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Computers And Self-Directed Learning

December 6, 2013 Featured Today No Comments

By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK

I wouldn’t blame anyone who reacts skeptically when they hear about new teaching methods. We have seen innovations such as “schools without walls,” “open classrooms,” “team teaching,” and “group learning exercises” come and go. But having a respect for tradition and proven methods does not mean we should refuse to consider every innovative teaching method that is proposed. Sometimes a new idea is a good idea. Perhaps the educational reform advocated by computer guru Joshua Davis on the web site Wired (www.wired.com/business/2013/10/free-thinkers/) is in that category. See what you think.
Davis’ column is entitled “How a Radical New Teaching Method Could Unleash a Generation of Geniuses.” He begins by calling our attention to a village in India, where a “small group of students between the ages of 10 and 14 was given a computer loaded with molecular biology materials.” The students were told “there was some interesting stuff on the computer, and might they take a look.” Then the teacher “said no more and left the room.”
Those of you who have watched your children or grandchildren cluster around an iPad and amaze you with their computer skills know what happened next. “Over the next 75 days,” writes Davis, “the children worked out how to use the computer and began to learn.” When the teacher returned, he administered a written test on molecular biology. “The kids answered about one in four questions correctly. After another 75 days,” with some encouragement and guidance, “they were getting every other question right.”
The educational consultant behind this experiment states flatly, “If you put a computer in front of children and remove all other adult restrictions, they will self-organize around it like bees around a flower.” This consultant is now in the process of establishing five more schools in India based on this approach. “There will be no teachers, curriculum, or separation into age groups — just six or so computers and a woman to look after the kids’ safety. His defining principle: ‘The children are completely in charge’.” He is convinced that “the information revolution has enabled a style of learning that wasn’t possible before.”
What do these self-directed schools look like? “The exterior of his schools,” Davis continues, “will be mostly glass, so outsiders can peer in. Inside, students will gather in groups around computers and research topics that interest them. He has also recruited a group of retired British teachers who will appear occasionally on large wall screens via Skype, encouraging students to investigate their ideas.”
Those behind these new Indian schools point out that their ideas are rooted in “educational practices dating back to Socrates. Theorists from Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi to Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori have argued that students should learn by playing and following their curiosity. Einstein spent a year at a Pestalozzi-inspired school in the mid-1890s, and he later credited it with giving him the freedom to begin his first thought experiments on the theory of relativity. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin similarly claim that their Montessori schooling imbued them with a spirit of independence and creativity.”
There is much to ponder about these studies of Indian children and their computers. Many teachers have been fascinated by the phenomenon of students whom they can’t keep on task in a lecture eagerly clustering around a computer to pursue Google searches and other links to come up with answers. Computers have been with us long enough to conclude that this is not just a passing fad. Modern students like computers; they like to learn things on computers; they are willing to work with each other in pursuit of knowledge on their computers. It would be foolish not to seek a way to harness this curiosity for classroom purposes.
I can hear some howls of protest out there. I sympathize with those who are doing the howling. It is not just Piaget and Maria Montessori who would be applauding this new form of independent study. So would Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Dewey. It strikes me that self-directed computer research proceeds from the same assumptions as theirs. It presumes that there is no inherited body of knowledge, no set of traditions that adult authorities have the responsibility “to preserve, protect, defend, and extend” — to use Russell Kirk’s definition of the purpose of an educational system. It would be a mistake to permit our enthusiasm over these self-directed computerized classes in India to cause us to forget that Kirk’s understanding of the mission of our schools is the correct one.
But perhaps this concern can be incorporated into a self-directed computer class. Might it be that all we would have to do is guarantee that topics, theories, and authors central to the heritage of the Christian West are included in the assignments given to the teams of students doing research on their computers? If, for example, terms such as federalism, original sin, democracy of the dead, moral relativism, national sovereignty, apostolic succession, laissez-faire, and Hitler-Stalin pact were given to the students to research on their computers, might that not provide for Russell Kirk’s understanding of a sound education? If not, why not? We welcome our readers’ reactions.
On another topic: the ongoing loss of the Catholic identity at our Catholic colleges. If you were to hear that a professor at Harvard or Yale was organizing students to work with pro-abortion groups, you would not be surprised. You would see it as understandable, considering that the secularization of those universities has moved far beyond the original sense of mission of the Protestant churches that founded them.
It looks as if Georgetown University, once considered an exemplar of Jesuit higher education in this country, is coming close to the same degree of secularization.
The Cardinal Newman Society has recently reported that “a class at Georgetown University’s law school scheduled for next semester will have students working with a pro-abortion rights advocacy organization, taught by that organization’s senior counsel, Kelli Garcia. Garcia, a radical pro-abortion rights lawyer, wrote the poem titled, ‘Planned Parenthood, Why Do I Love Thee?’ in 2011. The poem was part of a larger effort by Garcia and her group to halt the potential defunding of Planned Parenthood, which is the nation’s largest abortion provider.”
The Georgetown law class, titled Regulatory Advocacy: Women and the Affordable Care Act, will have students working with the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), “to develop projects that will assist in the organization’s regulatory advocacy efforts.” Students will also have the opportunity to participate in strategy meetings and conference calls between NWLC and partnering organizations.
Patrick Reilly, president of The Cardinal Newman Society, views this latest scandal as the unfortunate culmination of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Writes Reilly, “We have long warned about Georgetown scandals that undermine the Church’s strong defense of innocent life. But here students are being required to work for a pro-abortion lobby, making America’s oldest Catholic university an active agent of the culture of death. If allowed to continue, this puts Georgetown in direct opposition to the Church.”
Additional information about this collaboration between Georgetown and Planned Parenthood can be found at the Newman Society’s web site, www.cardinalnewmansociety.org, in the Catholic Education Daily section (October 24, 2013).

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Readers are invited to submit comments and questions about this and other educational issues. The e-mail address for First Teachers is fitzpatrijames@sbcglobal.net, and the mailing address is P.O. Box 15, Wallingford, CT 06492.

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