Teaching in the age of Google

At 16, my granddaughter Julia begins Grade 12 this year, one of the first Filipino students to study under the new curriculum for high school. I was already a college student entering my second year when I was her age. I had to read a lot if only to keep up with the extraordinary classmates I had at the University of the Philippines. Still, I don’t think I knew even half as much as Julia does today. Her generation’s brains, I suspect, are differently wired from years of multitasking and managing incalculable amounts and diverse types of information.  This poses a unique challenge to the art of teaching.

Sometime ago, as part of an expert team to review a Japanese university’s curricular offerings in relation to the demands of global education, I had a chance to observe a couple of undergraduate and graduate classes conducted in English. Nearly all the students had an open laptop or tablet before them as their professors spoke. I was stunned to see the students instantly google unfamiliar names or pieces of information they were hearing, even as they were taking notes, or, in some instances, messaging a contact on Facebook. I could be wrong, but I didn’t think that setup was conducive to learning. I would certainly have found it annoying in my own classes.

But the reality is that every teacher and professor today must learn to contend with the virtual world of inexhaustible information that is literally at our young people’s fingertips.  Now, more than ever, education has to go beyond the mere transmission of knowledge — i.e., the idea of learning as “banking,” where knowledge is “deposited” through lectures and then “withdrawn” through examinations. If this is one’s conception of learning, then we must know that no teacher can possibly match what is available on Wikipedia alone.

What is the alternative? I thought the Chilean evolutionary biologist, Humberto Maturana, put it best when he imagined the ideal school: “The children do not learn mathematics in school, they learn how to live together with a mathematics teacher….  Teachers do not simply transmit some content; they acquaint their pupils with a way of living. In the process, the rules of arithmetic, the laws of physics, or the grammar of a language will be acquired. My claim is: Pupils learn teachers.”

I confirm the truth of this — from my experience both as a student and as a professor. Students will long remember the names and the qualities of the professors who touched their lives positively or negatively, more than any lesson or item of knowledge they learned in the classroom. In the process of interacting with their teachers and cooperating with their classmates, they form themselves as human beings, learning how to live, what to cherish, and what to avoid. Says Maturana:  “The way of living practised by the teacher, including the goals of teaching [that he or she personifies], will be the source of profitable learning for the pupils.”

At the heart of this fascinating approach to education is Maturana’s seemingly counterintuitive philosophy. All our lives, he says, we are told that learning is a sequential process: First we learn what the world out there is like, then we shape our lives in accordance with this knowledge. On the contrary, he argues, the correct sequence, if there be any, might be the opposite: We live, and, in the process, we bring forth a world, and learn what it is like. Knowing, therefore, is not “a step-by-step process of eliminating ignorance”; it is rather the continual act of practising “a way of life that corresponds to one’s ideals.”  Knowing is doing; doing is knowing.

What this suggests is that if we want to form a future generation that believes in freedom, equality, and in thinking critically and acting responsibly, the perfect place in which to teach these values and traits is the classroom. Not by giving lectures about them as topics, but by giving life to them through practice. Often, we pay abundant lip service to the importance of these values to a democratic society, yet the actual interaction that is found in the classroom is permeated through and through by the culture of authoritarianism, sycophancy, and selfishness. “If you want to teach autonomy and reflection,” Maturana reminds us, “you cannot use force as a method but must create an open space for communal reflection and action.”

A teacher cannot coerce interest in a subject; she can only awaken it, and nurture it. But this, as we know, is much easier said than done, particularly when confronted by difficult students. There are some who dutifully show up in class regularly, but a sensitive teacher can immediately tell that their minds are elsewhere. They watch and follow you as you speak, but they are not engaged.

Whatever tests need to be taken, or whatever papers have to be submitted in fulfillment of the course requirements, they know that Google or Wikipedia, and the thousand and one websites that carry complete term papers and ready-made answers to test questions on any subject, can always make up for their cognitive absence in a boring class. No threat of punitive action against plagiarism, and no amount of moralizing, can deter desperate and uninterested students from resorting to shortcuts in order to survive school.

They come to treat education as a game, where abilidad or diskarte, rather than diligence or hard work, is rewarded.  Here, where the early games of life are played, we find the first roots of corruption, lack of accountability, and apathy.  But, where students are lucky to encounter loving and inspiring teachers, the classrooms may well be the wellsprings of responsible citizenship, enduring solidarity, and community.