Maybe old learning isn’t so bad, after all?

Reda SadkiThinking aloud

When I first saw Mary Kalantzis’s photos of a 1983 elementary school classroom in Greece, I scoffed. It was so obvious that the “communications and knowledge architecture” was one-way, focused on rote learning and rewarding good behavior which involved staying safely “inside the box”. How easy to critique, deconstructing all of the ways in which this particular “banking” form of education was unlikely to intentionally “deposit” anything that might actually be useful to the future lives of these school children. How awful, I thought, and how at odds with everything I try to put into practice with respect to my own professional role. The promise of digital learning’s active knowledge-making makes 1983 look like the Dark Ages of education.

And yet. And yet this classroom very closely resembles the ones in which I grew up, with 5th grade in 1980 as a reference point. And I was one of the kids for whom it was an enjoyable experience. I thrived in that environment. I wanted to sponge up the facts and figures, and was proud to raise my hand, hoping the teacher would pick me. Group work simply wasn’t as much fun or rewarding as the individual recognition and praise from the teacher. It’s only when I jog my 42-year-old brain to recall what made me enjoy school so much that I realize it was the interaction, the creativity, and the serendipity. But the scaffolding was sturdy and reassuring precisely because it was so rigid and didactic.

The same with university. In my professional life, I proclaim my belief that the time for “post-campus education” has arrived. Speaking to a group of young interns, I explained recently that they could expect that their life-long learning had only just begun, and that by abandoning the oh-so-twentieth-century sequence in which you complete your degree and then go to work, they could more actively shape their future careers.

And yet. I was a first-generation college student, going to a university in the U.S. when both my parents never made it past elementary school. My father was put into an orphanage. My mother was denied the education she strived for when her school was closed by the French colonial forces when the Algerian Revolution started. The university campus was for me the site of life-changing experiences.

Today I am also the father of three boys. Nassim, my six-year-old, learned reading, writing and arithmetic this year. When it comes to his education, my approach is far-removed from cutting-edge education. I make him read and re-read texts, do and redo addition and subtraction exercises, drilling it in and checking constantly to see if it’s sunk in yet. Rewards are limited or non-existent with me. Sometimes he resists, complaining about the repetition or that it’s “too hard”. But he also seems to genuinely enjoy completing the exercises. I do this because I’m concerned that his public school teacher is going to be too “slack”, because he goes to school in a poor neighborhood in Paris where many of the kids face tough life circumstances, have parents who do not know how to read and write, and are considered by many (including teachers) to be destined for vocational training leading straight to unemployment. Especially if they are of Arab or African descent.

So, what to do with such blatant contradictions between my professed interest in “new learning” and my personal experience? I believe this contradiction can be productive, meaning that I try to mobilize it to understand why colleagues and other interlocutors express skepticism about innovation in learning, whether explicitly or implicitly. And, yes, I’m also trying to rethink how I work with my sons after school. The world is changing. If we want learning to be supportive, participatory, inspiring, motivating, flexible… it’s not (only) because that will make learning a more pleasurable experience. It is because this is how our children (or those of others, for those to whom parents have delegated mass public education) will get the chance to develop the knowledge and skills they will need to not only survive but thrive — in the online classrooms before they learn the hard way, IRL.

Photo credit: Mary Kalantzis (1983).