Without a doubt, this is my favorite place in the blogosphere, so it is a great honor to be invited as a guest blogger. I think anybody who reads Savage Minds will immediately see the contributions blogging (especially group-blogging) might add to anthropological discourse.
This little corner of the blogosphere seems to be the perfect place to begin a discussion about some rather strange teaching habits I have picked up in the past couple years. Lately I find myself doing such bizarre activities in the classroom that I can scarcely refer to myself as a “teacher.” So this is my “anti-teaching” philosophy, illustrated with a short description of the “World Simulation,” a massive class activity that provides the primary structure for my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course here at Kansas State University. On the surface, the World Simulation appears to be little more than “just a game” but underneath is a good deal of theory – both pedagogical and anthropological – which I look forward to discussing here over the next two weeks.
The Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course here is – in a word – huge. It is taught in 2 formats (rotating Spring/Fall) – one with 200 students, the other 400. I once thought the large size was outrageous and probably unique, but have since discovered that such large classes are commonplace, especially at state schools. The rest of this short description will probably also sound familiar to many of you if you replace “Kansas” with your own state. About half of the students are from rural Kansas while the other half are from suburbia. Very few of them have any significant experience with cultural diversity. Most of the students have never traveled outside of the United States and many have never left Kansas. There are usually only a handful of majors in the class, and about two handfuls of students who know what “anthropology” is before they walk in on the first day. The class fulfills several requirements, so many students arrive with the hope of putting forth the minimal effort required to get the grade and get out. I used to think of all this as a tremendous challenge – perhaps even somewhat hopeless. Now I see it as an opportunity, and an advantage. Anti-teaching seems to thrive on chaos.
Disclaimer: Before I go much further in my description of “anti-teaching” I might say that I do not recommend it for everybody, nor do I think anti-teaching is necessarily superior to teaching. Both must co-exist, for together they are greater than the sum of their parts. If you are a “teacher” please do not take offense to my anti-teaching philosophy. All I am attempting to provide is a necessary companion to traditional teaching.
Teaching is about providing good information. Anti-teaching is about inspiring good questions. Since all good thinking begins with a good question, it struck me that if we are ultimately trying to create “active lifelong learners” with “critical thinking skills” and an ability to “think outside the box” it might be best to start by getting students to ask better questions. Unfortunately, I didn’t know where to start. I have read and heard a great deal of advice on how to ask good questions of students – non-rhetorical, open-ended, etc. – but nobody has ever told me anything about how to get students to ask good questions.
When I talk about “good questions,” I mean the kind of questions that force students to challenge their taken-for-granted assumptions and see their own underlying biases. Oftentimes the answer to a good question is irrelevant – the question is an insight in itself. The only answer to the best questions is another good question. And so the best questions send students on rich and meaningful lifelong quests, question after question after question.
Unfortunately such great questions are rarely asked by students, especially in large mandatory introductory courses. Much more common are administrative questions such as, “What do we need to know for this test?” This may be the worst question of all. It reflects the fact that for many (students and teachers alike), education is a relatively meaningless game of grades rather than an important and meaningful exploration of the world in which we live and co-create. I don’t think it is the student’s fault for asking this question. As teachers we have created and continue to maintain an education system that inevitably produces this question. If we accept Dewey’s notion that people learn what they do, the lecture format which is the mainstay of teaching (especially in large introductory courses) teaches students to sit in neat rows and to respect, believe, and defer to authority (the teacher). Tests often measure little more than how well they can recite what they have been told. Hoping to memorize only just as much as necessary to succeed on the test, they ask that question I never want to hear – the one exception to the rule that “there is no such thing as a bad question.” Frustrated with this question, and hoping to get my students to ask better questions, I decided to get to work creating a learning environment more conducive to producing the types of questions that create lifelong learners rather than savvy test-takers.
Since I dedicated myself to this task, I have found myself slowly transforming from a teacher to an anti-teacher, developing methods that subvert the traditional lecture format and trying to create a learning environment more conducive to asking good questions. I eventually came to the conclusion that “teaching” is a hindrance to learning. The word, “teacher” in itself suggests that learning requires teaching. In fact, the best learning almost always occurs in the absence of a teacher, for it is then that students are free to pursue with great passion the questions that are meaningful and relevant to their own lives. Soon after I set out on this course I found a book that seemed to resonate with my philosophy, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. Borrowing from Marshal McLuhan’s famous aphorism, “the medium is the message,” Postman and Weingartner argue that the environment (or “medium”) of learning is more important than the content (the “message”) and therefor teachers should begin paying more attention to the learning environment they help to create. The emphasis is on “managing” this environment rather than teaching per se.
This is not in any way a cop out of “real” teaching. In fact, approaching a class of 400 as a “manager” is a tremendous task. It would be much easier to simply give in to tradition and deliver a standard lecture. But while the sheer numbers of students are a burden in one sense, there is also tremendous potential. Think of the knowledge and life experience that is in that single room, if only I could find a way to harness it! I wanted the students to be fully engaged, talking to one another, grappling with interesting questions, and exploring any and all resources to find answers (and more questions). I wanted them to really get a strong sense of the importance of what we discuss in cultural anthropology. I wanted them to expand their empathy, to actually try to experience the life-worlds of others. Above all, I wanted them to recognize their own importance in helping to shape an increasingly globally interconnected world society.
So that is why I set out to create the World Simulation. Students are asked to imagine the world in the classroom. We create a map that mimics the geographical, environmental, and biological diversity of our real world. The map is laid onto a map of the classroom, and students are asked to imagine themselves living in the environment that maps onto them. The class is divided into 15-20 groups of about 12-20 students in each group. Each group is challenged to create their own cultures to survive in their own unique environments.
The course is laid out in a fairly traditional way, proceeding from subsistence and exchange through kinship, social organization, political organization, and ending with religion and art (from infrastructure through social structure and ending with superstructure). I am not completely comfortable with this layout, for fear that the “message” may be that environment determines technology which determines social structure which in turn determines superstructure. Fortunately, this has not been the message. The creativity of the students in creating their cultures subverts any simple monocausal determinism (just as human creativity does in the real world). Environmental determinism is just one theory on the table as students try to create a reasonably realistic culture that could exist within their given environment. To add realism, students are required to provide comparisons to real life cultures at every step along the way, justifying why they have chosen to construct their culture in one way rather than another (sometimes creating elaborate histories to explain some unique characteristic). Three weeks before the end of the semester, all groups have completed their culture and submit a final ethnography to me. I read these over, and begin planning the main event: the world simulation.
The World Simulation itself only takes 75-100 minutes and moves through 650 metaphorical years, 1450-2100. It all takes place in large room where all of the “cultures” interact with one another with props for currencies, natural resources, and other elements that recreate the world system. I will explain this in more detail in a future post, but essentially we attempt to simulate (not “act out”) world history in an attempt to understand the underlying social and cultural processes that interconnect us all. The ultimate goal is to allow students to actually experience how the world system works and explore some of the most important questions now facing humanity such as those of global inequality, globalization, culture loss, environmental degradation, and in the worst case scenario, genocide.
The simulation is recorded on 5 roaming digital video cameras and edited into one final “world history” video using clips from “real world” history to illustrate the correspondences. We watch the video together during the last week of class and have amazing moments together as we contemplate our world. By then it seems as if we have the whole world right before our eyes in one single classroom – profound cultural differences, profound economic differences, profound challenges for the future … and one humanity. We find ourselves as co-creators of our world, and the future is up to us. It is in this environment that even the worst questions take on all the characteristics of the best: What do we need to know for this test?