Changing Lanes again,

… but using turn signals, because there’s nothing wrong with it.

Teaching with non-teaching. Maybe we should just stop teaching. Sort of. Many of the lessons we’re learning in this pedagogy class focus on changing our abilities to teach, on how we can better use the newest tech as tools, and how to let go and allow students to teach themselves. It is as if our ability to adapt will somehow allow all students to be reached, to allow all students to learn, to allow all to succeed. I say, that depends.

I’m going to switch gears for a minute regarding last week’s post so that I can better see both sides and ask more questions from you, dear reader. It’s kind of a devil’s-advocate-view against my own words. In those words, I discussed cross-training and well-rounded students. Now I’m going to ask: What about highly-specialized students instead?

Yes. All students learn differently, and we need to approach them in ways more conducive to their abilities. But what I haven’t heard is this: we’re still teaching all of the students all of the the same material long after many have shown they lack interest. For instance: Basics? Core? Fundamentals? Are they really essential to our lives? I’ve said it before, I don’t always math good. Not all designers are engineers, and not all engineers are designers. I hated my core classes, and it wasn’t until I got into my major that I became excited. Why did I have to take another English course? Why does this feel like just another year of high school?

Is it possible that some students don’t belong in those 100-plus lecture halls? “Don’t belong” doesn’t mean they are incapable of learning, only that what they’re learning in those classes doesn’t apply well to them. It seems like a waste of time. Again, devil’s advocate voice here.

Flip side: What about the students in their latter years, when they’re starting to get into the meat of their major and really focus on their goals: Are they more focused than in their core classes? I definitely was. So why are we still requiring these ‘fundamentals’ for graduation? I realize the core system is older than the Standards of Learning law, but if you think about it, isn’t this just an extension of the SOLs we so loathe? Why are they in the room if it isn’t important to them? Are they in the right room? #seewhatididthere

I can’t remember his last name, but his first was Chris. He was Swiss, and he was the best CAD teacher I ever had. His background was what Americans might call a high school degree, except his was highly advanced in the construction field. That’s because several countries like Switzerland and Germany allow the educational focus to change according to a student’s abilities. Some kids are more adept with machinery and shop tools. Others are artists and comprehend the nuances of Nietzsche. After their primary years, students are directed into vocational and/or theoretical secondary education depending on their aptitude. This happens when they are around age 11. Secondary education in this manner is meant to prepare you for life-beyond-school, and it begins at eleven in these countries. Eleven. I was trying to figure out how not to get beat up at eleven.

Preparing students for life-beyond-school: what is that? Again, are we beating ourselves up because a few students didn’t read the Odyssey? I’ve read it four different times in four different school systems, including my freshman year in college. It’s a wonderful story, but I can’t think of a context in my life where I’ve used it until just now. It has more than 123,000 words to read, which is time I could have spent better honing the hand skills that my life-beyond-school required. Did I have a bad teacher that did a poor job expressing the metaphors and meanings of this Homeric epic? No. He was humorous and affable, and I picked up the word übermensch from his lectures. I sat right up front and paid attention and read all books and wrote all papers. It just wasn’t my desire to learn more about this material. This fundamental text was not in my lane. And besides, the Iliad has more life lessons in it, am I right?

I think Ellen Langer was misguided in describing her seven mindsets of learning as myths. They aren’t myths to everyone, but to be fair, I also don’t think they are truths. I believe these precepts to be subjective to the person teaching and to the person learning. There are right and wrong answers in air-traffic control – #7. Forgetting to set your alarm will get you fired in life-beyond-school – #5. Rick Perry will never live down that time he forgot what agency he wanted to destroy during the presidential debates. And even though Langer’s driver continued to use a turn signal when no one was around, the law requires he do that. Stupid law, yes, but he was in the right. Change it.

Back to my Swiss-born CAD teacher. Chris lived on a small-town beach in North Carolina with his wife and children. We took study breaks by swimming in the ocean and catching fish. We grilled whatever we caught for dinner, and his kids ran around laughing in English, German and Spanish – his wife’s native language. His skills as a CAD instructor had him flying around the world. He loved what he did and couldn’t have been more welcoming to me.

He also couldn’t stop talking about how the education system in the United State sucked and he was so thankful to have been born somewhere else. He credits that he was setup for success and was encouraged to follow his strengths early on. Similarly, Germany has an 80% rate of hire after graduation, which means there is great value placed on this type system and a high incentive for students to learn.

For some reason, it reminds me of my friend Ty, the designer who stated he went to ‘art school, not smart school.’ Maybe he’s right. He got the art part absolutely right. And the other part about not being smart? He got that right too, but not the way we think. Our society places a high value on certain fields over others, and calls one group smart and another group ignorant.

In reality, it is as much bottom-up as it is top-down. I’m not screaming socialism, but welders are as equally important as engineers in the working of our society – the bridge requires both to function. What if someone had told my teacher Chris that construction work was for drop-outs and engineering school was the way to go? Maybe he would have done well. Maybe he would have burned out. Maybe we should stop teaching students what they don’t need to learn.

I’m not laying blame on teachers teaching poorly. And I’m not laying blame on students skipping lessons. I think there’s another mode where the actual abilities and desires of the students are given more credence and the classes they take are truly important to them on a base level. I believe Chris was right about the differences in our systems. It’s very societal and complex.

We should change that if we can. And please understand I’m not saying a person has to be one thing and only that thing and not anything else. I do not believe this in my heart. We all have many skills and I still encourage their exploration. Some people have lots of them: Think of the jack-of-all-trades, the polymaths – the übermenschen. If my doctor is also an artist – wonderful. But really, I’m not going to cry if she failed my design class – maybe it wasn’t her lane. And truth be told, I’m okay if my heart still looks like a heart and not like a Picasso. I’m fine with that. Does that mean I’m a bad design teacher?

What does your devil’s advocate say?

10 thoughts on “Changing Lanes again,

  1. You actually make it appear really easy along with your presentation but I to find this matter to be actually one thing which I feel I might never understand.

    It kind of feels too complicated and very extensive for me.
    I am having a look forward to your subsequent put up,
    I’ll attempt to get the grasp of it!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ben, thank you for your post! I appreciate your ability to play devil’s advocate–this is always my favorite role in discussions. I also particularly appreciate your references to multiple fields as a proud polymath myself! Your post poses a very tough question though–should we focus on creating well-rounded or highly specialized students? I don’t know the answer to this, but I will ask–why not both? Is it really necessary for everyone to experience all subjects at every level of education? Probably not. And while maybe 11 years old is not the time to specialize, perhaps some time during high school the choice should be offered. Some people, like me, relish in a liberal arts education. There is no subject that I don’t have some interest in because if I could have some superpower, it would be omniscience. But, some people are so passionate about one or a few subjects areas and would rather delegate other potential areas of study to hobbies, rather than part of formal training. So, in reforming education, I think that both kinds of students should be fostered. I think this is the solution you are hinting at in your post. I see no reason, especially at the university level, this cannot happen. Some school already offer different tracks within certain majors (for example, my undergrad had 3 tracks for psychology–general, human resources, and clinical, but all had the same gen ed requirments), why can they not offer two types of degrees, one with the traditional gen ed/liberal arts requirements and another that possesses only those relating to their major (for example, every major would benefit from at least one college level English class, but some may not need a fine arts requirement) and specialized classes. I definitely think there would be enough students to support the flourishing of each type of degree program.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m totally up for specialized people who still enjoy a trip to the other side. I’m curious about the college levels, though. If you’re from the US, you’ve probably taken a history, a math, a science, an english – all of those things, and figured out what you like and don’t like. Why extend it further into the freshman, and to an extent, sophomore years of college. Doesn’t that just make it “high-school-plus?” Or (stirring up my view again), is it to allow students to see the same subjects again, but this time without parental controls, which allows students to explore the same materials in a new way? Could be more exciting. Could be a waste of time. I knew I’d be either an architect, engineer or designer long before I ever made it to high school (found that in a middle school year book!). Looking back I can appreciate those classes, but I don’t even remember all of the ones I took without checking transcripts… Thanks for bouncing these ideas with me!


  3. Hi Ben, I think you really captured my misgivings or issues with Langer’s work. It seems like a gross oversimplification to want to subvert “myths” that have real world examples with real world consequences. I think you’re right in that maybe there are some areas where people really do not need to know “basics” beyond a certain point. I mean, did I really need to learn calculus or advanced trig to be a political science student? No probably not. But at the same time, perhaps there is a reason to learn some other things that we consider basics.

    But, let me indulge your extortion to play devil’s advocate with an anecdote from my field: Wouldn’t we be a little better off as a country if people had been exposed to more civics classes? The United States has one of the lowest voter turn out rates in the free world and is now plagued by sharp partisan divides that are splitting families. This probably wouldn’t happen if people were exposed to issues outside of their particularly specialized silo. It is fairly common knowledge going back to the ancient Greeks that well-rounded citizens were the best for democracies and ultimately made for good political discourse. Instead, we have highly polarized news, highly polarized politics, zero-sum attitudes. This all could be potentially avoided if people know more about things outside of their own field or narrow area of interest. It may not be interesting, and it doesn’t have to be explicitly about politics, but it does have to require frank exchange of views respectfully in a way that fosters compassion/empathy/etc.

    This isn’t to say that common core or pathways area requirements are the best way forward or will solve all the evils of our time, but it is to say that there is benefit to (essentially forcing) people to get outside their comfort zone. Eventually you’re going to have to deal with sharply competing views and need to be able to rationally discuss and deal with those issues, which is much more difficult if you were only really specialized/trained in one thing throughout your life and never developed the skills to talk to/about people/topics outside of that specialization.

    Thanks for your time, great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Awesome! I’m in agreement with you. So many people just aren’t engaged with the vastness of life. I’m guilty of it. I’m sure you are, too! So how do we create interest? Is this what this class is about: How to make connections between students and material in a way that enriches their lives? It’s totally a great point you’re making. Real learning often takes place on that cusp of uncomfortable, where we have to push to get past the gate. This leaves me more food for thought! Thanks!


  5. Ben, I enjoyed the post. I am not a disciple of Nietzsche and the concept of übermenschen. I believe it takes a long time to master a “trade”. It does not matter if it is being a plumber or a heart surgeon. A person can master multiple “trades” but it does not make him an übermenschen. I do not know any degrees in at least the United States collegiate system that is “specialized.” The heart surgeon or the bridge building engineer all has to have a “classical” education with liberal arts like technical writing, english, and even public speaking. My problem is the watering down of the degree over time. The engineering degree of 30 years ago no longer has the same requirements in the specialized classes. I would make the argument that degrees are becoming less specialization and a graduate degree is required for that specialization in at least engineering.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Interesting. Edwin Layton wrote about scientists and engineers as ‘Mirror Twins’ of the same field of knowledge, where one is theoretical and the other applied (theorists = scientists and doers = engineers). Can’t study the stars without a telescope, and can’t build a telescope without standards of measurements. He mentions a modern tendency of blending them together, too, where you have engineer-scientists and scientist-engineers. Those people are great for communication lines, but not great for the detail work (my opinion). Is this along the lines you mentioned, like a dilution instead of distillation of the respective fields?
    There are definitely more interdisciplinary studies now than I’ve ever seen. Who’s the engineer, and who’s the designer, and who’s the scientist, and who do I call when I need specific information? People who are trained in multiple disciplines are great for small businesses where a few groups of people have to wear lots of different hats. But is that what we need overall? Hmm. good food for thought, John. Thanks.


  7. You’ve got some terrific comments here and I share their general appreciation of your devil’s advocate approach. I just want to suggest that in the distinction between “well-rounded” and specialized can obscure more than it clarifies. We can all think of lots of examples where being highly specialized comes at the expense of “well-roundedness” — and sometimes that’s just fine and even a necessary price to pay for extraordinarily accomplished in one very particular area. But I think valuing integrative or holistic ways of knowing and being (my preferred way of thinking about “well rounded”) is absolutely essential if we want to maintain some semblance of a common human experience and way of understanding each other. “Well-rounded,” sounds to me like optional padding put around an essential core of expertise or skill. But I think that core is more meaningful, beautiful and valuable if it’s built in ways that incorporate context and perspective that can’t be defined solely in terms of skill. Reading the Odyssey (or any epic) is important not in terms of how “well rounded” it makes us feel, but for the perspective it affords on some basic human experiences — transformation, the journey, struggle, homecoming, etc.. I do want my doctor to have thought about those things.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Oh, I agree. Even though I’ve read it so many times, the trickster Odysseus is one of my favorites. I just didn’t want to read it again for the fourth time in such short order (high-school-plus thinking). And this is along what what Ray & I were bouncing around: how can we make it more engaging so people will see the value? I didn’t want to read The Hobbit as a middle-schooler – I thought it was stupid. But somewhere in my late 20’s, I began reading it once a year. I even read it out loud to my wife, because she had never desired to read it. She fell in love. It took a while, but we finally found value. Can we do that with our ‘basics’ and show our students how valuable these life-enriching moments are? Because seriously, if I can have a convo with my doc about how to fire-harden a spear so you can take the eye of the cyclops, while staring at her abstract painting of Bilbo Baggins during my physical, I’m going to be in heaven!! Thanks for the comments and the gentle directional nudges. I’m enjoying the exploration of these ideas!


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