Ideas Are As Important As Actions

Life flows on within you and without you. ~George Harrison

There’s a lot of emphasis on constructivist learning these days. This, of  course, is a response to the passive-receptive, teacher-centered style of instruction that has been the defining characteristic of the industrialized school model. Constructivism seeks to flip this model by removing the teacher from center stage and asking students to adopt a more active-creative role, whether it be to research and solve a problem (as in problem-based learning); to develop and answer questions of interest to them and others (as in challenge-based learning); or to work to create a tangible product that reflects their understanding on an issue or concept (as in project-based learning). And these are all preferable models of learning to the lecture-focused, drill and kill method.

But I hope that in the process of reforming the focus of the academy into one of learning by doing, we don’t lose sight of the importance of ideas. The life of the mind is still a valuable and necessary component of education.

Unfortunately, I’m seeing a creeping disdain for anything that doesn’t result in some type of action on the part of the learner. For example, in his blog post, “What’s the Problem with TED Ed?”, Shelly Blake-Plock takes issue with the use of TED videos in education:

TED — in the form it is presented online to the masses — is not about doing. It is about watching. Listening. Consuming. Maybe leaving a comment or sharing a link to improve your TEDCred score. Yes, there is a wealth of interesting information and lots to think about. Personally, I find many of the lectures to be inspired. But we shouldn’t confuse an inspiring lecture and provocative ideas with “learning”.

But I would argue that oftentimes we can learn from others’ ideas. I learned a great deal about how a classroom can and should be more like a skatepark from watching TED talks by Dr. Tae Kim and Rodney Mullen and I have since used their ideas as a framework for redesigning my classroom to focus more on the principles that are valued within the skatepark. I also learned about the extraordinary abilities of children who are empowered to make a tangible contribution to their community or who simply have a computer placed within reach with no directions for how to use it. I’ve learned about what it’s like to envision the world as one big comic book and what it’s like to envision the world in pictures. And while I have not acted on any of these last four ideas, I have certainly learned from them, and my own imaginative vision of the world is richer because of them. TED is about sharing ideas. Sometimes those ideas may lead to action and sometimes they may lead to intellectual enlightenment. We can learn from both.

In my First-Year Composition Course, I ask my students to grapple with ideas. In fact, we spend a little over half of the semester dealing with ideas–theirs and those of others that they encounter as they read books, articles, websites, and blogs about whatever issue we are focusing on that semester. They spend time thinking about and debating others’ ideas. And they work through their own ideas by discussing them with each other and trying to articulate them in writing, placing them within the context of others’ ideas. My students don’t necessarily “do something” with every idea they encounter or have. Sometimes an idea is worth talking about. Sometimes it’s worth writing about. Sometimes it’s not. But each idea they encounter or entertain makes an impact, however microscopic, on their intellectual development.

I do eventually ask my students to take action on the ideas they’ve been grappling with. I ask them to solve a problem or ask and answer a question or create an artifact that will help spread their ideas to others (á la TED). But I want them to spend a lot of time thinking about the problem or question or artifact. I want them to develop a mental relationship with an idea before they publicly announce the nature of that relationship through a physical action.

I’m wondering how much of this obsession with observable actions has to do with the very industrialized model that education reformers claim to want to demolish. One of the first things that you learn to do as an education major is to write a learning objective. Everything that happens in the classroom must have an objective. In order to be able to assess whether or not that objective has been met, the result must be measurable. Therefore, it must result in an observable action. But no instrument can measure an idea. And no teacher can assess intellectual engagement.

Like the most fine and rarified and transcendent things in life, the life of the mind is invisible and unquantifiable. It goes on within us and, when it encounters an idea worth spreading or acting on, without us, as well.

By all means, let’s encourage our students to create things. But let’s also show them the beauty of ideas, even those that never result in a tangible response. They can learn something from those, as well.

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