Silver Donald Cameron

Posts Tagged ‘McConnell Foundation’

Beyond the Teapot Theory

Sunday, July 11th, 2010

July 11, 2010

The meaning of the PhD degree, said Stephen Leacock (who had one), “is that the recipient of instruction is examined for the last time in his life, and is pronounced completely full. After this, no new ideas can be imparted to him.”

That’s the Teapot Theory of Education, stripped naked. The teacher is the full teapot, the students are empty cups. Tilt. Pour. At the end of the course, you put a measuring cup beside each student. Tilt. Pour. If there’s sufficient tea in the students, education has occurred.

That’s the unacknowledged model of education that underlies much of what we do in schools, colleges and universities. But it’s nonsense.

For two years I’ve been working on big projects about education. I recently completed a booklet for the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation on community service-learning, which is why I wrote no columns last month. I also wrote a book called A Million Futures: The Remarkable Legacy of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, which will be published around Labour Day.

The immersion in education powerfully reinforced what I already knew: the Teapot Theory is obsolete. It’s an industrial-era model, an assembly line designed to churn out interchangeable workers. Teapot education is a dreadful preparation for a tumultuous, shape-shifting post-industrial society. That’s not the way people learn.

So how do people learn?

One revealing analysis of human learning is a four-stage model created by David Kolb of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Most people start, says Kolb, with a concrete experience. We reflect on the experience, formulate some ideas, and then test those ideas by visiting the experience again. The result is a “spiral of learning” that gets steadily deeper and richer.

Notice this: in Kolb’s model, there is no such thing as a teacher. There’s only a learner — and learning is an active, iterative process. People don’t just sit there while knowledge is poured into them. They go seeking it, testing it, figuring it out. Isn’t that the way you learned to tie your shoes, reconcile your bank statement, take good photos? Nobody put those things on a curriculum and insisted that you learn them. You needed and wanted to know, and you sought out resources to help you, including people.Your mother. Your uncle, the book-keeper. The instructor at the evening class in photography.

That’s the natural and normal procedure. You try things on your own. You read a book. You apprentice yourself, perhaps only briefly, to someone who can show you.

So why do we need an educational system?

Primarily for the benefit of employers and clients. What the system provides are credentials — and that’s not a bad thing. I do want some reassurance that cardiologists and airline pilots know what they’re doing. But that doesn’t mean they have to acquire the learning in the same place they acquire the credential.

In aboriginal cultures, in pre-industrial societies, kids learned by hanging around with adults who knew useful and interesting things. In 19th-century Nova Scotia, nobody went to ship-building college, but every village had master shipwrights. A Cape Breton apprenticeship agreement binds a young man to a blacksmith “to learn his art and mystery.” What a noble description of knowledge!

Similarly, in my youth a person could become a lawyer without attending university simply by apprenticing — or “articling”– with a lawyer, and passing the bar exams. To this day, graduates from some English universities can get “higher doctorates,” such as the DLitt, DD and DMus, simply by submitting a portfolio of published research that demonstrates the applicant’s scholarly eminence.

In a networked world, where some universities only exist online, why not award other degrees the same way? We already have student exchanges, off-campus placements, work terms and co-op education. Why shouldn’t a young person engage an academic planner — a personal teacher, like a personal trainer — to design a completely individualized program of apprenticeship, courses, work placements and independent study that could then be presented to a university for a degree?

Teapot education won’t do any longer. We need art and mystery, the liberation of learning. It’s an utterly glorious prospect.

– 30 —

To learn more about Silver Donald’s new book, A Million Futures, to read the Preface, and even to pre-order it, visit his web site, www.silverdonaldcameron.ca.