One of my periodic reads is Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. A periodic read is a book into which I dip from time to time, digesting (appropriate in this case!) it slowly over a prolonged period, reading a few to several dozen pages at a time. What I read yesterday struck me as perhaps helpful in understanding the nature of teaching, for in many ways it has or should have more in common with the most appropriate ways of raising food.
Or perhaps I can approach this slightly differently - we can learn much about what not to in education by examining what is so often wrong in how our food is raised, because our current model of education has much in common with the destructive approaches used in much of the production of what we eat.
I began to understand this connection when reading what Pollan had to offer when writing about Polyface Farms near Staunton, Va.
Consider these words from p. 212:
Industrial processes follow a clear, linear, hierarchical logic that is fairly easy to put into words, probably because words follow a similar logic: First this, then that, put this in here, and then out comes that. But the relationship between cows and chickens on this farm (leaving aside for the moment the other creatures and relationships present here) takes the form of a loop rather than a line, and that maes it hard to know where to start, or how to distinguish between causes and effects, subjects and objects.
People knowledgeable about and critical towards our approach to education often remark on how much we have attempted to turn our schools into an industrial model. It is not just that the physical layout and the traditional school day with fixed periods beginning and ending with bells is a product of the thinking of those like Frederick Taylor, the guru of systematic organization of industrial and business processes. It is also that we encounter those who will, believe it or not, describe the students who pass through the schools as the product we produce.
Or perhaps I can back up to the chapter entitled "Bio Organic." Pollan writes about the mentality driven by the work of Baron Justus von Liebig, who in an 1840 monograph identified the use of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (NPK) as the key ingredients necessary to plant growth. It was this identification that led to the focus on commercial fertilization, because the use of these three chemicals undoubtedly contributes to plant growth, but one is thereby treating the soil as a machine, which while it does in the short term lead to increased production of grains like wheat and corn, but it ignores the complexity of things like humus and earthworms, the natural way of maintaining the fertility of soil. Let me pick up at the end of the description Pollan offers of the functioning of humus, starting on p. 146:
But providing a buffet of nutrients to plants is not the only thing humus does: It also serves as the glee that binds the minute material particles in soil together into airy crumbs and holds water in suspension so that rainfall remains available to plant roots instead of instantly seeping away.
To reduce such a vast biological complexity to NPK represented the scientific method at its reductionist worst. Complex qualities are reduced to simple quantities; biology gives way to chemistry. As Howard was not the first to point out, that method can only deal with one or two variables at a time. The problem is that once science has a reduced a complex phenomenon to a couple of variables, however important they may be, the natural tendency is to overlook everything else, to assume that what you can measure is all there is, or at least all that really matters. When we mistake what we can know for all there is to know, a healthy appreciation of one's ignorance in the face of a mystery like soil fertility gives way to the hubris that we can treat nature as a machine. One that leap has been made, one input follows another, so that when the synthetic nitrogen fed to plants makes them more attractive to insects and vulnerable to disease, as we have discovered, the farmer turns to chemical pesticides to fix his broken machine.
The parallels with schools, learning and assessment will not be exact, but start with this: our students are biological creatures living in a biological world with many complex interrelationships. While some skills can be broken down into components, overly focusing on the components while ignoring the complex system in which those components are applied can interfere substantially, even as our measurements seem to assure us of the progress we are making. Here I have in mind something known as DIBELS, which takes the approach that reading is improving when students can more fluently pronounce a series of nonsense syllables. If this sounds like focusing on phonetics to the exclusion of all else, and you intimate that I am comparing that to NPK fertilizer, you grasp at least part of my intent in offering this passage from Pollan.
Part of it, but not all. Remember, the passage also talks about how what we can measure becomes all upon which we focus, we begin to assume that we we can know thereby is all that is worth knowing. In the case of grains, all we measure is the increase of output in the short term. Similarly we test what is easy - and cheap - to test, by using multiple choice items for which there is only one correct answer out of four or five, where there is no credit for a second best answer, where the skill that is developed is not natural, existing only in the artificial environment of the multiple choice question for which there is (supposedly) always exactly one correct answer and no more or no less. But the real world application of knowledge and skill requires one to recognize that when one examines the choices before one there may be more than one correct answer in isolation, that one must think further, perhaps of consequences, in selecting among several otherwise seemingly equally correct choices. And sometimes the real skill needed is to recognize when the choices one has so far identified contains no truly correct choice because one's knowledge is incomplete, or one's perspective too limited. Such a situation is not unlike heavy application of chemical fertilizers to increase output without regard to the long-term consequences - loss of natural fertility of the soil, susceptibility to plant diseases easily spread among monocultures, vulnerability to insect pests, etc.
Learning is a natural phenomenon. To be sure, there are domains that require one to change one's way of thinking, to expand one's perspective. Some things work in ways that are counter-intuitive to how our minds seem to work. Or rather, how some minds seem to work, because were mankind not capable of thinking beyond the linear, things like understanding of the non-sequential reality that exists, for example, in the subatomic world of quarks and leptons would (a) never have been recognized, and (b) would remain beyond the comprehension of the vast number of people who now not only understand but can apply that knowledge in new and productive ways.
Pollan tries to present us with an understanding of systems, in this case biological systems. Here, before I examine the last selection from the book I will explore in this diary, allow me to make a discursus, but one relevant to my thinking on this. I spent 20+ years in data processing, much of that as a systems analyst. Nowadays we encounter a lot of discussion about systems theory, and that aspect of systems theory known as chaos theory, with the famous example offered by an early proponent of this approach, Edward Lorenz, who in his work with weather systems (incredibly complex) offered the example of what we know as the butterfly effect, how the flapping of the wings of a butterfly in, say, South America, can totally change the weather patters on the West Coast of the United States.
Systems theory is to a large degree derived from the work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy, born in Austria, who derived the ideas which lead to systems theory from his work as a biologist, observing and analyzing living systems. He is responsible for General Systems Theory, which can unfortunately be easily simplified to a mechanistic approach, and also to the idea of open systems, the theory of which argues against mechanistic application of the second law of thermodynamics. He was especially critical of mechanistic approaches in the social sciences, which he pointed out were complex interactions of between natural sciences and human social systems. He certainly believed that systems theory was applicable in the social sciences, but was clearly critical of what could be considered "atomistic" approaches.
With that as background, let me return to Pollan and the ideas I derived from reading his words. Pollan spends some time exploring the thinking of Sir Albert Howard, "an English agronomist knighted after his thirty years of research in India" (p. 145) who provided the philosophical underpinnings for organic agriculture, whose ideas can be seen in the work of Rodale, and who has been favorably written about by Wendell Berry. Although Howard never used the modern word "organic" in his writing, he offered a holistic approach, one which included not only agricultural aspects but also the interconnected social aspects. Pollan notes on p. 150 that Howard encouraged farmers to regard their domains more like living organisms and less like machines. Pollan then writes this:
The notion of imitating whole natural systems stands in stark opposition to reductionist science, which works by breaking such systems down into their component parts in order to understand how they work and then manipulating them - one variable at a time. In this sense, Howard's concept of organic agriculture is premodern, arguably even antiscientific: He's telling us we don't need to understand how humus works or what compost does in order to make good use of it. Our ignorance of the teeming wilderness that is the soil (even the act of regarding it as a wilderness) is no impediment to nurturing it. To the contrary, a healthy sense of all we don't know - even a sense of mystery - keeps us from reaching for oversimplications and technological silver bullets.
When I read the words I have just blockquoted, I immediately realized how applicable they are to what is wrong with our approach to schools, and to educational research. As noted in my remarks above about testing, often we measure in education that which is easy to measure (recall for example) without regard to its appropriate functioning in a living organism. We seek to focus on discrete parts of learning and of educational domains in a reductionist fashion, "manipulating them - one variable at a time." In a sense that presumes, incorrectly, that we have identified all of the variables that need to be understood. And too often we interpret the results on the basis of strength of correlation, ignoring that what we are able to perceive may not have a direct cause-and-effect relationship.
I am not arguing that there is no need to break down learning into discrete steps which can be learned separately. As one who has coached I understand the importance for some to have the physical processes broken down, then rebuilt. As a musician, I know the value of learning scales and chords and arpeggios, fluency in which can be essential to putting together a work of music without attempting to recognize and learn each discrete note with its pitch, duration, volume and attack / accentuation. But as coach and as a musician who has worked with high school musical theater and non-professional adult choruses, I also understand that there is no one way to help others with these skills, because the operation of their minds, the perception and translation of inputs (notes on a page and direction from a conductor) and the relevant previous backgrounds with which they arrive are not universal. As a coach or musical director, I must adapt my "instruction" to the immediate intersection of material or skill to be learned and the person doing the learning. There is in most cases a social dimension as well, which ranges from being productive in the use of the time of all participants to helping diverse people realize that by listening to instruction geared to someone else they may gain perspective on their own difficulties and successes and begin to develop the skill of self-instruction, adapting and improving on their own.
I have in part just describe the intersection between the biological and the humanly constructed systems upon which I touched in discussing von Bertalanffy. What I need to add to this is that I do not need to know everything about the prior background and mental orientation of my students or athletes or musicians to be able to assist them, but I do have to respect that my knowledge is not complete, that sometimes I will not fully understand how I have succeeded in helping / instructing someone, or even the adjustments have made in the instructional process. There is often a real subtlety, because I am myself a living organism who is adjusting based on multiple inputs, sensory and also - at least I experience it this way - intuitive, not directly accessible by my cognition.
I began in computers during the period when most data was entered through punch cards. Often important documents were encoded not merely with information that was printed as well as punched. And as well as the 80 columns of characters on such a card were printed the additional words "Do not fold, spindle or mutilate" because that could make the card unreadable by the machines that processed them. I often think we perhaps need to imprint that on the forehead of every student we instruct, because they are living systems, not merely carriers of information. They are not machines into which we put input, they do not automatically learn merely because we have taught a lesson, no matter how well "tested" that lesson has been, regardless of the raised test scores that may have resulted in other circumstances.
Part of learning is the ability to find useful information and skills and be able to transfer that to a different situation, making modifications as appropriate. In a sense, I have in this posting tried to model that by my taking words written in the context of helping people understand about how our food is produced and applying them to try to help people understand the nature of education, of teaching, of learning.
I do not pretend that my application is perfect, because the situations are not exact parallels. But if some develop a deeper understanding, it has been worthwhile for me to make the effort, even if that deeper understanding has the effect of enabling the one who develops it to demolish the argument I present in this post. Learning is real, even if it is not what the instructor has intended. That is a lesson that should be remembered not merely by those of us whose professional responsibility is the education of others, but also by all whose life involves instruction of any kind. That certainly includes parent to child, but also child to parent. It applies to all of us, because we are similar in this regard - we are living beings operating in a social environment imposed upon a natural world - we can never fully know everything there is to know, and yet we must act, move forward. We should remember the limits of our knowledge, and thereby be both humble in how we apply it, and open to the possibility that even hard-won lessons may need to be modified in the light of deeper understanding over time. That is as true in our teaching our children as it is in producing our food.