Monday, August 02, 2010

what rote and relevance both lack

Educational approaches tend to flip flop between rote learning and relevance or surface motivational learning. Although both of these have their place what they both lack is a deep understanding of the actual subject knowledge being taught. The reason little progress is made in educational reform is that it is really hard work to deepen subject knowledge. It doesn't scale. It would require us as a society to take education far more seriously.
Teaching in higher education requires that we continually develop our understanding of our subject. As a young lecturer, I remember feeling constant frustration about my inability to get my students to grasp the meaning of simple concepts such as “society” and “the social”.

I still feel a twinge of embarrassment when I recall my early futile attempts to go beyond very formal expositions about the difference between nature and nurture. It was only after a series of disappointing episodes of miscommunication that I decided to spend some time reading about this subject to see if I could teach it more effectively.

It was while reading the introduction to Karl Marx’s Grundrisse one evening that the proverbial light bulb was switched on. The passage that did it was about the socially mediated meaning of eating: “Hunger is hunger, but the hunger gratified by cooked meat eaten with a knife and fork is a different hunger from that which bolts down raw meat with the aid of hand, nail and tooth.”

A week later I tried it out in one of my seminars. “Even an apparently biological act like eating is socially mediated,” I explained, before elaborating on Marx’s example. Did it work? Almost immediately one of my Nigerian students pointed out that “you Europeans worry about overeating while we in Africa are concerned about not having enough food in our belly”.

A few minutes later another student raised the question of eating disorders. “It is unlikely that people in the Stone Age knew very much about anorexia,” she posited. By the end of the seminar, the students had begun to internalise the concept of “social” and I learnt how to teach this subject more effectively.

It was not the magic of the Grundrisse that achieved this revelation. I could have gained inspiration from numerous other texts. For me, what was significant about this episode was that I finally learnt to treat a problem of teaching as an issue that was inseparable from matters to do with my scholarship
- Feeding a fine hunger by Frank Furedi
This also helped me understand why I am taking time off work to study political economy. I simply was not satisfied with my depth of understanding of society and how it works. The way in which apparently simple concepts like "eating" change their meaning as a result of changes in the productive forces and relationships in society relates closely to how we understand concepts such as value, labour and capital as well.

update: Frank Furedi on authority in schools Radio interview, There's a crisis in adult authority in our schools (15 minutes)

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