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The Discourse of Knowledge: An Exploration of the Evolving Genre of Education

kobieta's picture


“Learning is like a vending machine,” my father used to tell me, “You get out of it however much you put in.” The equation seemed easy enough. A student goes to class, sits in a chair and listens as the teacher speaks for a given amount of time, and by putting in the effort of listening and paying attention, she learns the concepts the teacher is trying to teach. This process seemed to fit the equation, seemed to be effective enough. After all, there is no other way that society has ever learned. For hundreds of years, we have been learning through a hierarchical structure, one in which there are set roles for teacher and student, and no movement in between the two.

As far back as 347 BC, when Plato was alive, the notion of having set roles in a classroom—or at least for any learning to occur—has always been accepted as a truth. In Phaedrus, Plato argues that “the dialectician chooses a proper soul and plants and sows within its discourse accompanied by knowledge—discourse capable of helping itself as well as the man who planted it, which is not barren but produces a seed from which more discourse grows in the character of others…such discourse makes the seed forever immortal and renders the man who has it as happy as any human being can be” (Plato 83). One of the greatest philosophers of all time believed that knowledge—“the seed from which discourse grows”—can only be attained by listening to those whose seeds have been sown long ago; that one can only learn from a teacher. It is ironic that Plato calls the teacher a dialectician especially because really, the only person he suggests to speak is the teacher, the famer who sows his seeds. Yet, society has modeled learning after Plato’s ideas. Education systems all over the world have established a hierarchy, in which teachers and educators are on top and students are on the bottom. There are assigned roles in the equation, and learning cannot be done without the two parts of the equation. The idea is that since the educator is the expert, the one who knows more knowledge between the teacher and student, then the teacher is the one to do the teaching. For many centuries, the approach has always been to stick to this model. However, our world today offers so many more possibilities and poses many more questions and problems that challenge and even threaten the effectiveness of such practices. In a world where information is so readily available—with the exponential growth of the usage of the internet and the vast amount of information it offers—the structure of education that had once been so successful needs many revisions and editing.

The genre of education is changing in a very dramatic fashion; it is as if someone took the agency of education and turned it clockwise. What was once vertical is now horizontal. Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg, authors of The Future of Thinking, argue that

“Learning has become increasingly horizontal, rather than hierarchical. Lateral learning—peer-to-peer rather than teacher to student—requires rearrangement of learning institutions—schools, colleges, universities, and their surrounding support apparatuses...Learning strategy thus commands shifts from information judgment concerning reliable information...from learning that to learning how.” (Davidson, Goldberg).

They argue that this horizontal structure, where students learn from one another, is quite effective in our society today. After all, if both parties know the subject being discussed, their conversations can only further their understanding. Neither party is lost in the beginning; they start out in an even playing field, and because of it, they can only move forward together. Moreover, for Davidson and Goldberg, the collaboration between two minds is always better than one; this is exactly what happens in horizontal structure, unlike in the past hierarchical learning, when really, only one mind is thinking. This peer-to-peer interaction already disagrees with Plato’s set roles. Instead of having a teacher and a student, it seems that there are only students. What happens when the roles of teacher and student are switched?

            Learningint an environment like Bryn Mawr’s further disproves Plato’s assumption that for learning to occur, there must be a teacher and a student, and neither can switch roles. Bryn Mawr is a liberal arts college, one who encourages a different kind of relationship in classroom discussions. In this environment, it is not only possible, but very easy to switch between roles. The internet makes everything readily available that the basic ideas and concepts of any given matter can be learned by a student without a professor, a teacher, a so-called “expert” on the subject. With the basic facts and concepts out of the way, there is really nothing else that a teacher can tell a student that’s new, for either of them. However, the student can offer much more than the teacher, who has already known the subject for a while. The student, with new perspectives and ideas, can finally become the teacher, and teach the teacher. In fact, it seems that this is the very kind of relationship that small liberal arts colleges encourage.

The combination of small classes and focused intellectuals in both faculty and student population encourage the switching of roles. Classes like Literary Kinds have ten students and one instructor. The class is structured in such a way that learning is achieved through discussion rather than lecture. No one raises a hand, but freely talks when an idea strikes her or as an immediate response to something she feels strongly about. There is constant conversation and dialogue and the roles that each participant plays switches constantly from student to teacher, teacher to student, depending on how she is participating that given day. This evolved genre of educating, the changed way of learning seems to be successful. The insights seen on weekly postings and monthly web events are more profound, provocative than even the brightest educators, teachers, or scientists can come up with. It was done through a different mode of learning than Plato first suggested, than society first implemented. Instead of one party moving forward, both parties move forward in their understanding of any given matter. Plato did not acknowledge that learning can come from new perspectives, and not necessarily come from an “expert” whose ideas and opinions may have long been engrained in their minds, unfailing to change or even see any other perspectives.

            Thus, the genre that Davidson and Goldberg claimed to be evolving into something is yet again evolving and developing. Before the idea of horizontal structure in learning can even be fully practiced, fully defined, or even be fully acknowledged, it has already evolved into something else, something that will probably change yet again sometime soon. Plato had been right all along. It is in fact the discourse that “makes the seed forever immortal and renders the man who has it as happy as any human being can be” (Plato 83). The conversation between teacher and student—during which either party can take on any role—keeps the knowledge alive, more so than the lecture of a teacher to a student. Gaining any sort of knowledge requires a dialogue, requires two dialecticians rather than just one, as Plato had argued.

            Thus, just as my father had said, learning is like a vending machine, in that you get out what you take in. But what you put in is not just solely homework assignments and textbook readings, not just paying attention and staying awake in classes or during speeches and talks; what you invest in a conversation, in a dialogue on any given subject, furthers the understanding of both parties, and even more can result out of it. The genre of education has evolved; the sum of the equation has not changed, but the additives have been changed. There is no longer a need for set roles; more learning comes from having the advantage of standing from different points of view.

Works Cited

Davidson, Cathy N., David Theo Goldberg. The Future of Thinking. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2010. Print.

Plato. Phaedrus. Indianapolis: Hackett. Print.



Anne Dalke's picture

From dialectics to dialogue

A month ago, you wrote your own breaking project. This time 'round you are enlarging the script of your writing, describing not only a personal, but a cultural evolution in teaching and learning. There are a number of educational theorists who have worked along the lines you have sketched out here; if you would like to know more about this sort of thinking, you might begin with Paulo Friere, who in Pedagogy of the Oppressed describes all of us as teacher-students who "become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow .... critical co-investigators in dialogue" (pp. 61-2).

The shift you chart is a nice one: from a teacher working as a "dialectician" (one who seeks out complimentary opposites), to one who is in constant "dialogue" with her students: the move is from performance to exchange. I'd disagree only with your final claim that, as the "genre of education has evolved; the sum of the equation has not changed, but the additives have been." I actually think that the sum changes in the sorts of interactions you describe. As I saw once, on a sign @ The Wild Center, a nature museum in the Adirondacks, New York State, “Life multiplies when two systems interact.”

A number of your classmates also wrote about the evolving classroom; see and think about how your re-framing of the project of education might answer some of the questions they raise?  While vspaeth highlights our multiple brain differences, for example, Ayla claims that one system does not work for everyone. Do you think it does?