A discussion on writer John Shirley’s Facebook page inspired me to post this on my blog, because I don’t want to forget it.
It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I started really feeling the passion for learning, and the ability to do it reliably (or at least try to).
For me, what made it happen was a (long-overdue) relative absence of acute anxiety, some healing of my ambient anger about how fucked the world is, and proper medication.
But the thing that made the biggest difference for me was not being tied to the format of “lecture, reading and discussion.”
What helped me to truly love learning was (and is) being able to switch between fiction books, nonfiction books, recorded audio lectures, video lectures, audiobooks, and documentary video. I have ADHD, you see, and I don’t know if that’s why, but I lose interest in a single given format very quickly, often without losing interest in a single topic. E-books also made a huge difference…because I tend not to lose them. That might sound familiar to anyone who’s ever been the parent of an ADHD kid.
So that makes me wonder what “effective” education would look like for people like me — people with ADHD if you want to put a label on it, but there are other similar syndromes. With the relocation of ADHD to the autism spectrum, a whole range of psychiatric isues — some clinically significant, some subclinical, some undetected and others catastrophically life-altering, like severe autism — all seem to present similar challenges to the way humans perceive and assimilate data.
I wonder about a K-12, junior college and university model that incorporates more of the individual learning options available, not depending so much on lecture-reading-discussion. Lecture, which many teachers are shitty at. Reading, which — seriously — 99% of the students don’t do, and the teachers don’t usually call them on it. And discussion, which has become, in our world, not the complex interchange of ideas or even an informal debate — or, hell, even an argument. “Discussion” in most contexts too often becomes one or more of a selection of truly execrable things…ranging from bland regurgitation to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings, right up to politically-motivated shoutdowns, guilt-trips and racially-coded attacks as the students seek to “educate” each other. American society needs to work on its social skills if it wants class discussion to serve an educational purpose, rather than merely being an ordeal.
I find social situations hugely anxiety-producing — and, more to the point, exactly counter to assimilating the large quantities of data I desperately need to keep my brain from revving uncontrollably to the point where it throws a rod. At the same time (so help me!) I swear, I love people. Almost nobody but me believes that, but really, I do. I love people. I love YOU. Seriously, you’re almost not as awful as books!
In any event, there are so m any learning possibilities enabled by aggressive use of the interactive learning model. New kinds of learning are allowed by easily accessed, relatively cheap, and entirely portable audio, video and e-text.
All those formats can be accessed on a single device now — a tablet, MP3/video player or even a cell phone. The same file, or an audio version of a text file or vice-versa, can be used on multiple devices, too, with technology similar to the Kindle’s text-to-voice or Amazon’s easy bookmarking between downloadable audio versions of books and the Kindle editions of the same books.
For instance, if a student is squirmy sitting at the computer watching a lecture, he or she can take a long walk with earphones in, switching to the audio version of the same lecture they were just watching. Or if they’re reading on a couch and falling asleep, go for a jog and listen to the audio of the book that was just sending them to dreamland.
Or you can take an iPad and go watch the lecture sitting under the tree in the park, or while walking on a treadmill, or…almost anywhere. You can even listen to audio lectures in the car…so you’re not tempted to text, of course.
At least for things like humanities, politics and the less technical, more theoretical aspects of the sciences, it seems like such a student-directed, student-paced, multi-channel model might completely transform learning for students with ADHD or other autism spectrum disorders. I know it would for me.
But it’s not just ADHD students who are smart but can’t “get” school. Plenty of students have trouble sitting still, or don’t otherwise like fitting into school’s social structures.
I come from a family of teachers, and my beloved sister and mother might give me a stern talking-to if I were to sound like I’m advocating any reduction of the number of teachers.
I’m not. Teachers are the critical element in any learning program. But just what they do, as most teachers will tell you, needs to change, to some degree, with the student. Special needs students have, well…special needs. That’s as true for gifted kids as it is for slow ones. Neither should be left behind by a one-size-fits all approach.
Having been a Chemistry major, my teacher now sister teaches middle-school science, and I think there’s no way most students are going to be able to retain science — and sure as hell not Chemistry! — without a pretty rigid structure, including in-classroom demonstrations and labs.
I love teachers, and I love teaching. For all subjects in K-12, in-person, in-classroom learning is a critical piece of the puzzle. In college, the process is more interactive to begin with.
But people like me have a hell of a time learning at a pace that’s anything close to our potential when we have to sit there in class feeling like we’re spending 90% of our energy not screaming at the top of our lungs, diving through the window, or simply jumping out of our skin. Add social bullshit into that, and there was no chance at all that school would be anything but a nightmare for me.
Technology is not always salvation…but I do believe that in the case of education, for some students like me, it can be, in the long term…if we let it.