Teaching dilettantes: Meditation on “gen ed” science at an open admissions college

Prensky (2001, 2005) argues forcefully that instructors will have to re-evaluate the process of teaching and the meaning of knowledge when our students are digital natives compared to our status as digital immigrants – those of us who remember working without the internet. But when teaching at open-admissions college, I discovered that many – perhaps most – of my students were neither native nor immigrant. They were digital dilettantes, savvy enough to use (and abuse) the web as consumers of information, but neither producers nor informed consumers of information online or elsewhere. They didn’t realize that they were capable of being producers of knowledge, seeing themselves as passive recipients of the content that I delivered to them.

“I know that I can’t solve problems; I learned that in high school”

My efforts to engage them through small-group discussions of interesting problems produced enthusiastic participation in class, but not outside of class or on-line. And in that fashion I  learned the distinction between participation and engagement, excitement and learning. A basic problem is that these students are using the wrong prepositions. They think learning is something done to them, when in reality it must be done by them. I am trying to get them learn skills for learning, to map their own path towards their own goals, but they are insisting that I guide their feet.

“I’m flunking. What can you do to fix this?”

These students’ educational experiences are largely, if not exclusively, educational “banking,” where they have been provided with content to be recalled for an exam (Friere 1970/1993). I am certain that if I had stood before them and delivered facts to memorize, they would have been less enthusiastic about attending classes. If I had handed them cook-book laboratory exercises, they would have been less excited about doing labs. However, they would be happier with their grades, because they knew how to memorize and repeat facts, to follow instructions and get “the right answer.” They had never learned how to make meaning, to critically interpret writings, or draw together information from disparate sources, making them resistant to my insistence that they engage more deeply with the processes of science.

“That is the definition I learned in graduate school, so it is what I teach.”

What disturbed me most was not the students – they were giving me what they have been taught would let them pass. What disturbed me most was the faculty’s bastardization of science, the shrinking of “science” to the least common denominator of factual content (and there are so many facts and so little time!). In many classes, students are not asked to form and defend opinions (they don’t learn that they are capable of evaluating scientific results). They are not asked to explain how they know something (they don’t learn the need for rational and logical explanations of knowledge). They are never asked to make their own meaning out of what they have learned. I have received many blank stares when I ask them to do this. Or blank pages on the essay portion of an exam. Importantly, this may be the only “science” many pre-service K12 educators experience. Having never learned to do make meaning, they will not know how to teach others to do it, although it is now a requirement of the new science standards.

“Essays are too subjective. I only ask objective questions.”

Many science faculty stick with “objective” material – words and phrases that the students can memorize and then write down verbatim on an exam, problems with single correct answers. Of course, it is easier – lists of key words to be copied onto 3 x 5 index cards, with definitions copied from on line (see, they know how to use the internet!). Stringing these words together to make a story, to show understanding of a process – that would require evaluation beyond the recitation of facts. Which is subjective, and subjective is not “scientific.” As if knowledge somehow existed without context, without culture, without interpretation.

“I don’t need to learn this stuff, I just need to pass the class”

My students knew how to fill out flash cards. They could tell me what was on their flash cards, sometimes without looking at them. But they could not take those flash cards and lay them out to map their own meaning through the landscape of knowledge. At best, they could stack them into tall, unstable columns that wobbled and swayed and were impossible to move from one discipline to another. Content remained confined, balkanized, and nontransferable. If knowledge is the accumulation of facts, and facts are specific to particular disciplines, then distribution requirements are merely adding more stacks of facts to each student’s desktop.

I wish they would just acknowledge their boredom …

Once in kindergarten, I was sent to the corner because I sighed heavily during a teacher’s demonstration of pasting, sending small papers scattering across the floor. I already knew how to cut and paste and just wanted her to get on with it so I could do my own pasting (it was going to be much nicer anyway). My response to a well-aimed sigh from one of my students would be to rejoice in her liberation from stacks of cards. And then I would ask her to examine where the cards fell, and find meaning in the juxtaposition of math with English lit, philosophy with biology, exercise physiology with history, studio art with life. Because now she can begin to build her own map. And it may well be much nicer than mine…

Cited literature

Freire, P. (1970/1993). Chapter 3. In: Pedagogy of the oppressed. Translated by Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum Publishing.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon 9 (5): 1-6.

Prensky, M. (2005). Introduction: Our changing world; Technology and global society. In: Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning.


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