Once upon a time, I went off to Austria as an exchange student. Having limited travel experience, it seemed a pretty big leap. Many years later, it’s clear to me that the Austrian and Minnesoto-American cultures are, in broad and relative strokes, much more similar than they are different. But as an inveterate researcher of culture and cultural change, I also am aware of how the “small things” communicate big messages.
One of the things that startled me most at the time was the mid-sized Bundesgymnasium’s lack of a library. My high school, built during a period of relatively progressive educational vision and funding, had a “media center” at its heart. This contained shelves and shelves of books and magazines, along with a small TV studio, and enough A-V opportunities to warrant the “media” designation. Students would meet in the media center for projects, and it was, in the conceptualization of David D. Thornberg, one of the school’s “watering holes,” where random and casual social encounters were possible.
It’s true that the Bundesgymnasium, set in an alpine valley, had better scenery, which in my mind certainly compensated for its libraryless-ness for a while. But that’s not where the contrasts ended. The first day of classes found me scrambling as I learned that when a teacher entered the room, all the students rose to their feet. The memory is particularly vivid in relation to the history and geography class, my favorite subjects prior to that time. The teacher entered, waited for the rising and rustling to stop, and gazed slowly through the room, checking for attentiveness and transgressions such as stray objects on the desks. Once satisfied, he spread his arms, granting permission to sit. He instructed students to take out their notebooks, pens and rulers (woe unto anyone who had already done this before commanded), and then he opened his own notebook. It, like the students’, was handwritten– the chapter and verse of that year’s curriculum.
Monday through Thursday, he would dictate to the students, right down to the punctuation, Roman numeral outlining, and underlined words.
On Friday, students would recite, on command and from memory, passages from their written notes. Some recitations, in inadvertent Victor Borge fashion, included the punctuation.
No wonder there wasn’t a library. In this world, teachers were the ultimate, unquestioned information authority. The very existence of a library would suggest otherwise.
I have been assured that not all classrooms in Austria, or even in that school, operated like this at that time. And indeed, I also remember a literature teacher who was at least moderately interested in conversation. (Although she also continually scolded students for their ill-structured essays without communicating what good structure would be.)
But the symbolism of the standing, the dictation, “the” notebook, and the recitation is hard to miss. These things said a lot about authority, about concepts of knowledge and learning and choice… about worldviews. Indeed, the classroom rituals were not all that different from those conducted in the Kirche up the hill.
Several years later, I returned Austria, this time to Vienna, on a cooperative program that placed English language speakers in academic high schools as teaching assistants. During an orientation tour, my guide burbled enthusiastically about the newest addition to the school – a real innovation. Funding had been secured; parents and teachers were thrilled. It was… a library. We strode briskly down the hall, a door visible on the far end.
“Do the students use the library on their breaks, or go as a class?” I asked, clear that things were probably still a far cry from the casual “media center.” My guide looked at me strangely, pulling a set of keys from her pocket.
“Of course we don’t let students in here, but if you need something, you can see me,” she said, unlocking and opening the heavy wooden door.
Behind the door was a walk-in closet, filled with shelves, only some of which were occupied… with multiple copies of textbooks.
The great new addition to the school was considered an innovation largely because it meant that teachers no longer had to dictate punctuation.
I’ve had cause to think about these experiences and understandings as I read frequently about the push for interactive white boards (and learning management systems) for classrooms and schools. Lots of public funding dollars are being spent on these. They are also being touted as important and innovative technology – surely parents and the public would want these in our schools!
But, like the library-but-not, I have to muse about the symbolism behind these tokens of digital progress. I can’t help but wonder how many current technology initiatives are promoting tools that make the traditional conceptualizations of knowledge more entrenched and the rituals of the learning process more efficient… or perhaps even enshrining them. Interactive white boards, while they can be used as a central interface to connect to the bigger world, are designed for a world where classrooms as the primary site of learning. They remain a “sage on the stage” tool, one in which central efforts around worksheets and demonstrations can revolve. They might be fun and flashy for kids, and yes, I’ve seen them in action and I can see where it can all depend on the individual implementation, but let’s be clear: they are largely for the teachers’ convenience. (And that clicker thing? Spookily Skinnerian.)
Do teachers need all the help they can get? Sure. It doesn’t help to demonize those things that bring short-term relief to people and systems under pressure, whether they’re better desks, exercise balls, or technology aids.
However, what happens when we contrast these popular “innovations” with the symbolism and tacit messages of technology dollars spent on mobile and individual learning devices such as netbooks or OLPC-type machines? These de-centralized technologies communicate very different messages– about options and locations for learning, about learners’ power to make choices… and about a learner’s responsibilities in relation to learning processes.
In the best of worlds, technology choices, as well as learning choices, would not be either/or. And true, it’s possible to overbearingly dictate the use of de-centralized technology. And, finally, there is also a danger of being overly reductive with this type of analysis; learning is a complex system.
And so I would simply note that a society’s choice of tools, coupled with their implementation, could be understood as saying a great deal about its traditions, as well as its hopes and its vision – its worldview. An innovation in one context is interpreted differently in another. Nothing new here, but it seems like a good thing to remember now and then.