Silver Donald Cameron

Posts Tagged ‘education’

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The immersion in education powerfully reinforced what I already knew: the Teapot Theory is obsolete.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.

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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,

Loving Your Work

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

February 28, 2010

“Students at other universities think we’re weird,” said the young woman with the long black hair and the ready smile. “They say, ‘Why don’t you just cut that class?’ And when I say, ‘I don’t want to cut it, I want to go to it,’ they look at me like I came from another planet.”

“That’s right,” nodded another girl. “When they find out that we have four-hour classes, they say, ‘Wow, four hours, how can you stand it? That would drive me crazy!’ And they don’t believe it when we say the time really flies by.”

I’m in a studio at NSCAD University, formerly the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. I have a graphic design problem, and Denise Saulnier’s 11 design students are imagining possible solutions. I am so happy to be back at NSCAD that I can hardly describe it.

Twenty years ago I had the good fortune to be NSCAD’s first and only writer in residence. And perhaps what I remember most vividly from that experience is the energy, flair and dedication of the students and faculty, their passion for their work.

The students wanted to be great artists or superb designers. They wanted it desperately, and they worked at it obsessively. The faculty were mature, well-established practitioners, and they were equally obsessive. They were inspiring examples, working long hours, pushing the limits of their disciplines, gaining commissions and showing their work in exotic places like Germany, China and Ottawa. Day and night, the place just hummed. It was the most fierce and fertile learning environment I’ve ever seen.

The rewards of a life in the arts can be pretty meagre — but one of its great benefits is that artists wake up in the morning eager to get started, constantly learning and exploring and innovating. Every day is an adventure. They aren’t necessarily happy, but they know what they’re supposed to be doing with their lives.

“I love writing — it’s both a real agony and a terrific pleasure,” said the great novelist Margaret Laurence. “When I say ‘work,” I only mean writing. Work should be something that you love doing, and that you put everything that you have and more into it, and only that kind of work is really worthy of the name. So when I say ‘work,’ I only mean writing. Everything else is just odd jobs.”

Work should be something that you love doing. That’s what the NSCAD students already know. But for too many people in our poor sad culture, “work” is what you have to do, and “play” is what you love to do. That’s what their friends, alas, already know.

If education should be about learning how to do what you love, most of what goes on in our educational system is, to put it kindly, beside the point. Indeed, mass education is really designed to train dutiful workers for traditional industries. Like steelworkers or meat-packers, the children troop off to the factory when the whistle blows, toting their lunch-pails, and dutifully returning when their shift is over.

Non-industrial societies rarely have institutions that look like schools — but their kids get educated anyway. In clan societies, in aboriginal communities, in rural Nova Scotia a century ago, kids learned what they needed to know mostly by hanging out with working adults. Girls learned domestic skills by helping their mothers and grandmothers. Boys learned to be hunters or blacksmiths or navigators by tagging along with men who did that kind of work.

This is not ancient history. When I was 18, I could have become a lawyer without going to university, simply by “articling” in a law office and taking the appropriate examinations. In effect, I would have apprenticed as a lawyer.

This is actually the way that most people learn most efficiently — by acquiring the skills in the course of doing the work, reflecting on the process, trying again, submitting to criticism, internalizing the standards, and practicing, practicing, practicing. That’s what goes on at NSCAD, and it’s exactly what we need in order to thrive in a fast-moving, inventive, knowledge-based economy. NSCAD exemplifies a pedagogy deeply rooted in our past. It’s also the pedagogy of the future.

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What Nova Scotians Know

Sunday, March 2nd, 2008

One of the greatest intellectual skills is the ability to ask good questions – which is a prerequisite for discovering good answers. Nobody asks better questions than GPIAtlantic.

The Faithful Reader already knows my admiration for this little research organization from St. Margaret’s Bay, which has done so much to help us think more intelligently about the world and the frantic social flux we live in. GPI, you’ll recall, stands for “Genuine Progress Index,” as opposed to “Gross Domestic Product,” which has become our conventional – but unsatisfactory — indicator of progress.

The GDP is only about money. Increased sales of cars and cannelloni make the GDP go up, yes – but so do crime, disease and disasters. When Hurricane Juan strikes, the GDP counts all the costs of clean-up as economic growth, and thus as “progress. The GPI, by contrast, counts things which are destructive and harmful as negatives and deducts them from our overall well-being. Sounds like common sense? Yes, exactly.

In the past decade, GPIAtlantic has issued more than 80 reports about Nova Scotian society on topics as diverse as the social costs of obesity and tobacco use, the unrecognized cash value of volunteerism and unpaid housework, the destructive irrationality of our treatment of forests and fisheries. Each report is a piece of the Genuine Progress Index of Nova Scotia. When the index is complete, we will have an unique description of Nova Scotia’s quality of life, and a solid set of benchmarks against which to measure future progress or decline.

GPIAtlantic’s most recent report, just issued, is entitled How Educated Are Nova Scotians? Education Indicators for the Nova Scotia Genuine Progress Index. Predictably, the study reviewed such data as test scores, literacy, student debt and research financing. It came up with some interesting findings – for example, that the increasing reliance of schools on fund-raising is slowly creating a two-tiered educational system, where schools in wealthy neighbourhoods are much better equipped than schools in poorer districts.

The study reported that Nova Scotian university students graduate with a very heavy debt load, and that they work longer hours during the academic term than they ever have. It also revealed, rather shockingly, that although Nova Scotians today have more schooling than ever before, they are no more literate than they were a generation ago.

The usual report on education would have ended there, basing its findings on the assumption that “education” means “what the educational system does.” Instead, the GPI report turned the process on its head, asking not, “What do students learn?” but “What do Nova Scotians know – no matter where or how they learned it?”

So the GPIAtlantic study considered modes of learning which lie beyond the formal educational system. “Life-long learning” is the intellectual progress that continues throughout the individual’s lifetime. Life-wide learning is the education that takes place in informal settings like the home, the workplace, and the community, and through advertising and the media.

The end result of life-long and life-wide learning is a wide range of “literacies.” The GPIAtlantic team therefore attempted to assess Nova Scotians’ command not only of languages and numbers, but also their understanding of science, ecology, health, nutrition, civics, arts, culture, statistics, indigenous knowledge, and the media. We don’t have much data on the general level of public understanding, but GPI executive director Ronald Colman notes that high levels of literacy in these matters should be revealed in wise collective choices and intelligent public policies.

Alas, the report found little evidence that Nova Scotians are particularly literate in most of these areas, and in some – civics and politics, for example – younger people are actually less literate than their parents and grandparents, although they have much more schooling.

As is so often the case, the research was badly hampered by a lack of information.

“We don’t know how literate our people are on all those dimensions, and we don’t know whether their literacy levels in these and other knowledge areas are improving or not,” said Dr. Colman. So GPIAtlantic Statistics Canada to begin administering a Canadian Knowledge Survey, which would provide an evolving picture of population knowledge and wisdom – clearly an essential step.

For me, however, the report’s greatest contribution is its deep insight into the purposes of education. Learning starts with data, but it soon progresses to information and then to knowledge – and its final destination is wisdom. Understanding – otherwise known as literacy – is the factor that connects all four levels.

Without a broad spectrum of literacies, there is no possibility of attaining wisdom. And without wisdom, there is no possibility of creating a truly humane society and a sustainable way of life. In its deepest and broadest sense, that’s really what education is all about – and by reminding Nova Scotians of that fact, a report like How Educated are Nova Scotians does us a signal public service.

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