Tom Pittman's WebLog

2010 March 20 -- The Nature of Education

A criticism I often hear is that I must always be right. Although not so intended, I take it as praise. Yes, being Right is better than being Wrong. Sometimes I err and take the wrong side of a question, but as soon as I learn my mistake, I switch sides. The Bible calls that "repentance" and it's a virtue. The Bible never teaches being Wrong (also known as vulnerability) as a virtue. One consequence of needing to be Right is that I review every conflict to see if in fact I might have been Wrong. I do make mistakes, so I need to do this carefully. It takes time. I'm still thinking about Edutainment.

I can now categorically say that education is inherently disaffirming. By nature the process involves the rejection of Wrong ideas and replacing them with Right ones. Learning that your ideas are Wrong is disaffirming. This is an important quality, because affirmation is the chief value of Feelers in the MBTI model. Truth, which calls for replacing wrong ideas with right ones, is the chief value of Thinkers. Needless to say, I am not a Feeler.

So how is it that Feelers seem to make better teachers than Thinkers? Nobody wants to be disaffirmed, least of all the Feelers. So if we are going to educate all people without regard to whether they are Thinkers or Feelers, we need to do it in a way that is not overly disaffirming. Did you notice the qualification? It's not education at all if it's not disaffirming. We have a lot of that kind of "education" in the USA, where we rank dead last in quality of education among the industrial nations of the world, but first in self-esteem. Apparently Feelers only seem to make better teachers.

Ideally, education should be tailored to the particular needs of the student, a Socratic log with the teacher at one end and (one) student at the other. But that is very expensive. Failing that, we can smother the educational disaffirmations in a heap of affirming praise. I try to do that, but high-quality Feelers can pick out or invent disaffirmations even where none were intended. As the joke puts it, "If there are two ways to understand something I said, and one of them is negative, I meant the other one. If there is only one way to understand what I said, and it is negative, I still meant the other one."

Case in point: I was invited to submit a "lecture" on the topic of my choosing, with a discussion question. I chose BibleTrans, and developed first a survey of the state of the art, followed by how and why BibleTrans is different, starting about the middle. Both "students" read through the summary at the front, but bogged down in the particulars (basically ignored it). That's understandable. They had no interest in the topic, and I had no foreknowledge about the student demographics. There was also a time pressure: everything had to be completed by the third day. When I give this lecture before a live audience, they are there by choice and have a prior interest in the topic, plus they are forced to sit through the whole presentation. You cannot "skim" a verbal lecture. At best you can doodle or text a friend or answer your email, which is qualitatively different from skimming.

My discussion question asked them to offer a title and explain why. It seemed to me that this would encourage them to understand what they were reading, and one student explicitly said so. The other had skimmed the front part, saw a reference to machine understanding (which BibleTrans recognizes as exceedingly difficult and explicitly leaves instead to humans), and built his title around how conventional machine translation research implements that idea; he resisted my effort to dislodge it from his thinking and focus instead on what I had said about it. The conflict which prompted my post today was with the student who made a greater effort to learn something new. She admitted that she had bogged down in the second half, and I tried to encourage her to reconsider. Alas, it was too much to ask, and she told me that my response was "a bit aggresive and quite belittling." I agree that it was aggressive. I was there to "teach" a topic, and both students were resisting any learning. But "belittling"? I don't know where that came from, except that education is inherently disaffirming. She was responding as a Feeler.

A different case in point: Earlier this month I finished reading Grossman's book On Killing, where he makes the case that modern video games train our youth -- against their natural inclination -- to commit violent crimes. This is a (very effective) form of education, embedded in an entertainment medium. The disaffirmation is still there, but surrounded by vast quantities of affirmation. Game developers (I have done this kind of software, so I know how it works) need to make sure the player wins easily and often -- but not too easy. Game difficulty is automatically scaled up to make sure the disaffirmations (losing) happen less often than the affirmations (winning). There are still far too many disaffirmations for Feelers, which is why the twitch shootem-up games are almost exclusively a guys' market.

Could I teach in a largely affirming environment? Yes, sort of. Nobody can do a credible job of it, and I'm unwilling to do less. When the department chair criticized my teaching methods as being insufficiently entertaining six years ago, I disagreed. That's not what I was there for. It was fundamentally dishonest, and I was not about to do things that way.

No apologies. No regrets.

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