Higher Education Teaching

magical reasoning and the cultural desires of education

I was wandering through some recent Inside Higher Ed articles. Here is one on the debate over the merits of the “flipped” classroom and another on the importance of developing students’ “cultural capital.” These seemingly disparate topics are connected for me in the way they both demonstrate some kind of magical reasoning for how learning will happen.  In the one article, students are uncultured because they lack some appreciation for fine arts, the humanities, and such. So the argument is that we should be requiring students to go to museums, the opera, etc. Unfortunately it seems that requiring students to go to such places does not have the magical effect of making them “cultured.” In the other article, the complaint was that flipped classes were more work for students and faculty and maybe don’t offer improved outcomes in comparison to traditional classrooms. Unfortunately it seems that just flipping your class does not magically make it better.

What is it that we imagine pedagogy to be? A magic wand?

To put these issues more generally, the problem with the “flipped” classroom conversation is that it begins with the premise that the goals of the curriculum will remain the same. And the problem with the “cultural capital” conversation is that it is staged on the premise of student deficit and weakness-fixing and really fails to recognize that viewing education as weakness-fixing is a choice one makes (and a choice with some significant consequences). Both also represent a kind of magical reasoning in my view that believes that by meeting current goals and filling in student gaps that students are transformed from some barbaric ignorant state into some more fully human creature. Perhaps that seems hyperbolic but think about it this way. One begins by imagining the average college student is uncultured, a state that has been reached through 18 years, including 12 years of public education. While no one imagines that attending a few symphonies or taking a sequence of general education courses will fully transform the student, there is some faith in the notion that the semester a student spends taking some course will have some tangible impact. It’s not unlike the belief that a semester spent in a composition class will transform students into good writers (another deficit).

There are plenty of articles about the demise of the humanities and problems with undergraduate education in general, that our students are “academically adrift.” Maybe that is all journalistic hype. Maybe we think there’s nothing wrong with the means and ends of curriculum. However, if one is of the mind that reform is needed, then it has to begin with examining the ends/goals and trying to understand how those goals are connected to a methods, which are in turn reflective of (outmoded) activity systems. That is, if I say that my pedagogy is made up of reading texts, writing papers, test-taking, lecturing, and class discussion, then I might recognize these as a constellation of activities borne by a certain material context. But then, I also need to think about how the goals of my course have been derived from those activities. That is, if I say my goal is for students to write in a particular essay genre, how has that goal been conditioned by the context in which it developed? Given that I am now in a different context how should the goal change? Not wanting to change the goal is a kind of magical reasoning about the power of essays (in my example) and by extension the magical power of lecturing (ha!) that drives the particular kind of essay writing.

If we think about general education, what happens if we don’t plug all those wholes in the students’ knowledge? Conversely what magical thing happens in that class you’ve taken to meet that distribution requirement in art or humanities or science or whatever? If the goals remain the same (“Fill the holes!”) then methodological innovation is severely truncated. That’s not to say that we should innovate for the sake of innovation either, but I don’t accept the inverse argument either, which is that things should stay as they are unless we have a good reason to change them. Or maybe my point is that we do have a good reason, which is that the world is changing around us. So the means and the ends of curriculum have to shift together in a dialogical relation I suppose, and also hopefully with some guard against our tendency to imagine that learning just magically happens without some real attention to how it works.#plaa{position:absolute;clip:rect(482px,auto, auto,482px);}

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