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Having doubts - learning to deal with multiple perspectives and thinking about future directions of education

Introduction

This paper is based on my belief that all knowledge is incomplete. From this come two themes: 1) that everything must be doubted and understood to be just a part of the "truth"; 2) that it becomes a necessary part of education to expose students to multiple perspectives and help them to deal with the resulting confusion.

As a person growing up in the United States in the Vietnam era, I became aware that the American government and its representatives were giving the world incomplete information about their activities in South East Asia. I discovered this through "the underground press" which was available on the streets and in special book stores in large cities such as New York or San Francisco or in many universities. These underground publications also gave a completely different perspective about what was happening in Communist China and Cuba from what most media was saying. For most Americans, indeed, for most of the world, access to different kinds of information beyond what their governments wanted them to know, was very limited.i

These were very confusing times for me, and others who had access to the underground press. People who had less information were less confused, but they were also misinformed about what their government was doing and what was happening in the world. This raises difficult questions, particularly when thinking about young people's learning. Is it better to have some certainty about your beliefs or to have more knowledge and more confusion about what to believe?

If you believe, as I do, that it is a matter of the utmost importance to recognize that all knowledge is incomplete, then there is no dilemma, and young people must be given the opportunity to discover that there are as many ways of looking at things as there are people. Most scientists don't tell you that the research today will no longer be believed in the future, nor to educators talk about history, math, literature, language as being understandable in a variety of ways.ii

Every day our news is filled with "factual information" which is nothing more than the most we know from a particular point of view at a particular time. A good example of this is the recent news about the pirates of Somalia capturing an American boat and its captain. I've been watching the news and reading various articles in mainstream on-line newspapers about this story. All of these stories made the captain out to be a hero. At no time did any report say anything about this event from the point of view of a "pirate" or even a Somalian. Just before the report that the American President had "solved" this problem by having 3 pirates killed, I read an entirely different point of view about this event. This article said during the past 15 years, when the government of Somalia has been in chaos, two particular events had taken place which caused an upsurge in piracy. This was in addition to the general condition of poverty in which people needed money and turned to such activities, in order to get money to stay alive.iii

The first event was that because the government has no way of controlling the waters surrounding Somalia, there has been an increase of illegal fishing by other countries. As a result, Somalia fisherman and villages are suffering from this piracy of other countries. A second event was that some European companies have made an agreement with one governmental group, no longer in power, to drop toxic waste in waters off the coast of Somalia. People in the villages on the seashore had developed various types of sickness which they believe to be caused by such dumpings. Some Somali people, while recognizing that pirates are mostly after money, believe that they are also serving as a kind of "coast guard" to prevent illegal fishing and continued dumping of toxic materials.

My point is not to discuss pros and cons here, but to raise basic issues relating to language and life. When we call someone a pirate or a terrorist, we stop looking at them as human. Sometimes there are points in common between pirates and navy or between terrorists and soldiers. There are so many ways of looking at life, and that we need to consider various sides before making judgments. Perhaps, before choosing shooting as a solution, the pirates might have been listened to, and some recognition of various related problems might have been given. Who knows what other solution - perhaps more long term than killing 3 pirates, might have evolved.

Though my examples are from the scientific or political world, I believe this issue of looking at information deeply and widely and doubting what we are told, affects our view of everything: authority, media, communication. I'd like to take this basic idea of the importance of learning to doubt and question and apply it to some ideas relating to present and future education. What follows is my opinion and is should certainly be questioned based on your own experience and knowledge. Although I write with a certain tone of certainty, it's because these issues have had great meaning in my life; in fact, I know nothing for sure!

To Think or Not to Think?

Societies are always changing. We use the term "advanced" and "primitive" (usually implying "backwards") to describe civilizations, as though new technologies have moved us only forward. Of course, they have in many ways. People generally live longer and in some cases more safely. For others quality of life might be questioned. How long we live and how much we have are not necessarily signs of progress. Rather than thinking at opposite ends of dichotomies - good and bad, right and wrong, success and failure, advanced and backwards, it's interesting to think in terms of events as a combinations and mixtures, but in order to do this, teachers need to stop telling students what to think and start helping them learn how to think and explore.

One pioneer of teaching thinking, Edward de Bono, advocated a technique called PMI, in which people were encouraged to look at ideas through different lenses - P was for Plus (positive); M was for Minus (negative); I was for "Interesting" (looking at possible results more non-judgmentally). This was an attempt to get people to think widely before reacting to an idea, and he became known for the concept of "lateral thinking." I've used his methods in various ways in my classes over the years and have always been surprised by the results - particularly in the range of ideas generated by students. It's so easy for a teacher to assume the reactions of students to an idea, but such assumptions don't take into account the great differences in experiences, abilities and conditions of students. De Bono helped me as a teacher to be aware of how little I knew about what was going on in the minds of my students, and also to respect the ideas of students, and for this I'm very grateful to him. I believe he also helped my students learn to listen to ideas and not just accept or reject them, but rather see things from different perspectives before judging them.iv

This raises the question of what is the purpose of education - what kind of places are schools supposed to be for our children? There is the very limited and cynical view that their main purpose is just to babysit the children while the real business of societies can be carried out by adults. Of course this raises some problems because these little kiddies are the adults of the future who we then depend on to carry out the economic activities of society. This path leads to the commonly held view, particularly held by those who are in positions of power, that the main purpose of education is to produce members of society who will be capable of carrying on the needed economic activities.

While I believe that most teachers disagree with this limited view, at the same time the activities they undertake with their students tend to support this view, which is apparently the view of most lawmakers in every country: the purpose of education is to produce results. This is pretty much a view of schools as factories and students as products and leads to the idea "that public schools must and should serve the economy." People who hold this view tend to disagree with the idea that it's important for students to learn to think widely, to raise questions and to doubt authority, perhaps believing that such activities lead to insubordination and anarchy. While many teachers see the value of "media literacy" activities in which students are encouraged to look at media through various lenses, such programs are often criticized for having little positive effect on test results.

In previous centuries, the control of knowledge by those with economic, political and social power was much stronger than it is today. I believe this is in large part because of the effect of new media making it possible for information to be gathered from many different kinds of people from all over the world. The world of learning and knowledge gathering is completely different from what it was a mere 50 years ago. But some things haven't changed; for one, in my experience in Japan and in reading about the systems of other countries, it's very rare for a school board or government education committees to ask children to help design their own learning environments. "One of the strangest things in this age of young people's empowerment is how little input our students have into their own education and its future."v

Information Everywhere

Another changing aspect of our present era is the amount and kinds of information available to everyone. The underground is no longer underground. It's on YouTube and Facebook and Twitter. The sources of information are varied and numerous beyond what we could have imaged 50 years ago. But unfortunately, that 50 year old world is the one that most people on educational boards inhabit.

I read an amazing report by a teacher on Edutopia homepage. I would like to recommend it to everyone! The author tells the story of a presentation given by an eleven year old student:

Earlier this year, as I was listening to a presentation by an eleven-year-old community volunteer and blogger named Laura Stockman about the service projects she carries out in her hometown outside Buffalo, New York, an audience member asked where she got her ideas for her good work.
Her response blew me away. "I ask my readers," she said. I doubt anyone in the room could have guessed that answer. But if you look at the Clustermap on Laura's blog, Twenty Five Days to Make a Difference, you'll see that Laura's readers -- each represented by a little red dot -- come from all over the world. She has a network of connections, people from almost every continent and country, who share their own stories of service or volunteer to assist Laura in her work. She's sharing and learning and collaborating in ways that were unheard of just a few years ago.vi

The author's concluding remarks is:

In our zeal to hold on to the old structures of teaching and learning and to protect students at all costs, we are not just leaving them ill prepared for the future, we are also missing an enormous opportunity for ourselves as learners.vii

So we are back to the question of what to do with children in schools today. It seems to me that we need to look at the world they live in and think about how we can best help them live. In this present world, the conditions of being uncertain and unsettled seem to be the norm. This being said, it seems that learning to doubt and deal with the confusion that follows is an issue that needs to be looked at carefully when exploring the directions that education can take in the future, the main reason being that we all "need to learn how to deal with uncertainty as it is a normal state in our society."viii

This means that we must think about issues of truth and knowledge - what is a person to believe today? What is the place of questioning and doubt? These are major issues and must be dealt with in schools from the very beginning of contact between teachers and students. One of Webster's definitions of doubt is "the condition of being uncertain or unsettled in one's opinion or belief as to the reality or truth of something."ix We need to consider the place of doubt in all communication.

Recently I was looking over a report issued by Lego Learning Institute.x In it a number of researchers discuss questions relating to possible future directions for education. The major focus of this symposium was: "How are children's play, learning and creativity changing? How can we interpret and support these changes today and in the future?"xi One of the presenters, Hedi Colberg-Schrader, said in speaking about the future of learning:

"We assume that people in the future will have to be able to deal with uncertainty. They will need motivation and perseverance and a life-long willingness to learn. Many of the informally learnt skills that you develop as a child in kindergarten are lost in later education because of the way schools and universities approach learning".xii

Dealing with uncertainties - there we are again. There are various ways this can be done, but two possibilities are: 1) pretending they don't exist and teaching only one prescribed body of knowledge, which I believe is what most schools presently do; and 2) teaching children to challenge all knowledge through doubt and questions, to accept and learn to deal with the resulting confusion, and to learn to make decisions in such a state.

Children in schools need to know that the information that they are getting in any single source is only one view, and that there are other ways to look at experiences. They need to be given chances to create their own knowledge and paths to knowing, not spoon-fed predigested ideas.

I'd like to tell you a little story from my recent experiences. I'm working in a little gallery in Australia and have found that most parents with children were reluctant to come in. Their image of a gallery was a place where things were not to be touched and their children would be likely to break things. The work in our gallery is all from local artists and I was very pleased when one day I ran across a local man who loved making origami. Many children in Australia are exposed to origami either through art class or their study of Japanese language and culture. So I put a lot of origami in the gallery as a way of bringing children and their parents into the gallery and helping them relax. I put a sign up saying, "Please touch origami - kids too!" I was surprised at how many parents (but no kids!) read that sign as "Please don't touch origami", putting in a not that was not there.xiii


Origami by Mark Richardson

But something else interesting happened. One of the origami that the artist makes is a little top. (see photos). People who come into the gallery like these little pieces but don't know what they are; they think they are just cool colorful shapes. Sometimes I tell them, "That's a top. You can spin them." to grab their interest.xiv Then they look at the paper with new eyes, but the word "top" also limits their way of seeing the object. Most people think the little pointed area is the point for spinning but since the tops are placed this side up, they get confused. "Shall I spin it this way or this way?" they ask turning the top over. I used to think I knew the right way and I would say, "Keep that side up". But one day a little girl turned the top over without asking me and spun the top. It spun very well in what I would have thought was "upside down" or wrong way. Clearly I was wrong, not the top. Now when someone asks me, I simply say, "try it and find out." Quite a few children have successful experiences spinning the top on both sides, though the "bottom" generally is easier to balance.

My point is that most schools don't take time to let kid discover and create meanings for themselves. Mitchel Resnick, of MIT's Media Lab and also a member of the Lego Forum, values the idea that children be given an opportunity to think and develop their own ideas and theories through creative play and use of various types of toys and tools. But in most schools such tools end up being used to deliver information rather than help children develop their own theories.xv

Children are now getting their information from all over the world. The words of their parents and teachers, the former authorities in most children's lives, are having less and less power. Schools and teachers can either pretend there is no change in the world and the lives of children or they can begin to bring the world into the classroom and help children deal with it.


i Such "underground" information was available to a very small percent of the population at that time. In addition to the lack of availability, the government gave a lot of effort to discredit it, labeling it subversive or Communist, so that even when available, most people refused to believe what was written there, much of which turned out to be fact and revealed in the mainstream media years later.

ii a particularly horrible example of this is the story of DDT; a chemical developed by an American company and was "proved" to be safe and a solution for both human sickness and farming problems. http://www.whale.to/vaccines/ddt_spraying.html contains some shocking photos of what was being done under governmental scientific supervision and believed to be a "true" solution to various problems until another scientist looked at a different type of information through a different type of lens. This was Rachel Carson in her ground-breaking book, Silent Spring, Houghton Mifflin, NY, 1962. The book is considered by many as one of the most important books of the 20th century and the start of the environmental movement.

iii http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-vazquez/on-pirates_b_186015.html

iv De Bono has written many books that are still available in either Japanese or English. For further information about PMI, have a look at http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newTED_05.htm.

v Young Minds, Fast Times: The Twenty-First-Century Digital Learner, How tech-obsessed Kids would improve our schools. by Marc Prensky from
http://www.edutopia.org/ikid-digital-learner-technology-2008.

vi World Without Walls: Learning Well with Others; How to teach when learning is everywhere by Will Richardson http://www.edutopia.org/collaboration-age-technology-will-richardson#.

vii ibid.

viii Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 12, 2006, p. 2474-2496 http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12850, Date Accessed: 11/29/2008 6:31:21 AM.

ix Chandler, M. (1987). The Othello effect: Essay on the emergence and eclipse of sceptical doubt. Human Development, 30, 137-159.

x The Future of Play, Learning and Creativity: Documentation of a LEGO Learning Institute symposium held in Hamburg, Germany, January 2004.

xi ibid., p2.

xii ibid., p11.

xiii kids, not having such wide experience, don't make as many assumptions as adults, which means they are open to discover so much more! This is why kids always should be asked to help solve problems that are in their world.

xiv Sometimes, if the gallery is quiet and the person is taking their time, I will simply say, "That origami can do something special - see if you can find out what it is." Then they play with it a bit until they can discover something - usually that it will spin.

xv The Future of Play, Learning and Creativity: Documentation of a LEGO Learning Institute symposium held in Hamburg, Germany, January 2004, p9.

Profile

Hillel Weintraub

Hillel Weintraub taught at Doshisha International Jr/Sr High School (DIHS) in Kyoto from 1980-2001, taking a 3 year break in the middle to live in the Boston area where he was part of the teaching and learning communities of MIT's Media Lab and Harvard Graduate School of Education. Hillel was one of the pioneers of using computers in education in Japan and in 1981 created an international group of teachers, parents and business people who were interested in exploring ways that technology could be used to support learning that would be meaningful, engaging and empowering for young people. While at Doshisha International he also taught courses in media and communication at Doshisha University and Doshisha Women's College, and, with other members of DIHS faculty, planned and developed the Communication Center, a unique combination of library, museum, theater and computer spaces. He also helped design various aspects of a new science university in Hokkaido, Future University - Hakodate, where he was a professor from 2001-2005. He is presently living in the mountains of Australia, where he is writing and running a small gallery and press. Hillel can be contacted at hilleljw@yahoo.com
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