Assembling the heterogeneous elements for digital learning

Poor craftsman – or the "blame the teachers" excuse

Disclaimer

I strongly believe in the notion that both learning and teaching, and attempting to improve learning and teaching, are wicked design problems to which there is no single answer, there are no right nor easy answers. The better answers lie in a broad recognition, understanding and synthesis of the diverse perspectives that exist; an in-depth understanding of the local context in which you are trying to operate; and a broad (usually much broader than people assume) set of knowledge of concepts and fields that might help.

The following is an attempt to describe one perspective and to explain why I think there may be other perspectives that highlight more fruitful was forward. In an attempt to enliven the discussion, some of the terms I use may be seen to denigrating. That is not my attempt. I’m simply trying to keep people awake and encourage them to read and ponder the following.

A poor craftsman

Anyone who has known me for any length of time will have heard me use the phrase: “A poor workman blames his tools”. Generally this in relation to someone blaming vi or the UNIX command line for being difficult, or someone at cricket blaming their bat for getting them out.

A recent post of mine entitle technology will not change the way we teach sparked a reaction from Ray Tolley. I think initially, because I used eportfolios as the specific case for a broader point, i.e. that the introduction of a new technology will not, by itself, change the way academics within universities teach.

In the subsequent discsussion within the comments on the post, Ray used the same quote, different words.

A bad craftsman blames his tools but a good craftsman always uses the right tools for the job.

In addition, his post in response to mine certainly includes some description of some “poor crafstman”.

I do believe there is something in this quote when applied to learning and teaching in a university context (I’m limiting myself to the context of which I have some experience – learning in other contexts may be another matter, but there might be connections). There are a number of academics who are “poor craftsman” and should be dealt with as such.

However, it is very common to hear university management and university staff who are employed to support/enable the work of teaching academic staff to extend the “poor craftsman” assumption too far. When this happens it becomes what I’ve called the “blame the teacher” approach to university management. (This earlier post explains the origins of the “blame the teacher” idea and how it is borrowed from Biggs’ constructive alignment work.

The technologists alliance

The “blame the teacher” approach is also used by technology innovators to explain why their brilliant innovation hasn’t been adopted by more than a handful of other folk. I know, I’ve used this line in the past myself. However, for a while now I believe that this sort of approach is not productive and illustrates an developer-focus, rather than an adopter focus (Surry and Farquhar, 1997).

“Blame the teacher” allows the innovator/manager to avoid responsibility, or at least avoid the more difficult task of understanding what it is about the context within which the learning and teaching is occuring which is allowing and encouraging teaching academic staff to be “poor teachers”.

It is this avoidance, which I believe, contributes to the problems that Geoghegan (1994) establishes with the “technologists alliance”. I’ve talked about this before but the point is in this quote from Geoghegan

Ironically, while this alliance has fostered development of many instructional applications that clearly illustrate the benefits that technology can bring to teaching and learning, it has also unknowingly worked to prevent the dissemination of these benefits into the much larger mainstream population.

By ignoring the context, the “alliance” is, apparently unknowingly, working towards preventing the adoption of their innovation or the achievement of their stated goal.

Or put another way, by ignoring the perspectives of the context of the “poor craftsman” they are turning them off their idea. Especially, if the local context is particularly troubling.

References

Surry, D. and J. Farquhar (1997). “Diffusion Theory and Instruction Technology.” Journal of Instructional Science and Technology 2(1): 269-278.

It is true that those who learn under difficult conditions are better students, but are they better because they have surmounted difhculties or do they surmount them because they are better? In the guise of teaching thinking we set difficult and confusing situations and claim credit for the students who deal with them successfully.

References

Skinner, B. F. (1958). “Teaching Machines.” Science 128: 969-977.

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