Zen of Teaching Interview with Mike Wesch and Gardner Campbell

The following is a summarized article based on an interview of Michael Wesch and Gardner Campbell. As with some past interviews, a student assistant, Gabriela Rivera, has carefully reviewed my notes, written a transcript, and later produced the following abridged version. I had the great pleasure of meeting with Dr. Wesch and Dr. Campbell during the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) conference in Austin, Texas held between the 13th and 15th of February, 2012, and this is a short summary of the interesting things which were said during that conversation. I can’t really say how much I am grateful to both Mike and Gardner for their time and disposition. I had a great time, and hope they both -as well as you readers and watchers- have it also.

The interview began with some observation (from Chris Dede) that it is so important and difficult at times, to unlearn the stuff we have built up with time… In the end, the idea of exploring the myths of teaching and learning is just this: to expose the things that we must unlearn if we want to unleash the real teacher in all if us.

When it comes to education and the use of technology and media we must unlearn many unconscious assumptions about learning and teaching that have been created in the past. Gardner Campbell says that a teacher’s job is not to be a proctor. Take blogs, for example. Many teaching professionals get anxious about the idea of having to read every blog post and every comment posted by students. According to Gardner, the job of the educator is going to be richer and not as easy to manage as just monitoring every aspect of the students communication. The students must be encouraged to discuss things amongst each other, and it is important not to intervene as an educator. Spontaneous learning can break out in this type of open, communicative environment.

There are certain aspects that keep faculty from changing the way that they teach. In Michael Wesch’s experience this may include lack of funds or professional development support, but he believes the majority feel that fear prevents them from changing. Many educators feel that they must model a style of teaching in which they are in control. As educators, we need to model innovative risk taking behavior, and break the cycle of stagnation. The traditional point of view of rigorous thinking incites us to analyze and criticize in an adversarial or cynical way. It is important to promote other types of criticism. Wesch believes empathetic and connective thinking is important because it allows us to put ourselves in the position of others. It can open our minds to other opinions and ways of thinking that may benefit us. It takes true courage and strength as an educator to risk one’s own ego and appearances in favor of promoting wonder and curiosity in the students.

Many educators feel imprisoned by the limits of teaching focused on content. It is evident that nowadays, with the volume of information available, it is impossible to teach students everything there is to know about a certain subject. Educators are limited by a certain amount of hours available in a course where they have to fit a variety of material. That being said, the role of the educator is no longer simply to impart knowledge, but to inspire a certain way of thinking.

I observe that education today needs to focus also on issues that are political in nature. One of the biggest political issues pertaining to education is funding. We need to reform the way in which money is handled when it comes to education, and in Campbell’s opinion, one of the things we can do to begin this process is to follow the money. We need to find a way to address the problem of the political corruption within the education system, and most of this comes down to money handling issues. In many cases these discussions are censored by the institutions themselves. Corruption needs to be called out when it is observed in a clear manner. It is very important to maintain an open debate, in this way, dialogue remains open and new solutions can be forged.

I find it quite disturbing to note that in some ways the Internet may be taking a turn and is now closing in on itself. Campbell replies that the Internet represents something truly rare in human experience: It was designed by very thoughtful people, most of them in an academic context. On the other hand, Wesch points out that the most important aspect of a crisis that we must recognize, is that there are solutions. Today we have the tools with which to resolve this crisis. There are a variety of free, online tools, and the only way to protect them is to get people excited about them.

Another issue presented to Mike and Gardner was the question of the value of College. Due to this global crisis, there are a number of students who question the value and the need for college. The cost of college is exorbitantly high and many students are beginning to doubt whether it is really worth it. Wesch feels that we need to validate the students’ concerns while at the same time encouraging a sense of community within the universities.

Campbell shares with us that the first four years of higher education are an interesting moment in the lives of most students. For the traditionally aged student (about 18 years old) this comes at a particularly interesting moment in their cognitive, social and physical development. At this time, the student should not be expected to gain any degree of mastery in a particular subject, even though they may get fairly masterful in writing and a few other things and certainly a degree of depth in a particular subject. According to Campbell, the most important thing that happens in those four years is that the student is introduced to civilization from the point of view of a co-creator of culture. Through the modeling of professors and the enthusiastic energy of other students, pupils are able to see that the world is much larger and much more susceptible to their own creation. According to Wesch, in order to do this they need courage, a sense of empowerment, a sense of connection and meaning, all of which can be found in a physical, face to face community. Unfortunately, we often see that institutions separate this drive towards co-creation from academic duties. In a sense, educators often stifle a student’s enthusiasm by creating the idea that we must separate these individual or auto-dictated interests from their academic applications.

Within the academic community exists the concept of “transfer” which refers to the ability to take the skills learned in the classroom and apply them to their daily lives or other things within school. We often find that students have trouble applying this concept. This may be due to the problem of compartmentalization. The students master a type of “fake transfer”, just like they would learn any other procedure, often giving what Campbell defines as an “awful simulation of integrative thinking”, because the educators have already ruled out any type of integrative thinking due to fear that it would undermine their established dogmas about genuine integrative thinking (out of fear that it would ruin their disciplines). We must recognize that this transfer cannot be forced.

The activity of meaning-making happens within the mind of the student and it is important, in the words of Campbell, “to model the ability to be surprised, to model the ability to be dizzy with the possibility of a new idea” because it demonstrates that the process of integrative thinking and transfer is occurring within the mind of the educator. The subjects or concepts transferred are irrelevant, it is enough to focus on reason, analytic ability and creative, deep thinking.

About Antonio Vantaggiato

Professor, web2.0 enthusiast, and didactic chef.
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