Today I discovered, via Ewan McIntosh, a gem of a tumblr blog featuring some of the most breathtaking examples of textbook driven pseudo problems I have come across. Thanks, textbooks shares an example every Monday of a textbook question which, whilst addressing the learning objective, has often failed to address common sense or reality… Problems such as the one above seem hilarious when viewed through the lens of real life, yet how often are such completely inauthentic contexts an unquestioned aspect of learning in institutions?
As I have written before, when I first started teaching I used to spend hours concocting pseudo problems to give certain lessons a context. That is, until I realised that they take a long time to put together yest a short time to solve, for a learner they are meaningless and unhelpful, and that real contexts are often far more powerful and less work into the bargain. However, when reading ‘Thanks Textbook’ today and laughing to myself it made me realise another facet of such problems; they construct the world of learning around un-truths.
My first year undergraduate class are currently writing an assignment based on observations of teaching and learning. Some of them have not been able to observe lessons in specific curriculum areas in their school placements, so they have used ‘uncut’ lesson videos for some aspects of their observation. A significant number of emails have come through querying whether they should pretend that they were actually present when these lessons took place; asking me whether they should lie, or at least pretend, in order to present a context for their learning. I tell them there is no need, and in fact this is better made visible as it could allow a discussion of the quality of their observations from a video as compared to being a participant. I’m glad they asked, but a little worried that their previous educational experiences might have suggested to them that pretending in this way is something we might want.
The notion that deception could be seen to be a part of the context of institutional learning is something which troubles me a little, not least because it seems to be some kind of attempt to opt out of teaching abstract concepts yet doesn’t really achieve that. Learning in context is powerful, but abstract learning is also useful in itself as it can facilitate deep understandings that can be applied in a range of contexts. To my mind, inducting students into a culture of fantasy like this manages to strip out the context and undermine the abstract, whilst setting up a very strange discourse where they might think their learning should sometimes be situated in lies.