Nelson part 2: of teachers and curricula

In the time between writing Computer Lib/Dream Machines in 1974 and being interviewed by Gardner Campbell in 2014, Ted Nelson seems to have become a bit more sympathetic to teachers (or at least a bit less inclined to attack them/us directly).   In 1974, he presents teachers as holding considerable power in, and power to shape students’ experiences within, an “educational system. . .committed to the fussy and prissy, to the enforcement of peculiar standards of righteousness and the elevation of teachers.” While “most teachers mean well,” he writes, “they are so concerned with promoting their images, attitudes, and styles of order that very little else can be communicated in the time remaining, and almost none of it attractively” (Computer Lib, p. 309 of New Media Reader reprint/excerpt).  By 2014, he describes teachers as less powerful, trapped  within and limited by rather than shaping the system, ineffective in part because they are “so overworked, so boggled by appalling administrative crap” (c. 6:40+ in the video linked above).

One villain, however, remains constant in the two presentations of Nelson’s ideas: the curriculum.  “A child arrives at school bright and early in his life,” Nelson writes in 1974. “By drabness we deprive him of interests. By fixed curriculum and sequence we rob him of his orientation, initiative and motivation, and by testing and scoring we subvert his natural intelligence” (Computer Lib p. 308).  In 2014, responding to Gardner’s initial question about the current state of education, he speaks of a school system which reduces education to a “system of curricula, of gradation, of . . .attempting to stamp out homogenized minds,” “reducing knowledge to a small number of testable points” (c. .55+).  Later in the interview, in a discussion of the “oceanic mind” and the importance of understanding the “big picture” by seeing connections between ideas that are traditionally relegated to different fields of study, he reiterates that “taking a course is not necessarily the best way to learn something” (c.15:50 -17.25).

I agree with that final statement, especially for people who — in a phrase that comes up frequently in discussions of the promise and pitfalls of MOOCs, have learned how to learn.  I also agree — as I suspect most teachers do — with Nelson’s critique of an educational culture in which the standardized-testing tail often seems to be wagging a dog that represents every other part of the educational process.  Finally, I recognize and value the interdisciplinary nature of learning; in fact, the class that most shaped my college and professional career was an interdisciplinary class – women’s studies – taken during my first year of college.  In part as a result of that class, I spent a good deal of my time in college questioning the literary canon – an established curriculum of sorts, represented by which texts were and weren’t included in anthologies, or, in many cases, available in print at all, except, perhaps, in obscure corners of the library stacks, or in the rare book room.  As a result of that experience, I have some sympathy for Nelson’s questioning of set curricula and their value.

At the same time, I’m not so sure that Nelson’s proposals are quite as much of a departure from existing approaches to teaching, or from the idea of a curriculum, as he suggests. For instance, I notice that the learning space Nelson envisions as an alternative to single-path Computer Aided Instruction (CAI) seems itself to be a carefully curated space, with constrained rather than infinite choices. While the student chooses the “sequence” in which (s)he encounters the “interesting and clear” material, and also “the most appropriate form of testing available” (Computer Lib p. 313)  – from, presumably, an existing menu of options — the experience described seems more akin to exploring a well-designed hyptertext encyclopedia (perhaps one with abundant links to primary documents and more in-depth secondary sources), or perhaps the early AOL environment, than to trying to make one’s way unaided through the World Wide Web, or even the stacks of a large university library that has been collecting materials for a century or three (reading reviews of the Bronte’s novels, in bound copies of the periodicals that had once served as recreational reading for mid-19th century Harvard undergraduates, was another transformative experience of my first year in college).

And as Vannevar Bush points out, as the amount of available material representing the sum of human knowledge increases, so does our need to find paths through that material, and to seek help from others in tracing those paths. And what is a curriculum but a path blazed by others?  And do we not learn to blaze our own paths in part by using the methods and following in the footsteps of our predecessors, at least until a better way of doing things occurs to us, or something a bit off the established path catches our eye?

As a college freshperson, I was ready to be enthralled rather than intimidated by the stacks of Widener Library in part because I’d been guided (by excellent teachers, in the privileged environment of small, mostly discussion-based classes) through an established, more constrained curriculum in high school – the AP American history curriculum, with its emphasis on Document-Based Questions (DBQs).  Through my experience with curated sets of primary documents and pre-set questions, I learned that primary sources existed, and what kinds of questions I could use them to answer (though those questions, even in my girls’ high school, were never, as far as I can remember, about gender).

When I decided I wanted to explore ideas about gender and authorship in the mid-19th century for the assigned research paper in my Women’s Studies class, I was able to combine the experience of answering questions by analyzing primary sources and the particular perspective of the class to frame a question that was still somewhat outside the norm for English studies in 1983.  Similarly, I was able to combine skills and information from my education so far — the knowledge that primary sources in general existed, and could be used to answer research questions;  the information, most likely gleaned from lecture or class readings, that the Bronte’s novels had been reviewed while the gender of their authors was still a matter of speculation; and a general sense of how to search for periodicals (that was probably when I discovered that the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature had a 19th-century counterpart) — to locate those evocative bound volumes (rather than the microform copies that, based on past experience, I had anticipated). And, during the later years of college and eventually in graduate school, I was able to continue refining those research and analytical skills, and applying them to finding and reading texts increasingly distant from the established (though then as now ever-changing) canon.

Would I have learned even more from my early experiences with DBQs if the texts had been arranged in the sort of environment Nelson describes, rather than sequentially in printed or photocopied packets? Possibly (but we did a good bit of jumping around in those printed packets, and sometimes our teachers supplemented the printed packet with additional photocopies).  What about if there had been no set questions?  I’m not so sure about that; at least in this case, I’m pretty sure I benefited from having questions (and even, on occasion, answers) modeled for me before I went on to construct my own, often quite different, ones.

Would I have gotten less from my high school experience if the teachers had followed an even more constrained, and constraining, curriculum, or if (as seems to be the case with Nelson) I had chafed more against institutional structure of any kind?  Quite likely.  But at least in my experience (which, like Nelson’s, is a data set of n=1), it worked quite well to move from a constrained curriculum and a very structured day to an education that challenged some of the assumptions of that curriculum, and a course schedule that allowed me considerable time to explore readings, libraries, etc., on my own.

It’s also worth noting that even Nelson’s proposed system is not quite the guide-less free-for-all one might assume from the “no more teachers’ dirty looks” mantra, or the declaration that “anyone retaining his natural mental facilities can learn anything practically on his own, given encouragement and resources” (pp. 308-309). The qualifiers here — “practically,” “given encouragement and resources” — though easy to gloss over, are crucial.

The quality of the “resources” provided — by someone’s labor, whether one calls it “teaching” labor or something else — is central to the success of the project.  If there are no “teachers,” per se, in Nelson’s system, there are still creators, or at least choosers, of “clear” materials to be made “available” and even “attractive” to the learner.

“Encouragement” is also key, and also hints at the presence of implicit if not explicit teaching.   “Encouragement” and “on his own” are at odds; if someone is encouraging you to do something, you’re not truly doing it “on your own,” even if it feels like you are.  In fact, making it feel like you’re doing it on your own can be one of the subtler forms of encouragement, and of teaching.  Think of the five-year-old who declares “I did it all by myself,” and the parent who builds confidence by refraining from contradicting that declaration — or perhaps, if (s)he fears the child is becoming dangerously overconfident, smilingly adds “well, almost” (or “practically”).

It also seems likely that, in the process of choosing, these behind-the-scenes creators would imagine some (though perhaps not all) of the paths students might take through the created or chosen materials, and create or choose additional materials that would enhance that experience.  So, as with the five-year-old who picks what to wear from a parent-curated wardrobe,  the freedom the student feels is perhaps not so great as (s)he imagines, nor is the range of possible questions that can be answered infinite (for instance, if someone had created a collection of literary texts for study using Nelson’s model c. 1982, it might or might not have included many texts by women, or by the other noncanonical writers whose work I’ve studied).  However, in making their way through a well-designed set of constrained materials, students may well develop the skills they need to include materials outside the original set in their inquiry (on the other hand, if the original set of materials is too carefully curated, too selected for “clarity” and appeal, they might not; this is an ongoing challenge for educators seeking to create engaging, accessible instructional materials, and also to help students apply skills learned in carefully-designed environments to messier real-world situations).

Finally, are the people who create, collect, and to some extent arrange the collections of materials Nelson envisions teachers (or perhaps, in the parlance of an academy where the creation and “delivery” of curricula is in some cases becoming separated, instructional designers)?  And is the collection a “curriculum,” perhaps by another name?  For that matter, is Nelson himself, with his interest in the creation of engaging learning experiences, a teacher, or least someone who thinks a lot like a good teacher?  I’m not particularly interested in getting hung up on vocabulary, but I’d answer yes to all of these questions – Nelson describes a well-designed, usefully constrained, inquiry-based curriculum designed by thoughtful teachers engaged in – yes, Dr. Nelson – a creative process in which he himself is also involved.