Alchemy or science?

I am often asked why many teachers are so reluctant to share their work particularly on blogs and other social networking sites. The answer eludes me despite what we know about the influence of teacher learning on student learning.

I believe it stems from the historical and cultural context of teaching. Since the 19th century, teachers have spent most of their time working alone in classrooms; pursuing their own agendas and developing their own knowledge and skills from whatever sources were available.

We know the practice of collaboration and reflective dialogue is critical to improving the quality of learning and teaching. It is one of the necessary conditions of building leadership capacity and transforming schools.

In responding to the Edge’s World Question Centre – ‘how has the internet changed the way you think‘, Clay Shirky’ wrote this:  (thanks to John Connell for the link)

The Invisible College, the group of natural philosophers who drove the original revolution in chemistry in the mid-1600s, were strongly critical of the alchemists, their intellectual forebears, who for centuries had made only fitful progress. By contrast, the Invisible College put chemistry on a sound scientific footing in a matter of a couple of decades, one of the most important intellectual transitions in the history of science. In the 1600s, though, a chemist and an alchemist used the same tools and had access to the same background. What did the Invisible College have that the alchemists didn’t?

They had a culture of sharing. The problem with the alchemists had wasn’t that they failed to turn lead into gold; the problem was that they failed uninformatively. Alchemists were obscurantists, recording their work by hand and rarely showing it to anyone but disciples. In contrast, members of the Invisible College shared their work, describing and disputing their methods and conclusions so that they all might benefit from both successes and failures, and build on each other’s work.

The Internet’s primary effect on how we think will only reveal itself when it affects the cultural milieu of thought, not just the behavior of individual users. The members of the Invisible College did not live to see the full flowering of the scientific method, and we will not live to see what use humanity makes of a medium for sharing that is cheap, instant, and global (both in the sense of ‘comes from everyone’ and ‘goes everywhere.’) We are, however, the people who are setting the earliest patterns for this medium. Our fate won’t matter much, but the norms we set will.

Given what we have today, the Internet could easily become Invisible High School, with a modicum of educational material in an ocean of narcissism and social obsessions. We could, however, also use it as an Invisible College, the communicative backbone of real intellectual and civic change, but to do this will require more than technology. It will require that we adopt norms of open sharing and participation, fit to a world where publishing has become the new literacy.

So are today’s teachers alchemists or chemists?


3 thoughts on “Alchemy or science?

  1. I would like to see teachers sharing information about students and their learning styles. Every year, as a parent I go along to the parent/teacher interviews, and spend 5 minutes in intense conversation with yet another teacher. I am surprised at how well this teacher has got to know my child in the first two terms, when my child is one of possibly hundreds taught by this teacher. She sums up the main features of my child’s learning style, I try to give some information which may help to work around some of my child’s unique characteristics. I do this 8 or so more times with all the other subject teachers, and go home home feeling lucky that I only had to meet 8 teachers, not the hundreds of parents the teachers had to meet. The second half of the year works better because the teacher has worked out how to engage my child. Then the year ends, and we start all over again with a fresh group of teachers, who take half the year to work out my child’s learning style, and I go to the parent teacher night, and hear exactly what I heard last year.
    What if there was a way so that teachers could share the vital information about my child’s learning style with each other, across subjects and from year to year? Then all teachers would understand my child like my child’s favourite teacher does. Teachers could start teaching at the beginning of the year instead of spending half the year working the children out. I’d still show up for parent teacher nights, but I would see the school developing a growing understanding of my child’s learning style, and this would be good for all concerned.

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