School Inception

Nobody likes to receive a half-baked explanation from people higher up, particularly if it is to explain why something cannot be done. What’s more, the specific level of annoyance that’s felt can vary with the style and wording of the excuse. Up there for sheer gall are ‘Because I told you so’ and ‘God works in mysterious ways’. There is another however, that infuriates me even more than these two staples of parents and priests respectively. The worst excuse a person in authority can utter is ‘we cannot afford it’. Pull the other one, it’s got bells on. This is the United States we are talking about. A country that increases its military spending by $50 billion does not come across as a penny pinching nation. There are people who literally have more money than they know what to do with. So why, more often than not, do we accept this explanation so willingly and unquestioningly?

Parker Palmer discusses the reasons more eloquently than I ever could in his essay: The Aims of Education Revisited. Institutions hoodwink us into believing that any ill feelings we have towards society, or the way things are done, are purely a manifest of our own inadequacies. So effective are they at this deception, we often resign ourselves to inaction. In Palmer’s words, we know but we do not recognize. Why does this happen? One reason and one reason alone. Our education system still places obedience to authority above all else. As long as this remains the case, the man in charge will be able to get away with murder. Time and time again, institutionalized cruelty is given a pass. Although this was not news to me, it was comforting to know that someone else gets as mad about it as I do.

As I mused over Parker’s words, I began to rack my brain for the grandest, most heinous embodiment of this phenomenon. That is how I came to ‘we cannot afford it’. We all know about the massive inequalities in wealth within and amongst societies, but still we do not recognize the fact. We know if we redistributed the wealth, we could fix pretty much all of the world’s problems. But we do not. Instead, we tell each other we can’t afford it, whatever ‘it’ may be; ‘we can’t afford to provide free healthcare, we can’t afford to send aid to 3rd world countries, we can’t afford to provide housing for the homeless’. That’s bollocks. We have the money to do all of those things.

So, Parker writes, the solution is in education reform. Unfortunately, progress is hampered by the hierarchical structure of our educational institutions. An Inception-esque dreamscape exists; classrooms within departments, departments within colleges, colleges within universities, there’s no way out! At each scale we can clearly see the authoritarian rule and the subjected masses. Even if some emboldened teacher or even whole department raises the courage to teach disobedience as Parker advocates, the next level in the hierarchy will resist, either consciously or unconsciously, and the system as a whole will likely remain relatively unchanged. I don’t think the situation is hopeless mind; I’m just concerned that much like the movie inception, it will take far longer than it should.

If Only

‘Stereotypes are dangerous not because they are wrong, but because they are incomplete.’

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words, taken from her TED talk on the danger of single stories, reverberate around my brain. I begin to realize the grandeur of this statement. Single stories miss the essence of humanity, nay of life itself.

My perspective comes from that of a biologist. And looking at nature, I can tell you one thing: diversity is fundamental. How do I know? There are over 1000 species of jellyfish. And that’s just an example. If diversity wasn’t a good thing, it wouldn’t be here. That’s how natural selection works. In fact, the whole system would fall to pieces like a flimsy jigsaw puzzle on a bumpy car journey without it.

Thinking of these ideas in an academic context, diversity increases the quantity, and much more importantly, the quality of research output at all levels of focus (within a lab, within a department, within an institution). It’s not rocket science; you’re less likely to do something stupid if you have multiple perspectives assessing the problem at once. The single story in research is the recalcitrant professor who operates a ‘my way or the highway’ attitude towards collaboration.

The single story in teaching is the rigid syllabus, the standardized exams, the lectures that only appeal to certain types of learners et cetera. In this case, we often generalize out of pure laziness; it is a much more straightforward task to teach 30 clones than it is to teach 30 individuals and so we treat them as such. The convenience of viewing an audience as one however, does not justify the indirect result of denying people’s identities and alienating large swathes of the room. The fact that we have acknowledged the problem shows how far we have come; the fact that it is a problem show how far we have to go.

Diversity is one of the key constituents of life, and embracing diversity requires empathy and tact in equal measure. In her talk, Chimamanda also reminded me of my love for Rudyard Kipling, and thus it seems fitting to let him sum up:

‘If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
then you will be a Man, my son.’

Music of the Peers

Video games, and the mentality of those who excel at gaming, are under scrutiny from academics looking for helpful pointers. Video games foster learning, whilst keeping the player motivated, and have been touted as a good example to follow. To my mind however, video games still focus on rather well defined targets in boss battles and leveling up etc., and so the temptation to draw an analogy to traditional letter grades (A-F) still persists.

I would like to offer another fringe group who demonstrate a style of learning we should seek to emulate: musicians.

As artists, the targets musicians seek are not well defined. Instead, the vast majority of playing is aimless, unguided, and purely undertaken for the fun of it. Self-satisfaction is always paramount. Richard Feynman called it the ‘pleasure of finding things out’ and it is something artists do well, academics poorly. The musician’s journey involves much blind fumbling, and one must use one’s ears as guides (a challenge for visually oriented mammals like us). But that is half of the fun. Naturally in such a system, mistakes are not punished. Especially in an artist’s formative years, mistakes are actually the most powerful tool for learning, opening up new lines of thought or revealing hidden perspectives.

Further, good musicians seamlessly blend all four of the traditional learning styles such that learning is guaranteed!

1) Auditory; obviously

2) Linguistic; most teachers will tell you to sing what you want to play before even picking up an instrument, and instrumentalists spend most of their time trying to sound like vocalists.

3) Spatial; music theory contains bars, staffs, and what’s known as the ‘circle of fifths’, and music notation creates elaborate artworks that wouldn’t look out of place at a modern abstracts exhibit. Each written line a black and white masterpiece:

4) Kinesthetic; have you seen James Brown?

Finally, music is a collaborative art form. Working with others towards a common goal is the bedrock of any band or orchestra. Symphony requires the uncensored sharing of ideas, unwavering commitment to the cause, and impeccable communication skills. Such traits are all highly coveted in academia, but rarely worked upon.

I see a lot of promise in the style and emphasis that characterizes a musician’s education. It’s not perfect, however. There are still tedious scales, metronome practice, and Bono from U2. But mark my words, if we sow such musical seeds in higher education, we shall reap virtuosos.

What Do We Want? Swamp Drainage!

In the following post, the names have been changed to protect the innocent…


As an ecologist, I was aware of the potentially disastrous consequences of ‘draining the swamp’ even prior to the emergence of a rogue twitter feed, captained by one Blonald J. Rump. Still, I reassured myself that this was politics; sweeping hyperbole and ‘catchphrase’ rhetoric are to be expected, if history is any judge. I don’t give it a second thought, and neither should you.

What does worry me though, is a similar rallying cry emanating from inside my own clique of higher education.  Teaching at all levels is getting an overhaul, and it seems to be WiFi-way or the highway. The attitude of young-career academics can be paraphrased thus: ‘If only the old fusty lecturers of a bygone era would hurry up and retire, we could all get on with fixing this mess’. Or in other words: ‘drain the swamp!’ In the absence of any comment from Mr Blump on the subject, I would like to offer my own reservations concerning this dissent.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love the future. I direct any skeptics to my previous revelry for the technological revolution we live amidst. Soon, you will be able to browse the internet directly through your brain, read any book ever written, and instantly communicate with anyone around the globe. A brave new world perhaps, but one that I welcome with open arms.

Support for the new however, does not necessitate disdain for the old. For instance when I teach, I still make a point to move over to the chalkboard for noting equations and figures. Anachronistic perhaps, but I would argue that this is the period of the lecture when my students pay the most attention! They suddenly sit bolt upright, startled by the piercing noise of chalk on slate, perplexed by the white powdery drawing tool. As you might imagine, they have no trouble recollecting the equations (or such and such a figure) for their exam when the time comes, because they have vivid images of me fumbling around with this mysterious, antiquated technology; we wade through the swamp.

It is in its novelty that the chalkboard continues to succeed in engaging the students of today. One would assume that this phenomenon only magnifies in effect as it becomes rarer and rarer. This is why I implore young people to reconcile their ideologies with  traditional pedagogical practices; we are stood on the shoulders of giants after all, best not antagonize them. I support traditional methods not because they are tradition, but because they work! They have after all, got us this far.

Swamp drainage is irrevocable.  Swamps are delicate ecosystems, with each component being honed over millions of years to perfectly suit its role within the system. It is usually our own ignorance to blame, not the swamp, when things seem flawed or sub-optimal. We can modify the ecosystem for our own comfort, or we can be one with nature, the choice is ours. However if we turn our collective backs on the grand history of higher education, we risk throwing out the baby with the swamp-water.