Fear & Loathing in the College Boardroom: Down the Rabbit Hole

Posted on June 4, 2010


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The Invitation


I'm late! I'm late! For a very important facilitated learning experience

I can’t begin to go into all the research I did on “facilitated learning” and other such gems from the philosophy of education. At least, I can’t if I have any hope of finishing up before September. As it stands, this post alone is over a thousand words long, so if you’d rather skip it and wait for the next (Fear & Loathing in the College Boardroom — Welcome to My Blackboard Jungle) I understand.


Mind you, you’re off my Christmas card list, but I understand.

The point is, I discovered that the present education philosophy seems to stem from the “learner centred” style of teaching that has been popular among academic educators for several decades — possibly even back to the early 1900s, depending upon how you choose to look at it.

In learner-centred education, the students — called “learners” to avoid the condescending term “student” (!?)  — take an active role in determining their own education. They play a part in developing the curriculum they’ll be taught, the methods by which they will be assessed, and to an extent, even the lesson plans used by the teacher. The teacher — who is called a “facilitator” so as not to condescend to the learners — gets to help.

Now, maybe it’s because I’m coming at this with a different background from most academic educators, or maybe it’s because most academic educators appear to have heads firmly shoved up places into which I have no intention of looking. But there’s one thing I’ve noticed that they apparently haven’t. People don’t take architect courses because they already know about architecture. People don’t take computer programming courses because they already know how to program computers. And people certainly don’t take college English courses because they already know how to write.

They take these courses because they are ignorant of the subject matter.

What kind of special logic does it take to hear someone say, “Let’s take the very people who have absolutely no knowledge about the subjects being taught, and let them make the decisions on how to teach them,” and actually think, “Now there’s an idea worth giving a shot”?

On the bright side, none of this really happens. The logistics alone would be a nightmare. What does happen is that the curriculum is set by one of several recognised means: teachers experienced in the field, major industries in the field, or a branch of government with nobody in the field.

No, where “learner-centred” education comes into play is in the actual classroom. This is done through its emphasis upon the ever increasing number of “learning dimensions” or “learning styles” that must be accommodated by adopting teaching styles to match.

But best of all (at least for the funding needs of academic educators), the closer you look, the more “learning styles” you can discover. In their paper, “Learning and Teaching Styles in Engineering Education,” Silverman and Felder offered up “32 (25) learning styles in the proposed conceptual framework.”

And that was way back in 1988. I’m sure many more have been bred since.

A few of Felder/Silverman's 32 learning styles, and the teaching styles to match.

Now, to be fair, so far nobody seems to be seriously suggesting that we should try accommodating every learning style, but teachers are required to try accommodate the major ones.

For instance, almost every subject has time set aside for “group activity,” because some learners find it easier to learn in a social setting. This is often accomplished by showing a PowerPoint presentation on various elements of a particular topic (such as ten different architectural styles), and then breaking the class into groups to research one of these elements and give a short presentation of it in class.

These groups also promote “team work” — another critical phrase in learner centred education. If, for instance, each group has four members, one will be designated as “team leader,” another as “notetaker,” another as  “writer,” and the remaining one as “presenter.”

Of course, what happens is that one person does the research and writing while the others goof off and whine. This isn’t the exception, it’s by far the general rule, and those teachers who still care about teaching are always trying to find ways around it. (Some teachers insist that each member of the group take part in the presentation — not much of a fix, but I guess it can help.)


Team work in the real world

At its  best, group work tends to merely result in each learner only learning about whatever element his or her group did the presentation on: and more often than not, this is true only of the one in each group who actually did the work. In general, nobody learns anything — except that since teachers are only allowed to fail a small number of students, pretty well any effort will earn a pass.


What’s worse (at least to me) is the fact that the preparation and presentations required for group work take up such a disproportionate amount of class time in comparison to their worth. Aside from the minimal amount of knowledge gained by the learners, the elements used for group work are seldom of any real importance to the subject since no teacher wants to entrust vital information to such a rickety method of delivery.

Still. As long as the learners are happy.

Now, it probably seems like I really should have had some idea of all this already, if only through the curriculum structure of my own subject. But you have to remember: what I initially got as a “curriculum” was the topic outline used by the English professor before me. This basically listed the subject matter of each class in the semester, and the corresponding pages in the textbook. There was frequent mention of “group work,” but since writing doesn’t take place in a group, that was first thing I got rid of.

And since the textbook appeared to have been written with the belief that all essays are five paragraphs long, it was the second.

From there, I made up everything as I went along.

It’s true I’d heard of “learner centred” before. My wife once had a contract with an experimental adult education unit back in the ’80s dealing heavily with “learner centred” issues, but aside from the problems of editing something that, at times, appeared to make no sense whatsoever, neither of us paid much attention to it. One of their central tenets was that learners who couldn’t read were just as literate as those who could. It’s hard to take that kind of thing seriously. (Unless you’re in charge of government grants for education research, in which case it qualifies as enlightened profundity.)

In all of this, however, there was one ray of hope. The more I read, and the more I discovered that the entire education philosophy was built up of words, phrases, and concepts almost completely devoid of actual meaning, the more I realised I could take what I did on a daily basis in the classroom, and phrase it in such a way that even a truly committed educator could understand.

In other words, I could fake it.

Next: Fear & Loathing in the College Boardroom:
Welcome to My Blackboard Jungle

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