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The Trouble with Romanticizing F2F Classrooms and Lectures

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The trouble with romanticizing is that it can lead to seeing what we want something to be instead of the reality of the situation. Mark Edmundson’s “The Trouble with Online Education is an example of romanticizing face to face education and lecture at a time when we should be blending the former and limiting the latter.

His heart is in the right place:

With every class we teach, we need to learn who the people in front of us are. We need to know where they are intellectually, who they are as a people, and what we can do to help them grow. Teaching is a matter of dialogue (Edmundson).

But his description of face to face education is flawed.

Romanticize View of the Classroom

Edmundson would like us to believe that the classroom is led by masterful speakers, people of TED-Talk quality. These “spellbinding lectures” have students engaged and hanging on every word as the sage in the front delivers content. They spend their time reading the students and the room in order to adjust to the moment in order to maintain this connected experience between speaker and audience for the duration of the session.

But the reality of content-centered, lecture-based courses is far from this well-spun narrative. I’m haunted by images of PowerPoint slides full of content read to us, facts from the textbook given to us, and ideas from a notebook told to us.

And I’m not the only one. Since reading the article, I asked 15 people about their high school and college experience using a simple method:

  1. I read Edmundson’s description
  2. Read my experience with a brief clip from Ferris Bueller (you know the one)
  3. Asked them to scale their overall experience (1-5 with 1 being Edmundson and 5 being Bretag/Bueller)

The results? An average of 4.1 on the scale. NOT A SINGLE person provided a one or a two. 15 people doesn’t mean everyone but I’m willing to take a risk and say the results would be similar if scaled.

The reality is that Edmundson’s romantic ideal of the classroom is far from reality in the high school or college classroom.

Consume and Reproduce

And even if this romanticized view of the classroom was reality, do we believe that this approach to teaching is best for learning, engagement, and for transfer? Do we really want to hold content-centered, lecture-based classrooms up as the model learning environment?

The fundamental flaw with this model is its foundation rooted in learning as an object. Education is something to be done to the students. It is here that students consume content delivered by the teacher and reproduce it in the form of “tests and quizzes, papers and evaluations” (Edmundson). How well they reproduce what they consume is the primary factor in determining their success in the classroom.

It is achievement based upon memorization and regurgitation:

In fact, this consume and produce model of education is actually the quintessential one-size-fits-all endeavor that Edmundson wrongly associates with online education.

Community by Proximity

And is a classroom environment based upon consuming and reproducing ideal for fostering community? Edmundson is correct that learning is a “collective enterprise” and a community is vital for learning.

However, community by proximity is not the same as community by connections. The former is what happens in content-centered classrooms and long feels forced:

  • the experience of group work with the only benefit being less work
  • the experience of question and answer sessions with the focus on better grasping the teacher’s perspective
  • the experience of lecture with the bonding being the body language and reactions of the collective group
Meaningful community, the latter, is what happens when connected learning, inquiry-based experiences, and passion-based explorations are the foundation – a community of practice where learning is seen as a process of “learning, unlearning, and relearning” with a focus on content, skills, habits of mind, experiences, and disposition.
Yo-Yo Ma said it best in a recent article:
Great educators need to help students tap into that sense of involvement in the classroom. Paramount among those ideas is the notion of engaging students and building connections across fields of study. Great educators have to catch a student’s attention and then take their learner on a journey made up of connections that transcend a single subject. Collaboration in the classroom, as on stage, is a key to developing a successful learning environment. Part of being a transformative teacher involves creating a learning environment that is free of judgment and full of collaboration.
Edmundson misses this in what he describes. The value of students to the classroom experience in his world is how they react to the teaching in front of them. They are not active, collaborative members of the process. They are merely there to feed the direction (dare I say ego) of the teacher, “these gifted actors who could strut and fret 50 amazing minutes on the stage”, who delivers the learning in chunks of content to be consumed and reproduced for judgement (Edmundson).

Teaching is the Same as Learning

Teaching and learning are not synonymous. And this is one monumental flaw governing K-16 education. By focusing solely on teaching, we fail to address the issue that should drive instruction: a clear vision of learning. And without that vision of learning, it becomes easy to minimize anything different than the status quo approach to education that amplifies the teacher, the compliant student, and the fragmented, content-driven curriculum.

Again, we need to challenge ourselves to see the reality of today’s classroom not what we wish they would be. If not, our blinders will maintain the status quo or lead to complacency in a time when we need innovation.

  1. Susan Davis08-09-2012

    I think we are on the same wavelength. I enjoyed your take on Edmundson’s article. Here’s mine: The Trouble with Views on Online Education, http://gettingsmart.com/blog/2012/07/the-trouble-with-views-on-online-education/

  2. Henrik Svensson08-13-2012

    Regarding your ideas of Community by Proximity. Also read http://www.fastcoexist.com/1680321/replacing-the-classroom-as-factory-with-collaborative-learning where Aaron Harris discusses the idea of collaborative learning being helped by modern technology since it doesn’t always help with people being in close proximity to one and another. Think of New York. Just because you’re in the same city it doesn’t mean you’ll actually going to find those who you’d gain from meeting… Technology can connect those really like-minded just as well as, or better, than being in the same large lecture hall.

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