Please! No More Mantras!

If there’s one thing that really bugs me it’s people coming out with stuff with no thought whatsoever, but which they assume is profound. I’ve been to some conferences where a couple of speakers recited such mantras as “guide on the side”, “emails are for old people” and “no more computer labs”. Why do I call phrases like this “mantras”? A mantra is a sound without meaning. The idea is that you keep repeating the sound over and over again so that it can bring you to a deeper and higher plane of existence, without getting sidetracked by the actual meaning of the sound. What better description for phrases like the ones I’ve just mentioned?

Guide on the side

The premise here is that pupils learn by doing and collaborating, not by merely listening. And certainly not by listening to the “sage on the stage”, the teacher. In fact, I was horrified when one teacher replied, in answer to my question “What of a pupil doesn’t understand or know something? How do they find out?”, “Oh they ask each other”. In other words, her classroom is like a live version of Wikipedia: there’s no immediately verifiable authority behind the words.

If a teacher only adopts a guide on the side approach, what are they actually being paid for? Apparently not their expertise. After all, you could get anyone, including another pupil, to organise the class into groups. If I were a parent of a child at the school, I’d want my child taught – not only “guided” but taught – by an expert. We’re constantly reminded by research of something we already know -- that the quality of the teacher is the most important single factor in a learning situation, yet we merely nod sagely when someone on a platform (ie the sage on the stage) intones the mantra “guide on the side good, sage on the stage bad”.

It’s time we started questioning whether that is always true in every circumstance, and challenging speakers who come out with such nonsense. The fact of the matter is that a skilled and expert teacher will have a sort of toolkit of techniques and repertoires which can be deployed appropriately. We know we should be suspicious of snake oil salesmen; people who tell us that only one approach to teaching is the correct one are a modern form of snake oil salesmen, but the product is an idea. It’s not even a new one, but it seems to be often thought to be – and there’s an implicit assumption that anything new is better than anything old.

Emails are for old people

Which brings me nicely on to the next point. I keep hearing people say things like: “My 10 year old son told me that email is for old people.” My response is:

  • So what?
  • If you must cite young people as if they have divine wisdom, at least do some proper research; a decent sample size would be a nice start.
  • When your son is working, ask him again what he thinks of email for exchanging information such as files. I’ve tried email, instant messaging and other types of application, but email is by far the best for everyday working.

Everything is good in the right place: age has nothing to do with it.

No more computer labs

My opinion is that we should be designing spaces that facilitate learning, and as there are different types of learning, there should be different types of spaces. Why would we wish to preclude computer labs, especially if they are set out thoughtfully, with areas to write or mull things over, and pleasantly furnished? Again, what we use should be dictated by what’s appropriate for a given situation, not by an unthinking subservience to modernism.

On balance, I think we need more thought and fewer mantras – which unfortunately sounds like a mantra in itself!