as they can, transcribing the data for a future rapid learning session just prior to the test, after which the file will either be saved for a later exam or deleted, depending on how the teacher tests. This commentary, by the way, has been gathered in discussions with students, and is not purely the sarcastic view of this author.
These discussions have revealed another perception by students. Many of them say they feel their teachers are usually much more concerned with giving out information than with helping in the learning process. They give as evidence that they are doing their jobs. Students are not allowed to ask questions and pursue additional interpretations or levels of meaning, and most teachers will insist on one particular way of explaining the data to the normal exclusion of all others. They also cite many cases of actual harassment and reprisal against students, including themselves, who have pressed the teacher for a laying-out of all of the schools of thought on various content matters.
These conditions evoke frustration in students, who begin to perceive the act of taking notes and feeding back what the professors wants on the test as a ritual paying of dues that will result in the institution bestowing upon them their "union card" which will authorize their entry into the world of higher-paying jobs. Naturally, discussions with teachers reveal another side of the story, but regardless of who is right in this, what is clear is that some great learning opportunities are being lost and that many students think they are not getting what they are paying for. Increasingly, students are taking the matter more seriously -- and sometimes to court.
Initial faculty reaction to these suggestions has often resulted in two negative responses, which I have been told on many occasions: one says, "The students will not work on their own. These kids would rather party. Some of them come to class hung over and sleep. The only way I can be sure that they have at least heard the information is for me to take roll, and then give them my lecture." The other is, "I am much too busy with committees, university business, and the need to publish in order to get promoted, to prepare these lecture on videotape. And besides, what is to prevent people from stealing my ideas once they are on video and audiotape and then putting me out of a job? I see no incentive for me to change what I am doing now, and the university certainly is not leading the way here. This system worked for me and it can work for these kids." It should be stated that these are some voices, not all of them.
But the overt words lead us to the basic nature of creating changes in behavior as well as the perils of power. Yes, we can force students to function out of fear, and since they want to pass and graduate, many of them will do exactly what they must to get by. But I assume we seek to help learners find something of value and enjoyment rather than function on the coercive level.