Monday, October 10, 2011

Learning outside the box

Historian Niall Ferguson says in an April, 2011, interview in The Guardian: “The debate that I'm interested in having is with seriously smart people about how we design institutions in the 21st century that will genuinely address problems of poverty and educational underachievement. Now that's an interesting debate to have, but very few people in this country are interested in having it."

Presumably, “this country” refers to Great Britain. A similar lack of interest exists in the United States when the subject is poverty, which we’ve determined can no longer occur in an age of near-universal cellphone usage. We don’t debate poverty because we’ve decided it isn’t there anymore.

But educational underachievement? Tom Brokaw, trumpet major of the Greatest Generation, has declared “education in America” to be “THE national imperative of the 21st century.” There seems to be near-universal agreement that a prosperous economic future for the U.S. will depend on having an educated populace to spin out the money-making notions of the future—which the Chinese and Indians will presumably then manufacture.

The debate seems to be how we should go about getting that educated populace, when what we seem to have right now is an increasingly expensive system of—to use Ferguson’s words—educational underachievement. (Anyone remember A Nation at Risk? That was 1983. What would it be called if it were issued today? A Nation Really, Really, Really at Risk?) Many seriously smart people are involved in the discussion, to judge from the continuous flow of high-profile books on the topic: Class Warfare by Steven Brill pits charter schools and big city superintendents like New York City’s Joel Klein against teachers’ unions, but overall the regime is one that is driven by the need to perform well on standardized tests; Diane Ravitch, in The Death and Life of the Great American School System, says that the tests are themselves the problem.

In fact, the problem is that we have a basic, fundamental misunderstanding of education as something that occurs only in a box within a box—in a classroom within a school—where a teacher causes learning to happen. This is wrong, and all of our efforts to change education will fail unless we realize this.

I recently read the book Incognito by David Eagleman, which emphasized (among other things) the point that all vision occurs in the brain. Our eyes receive the light, but the attribution of pattern and perception to the light all happens in the brain. Thinking about this, I felt this point to be a kind of brilliant “duh.” Isn’t it obvious that all seeing occurs in the brain? Well, yes, it is in a way, but it is also worth thinking about—because among other things you start to “see” (haha) that vision is in no way a passive reception of inherent qualities in the world around us.

Thinking thus about learning/education produces a similar kind of “duh”—“yeah, well, it’s obvious that a teacher can only teach. All the learning happens in our brains.”

Obvious, maybe. But once you’ve taken this step, you start to see how limiting our model of education is; limiting, and maybe even destructive, if it is blind to other valuable ways of learning.

This is in no way a criticism of teachers. In fact, every teacher (I’ve been one myself) knows the truth of this. Every teacher has seen the light of learning ignite in a student’s eyes; every teacher has seen a student’s dogged, plodding, and commendable persistence with homework or rote learning so as to internalize knowledge; every teacher knows all too well the high walls that keep students from learning what is being taught; every teacher knows how students sometimes build those walls themselves.

But it is important to dwell on the fact that—to use an ungrammatical usage purposely—the teacher never “learns” us. We ourselves do the learning.

The reason I’m focusing on what may seem to be the obvious is that, when it comes to education, we do not, in fact, act as if we understand this to be the case. Instead, what we do is to declare, in effect, that education is a product of the classroom. That is a far cry from saying that it is a product of the brain.

To demonstrate a very clear consequence, I will draw on my own field of librarianship. I have recently been inspired by two books on copyright—Common As Air by Lewis Hyde and Reclaiming Fair Use by Patricia Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi—to dare to think that the fair use doctrine as applied to certain public library usages is out of whack and needs to be adjusted.

For a long time, I’ve been interested in building up public library activities like book clubs and speaker series as a way to get people actively engaged in some of the more communal (and—in our classroom-focused world of education—overlooked) forms of learning.

Among the things I’ve thought about doing has been a film discussion series, in which the library would show a film for the purpose of provoking discussion afterwards. Having participated in numerous “shared learning” activities in the past, I can testify to the educational value of these kinds of experiences. As such, I would like to claim that this kind of film series—showing a movie from the library’s collection for the purpose of stimulating discussion—should satisfy the educational exception to copyright restrictions that would otherwise prevent showing a movie without paying licensing fees.

The problem is that the American Library Association has a document—ALA Library Fact Sheet 7, last updated in Aug., 2009—that says I can’t.

The Fact Sheet lays out the following requirements that must be met in order for the educational fair use to apply to “videos.” First of all, it must be a “classroom use” in which seven factors must apply:

1. The performance must be by instructors or by pupils.
2. The performance is in connection with face-to-face teaching activities.
3. The entire audience is involved in the teaching activity.
4. The entire audience is in the same room or general area.
5. The teaching activities are conducted by a non-profit education institution.
6. The performance takes place in a classroom or similar place devoted to instruction.
7. The person responsible for the performance has no reason to believe that the videotape was unlawfully made.

The Fact Sheet then goes on to say that “most public performances of a video in a public room (including library meeting rooms), whether or not a fee is charged, would be an infringement. Such performances require a performance license from the copyright owner. The only exception would be educational programs meeting all seven requirements listed above.”

So there you have it. Even the American Library Association does not recognize a lay discussion group in a public library meeting room as having an educational purpose. The only category of educational fair use exception is a “classroom” one involving “instructors” and “pupils.”

I would be without much—or any—hope were it not for Hyde’s inspiration to take back the intellectual commons and Aufderheide/Jaszi’s very specific history of the recent development of current fair use doctrine.

According to A/J, many of the existing guidelines on fair use, including those developed to “interpret” the video revolution, are “unhelpful” and “distorted by powerful industry interests.” The authors remind us over and over that the Copyright Act is supposed to be a balancing act between the creators’ expectations of income and the general public’s first amendment right to free use of created works. The result of the video and digital revolutions have been in general to tip the balance quite a bit to the creators’ side—often as a result of the heavy hand of the media corporations.

The guidelines, say A/J, are “what you might expect from negotiated settlements where one side is much more powerful and invested in weakening fair use.” In other words, the guidelines can be “harshly limited” by using specific quantities and proportions in ways that have “no grounding whatsoever in the Copyright Act.”

My reading of the ALA Fact Sheet—in the context of my interest in having a public library film discussion series—is that it lays out an unduly narrow definition of an educational fair use of video material and that it needs to be replaced.

A/J recommend that “communities of practice”—such as, say, public librarians—draft “codes of best practices” as a way of balancing the competing copyright interests in various scenarios, or “situations.” For example, I would say that the educational fair use would be met by the lay discussion film series, but it would not by the mere showing of a film or movie. Similarly, a movie used as part of an interactive story hour would be educational fair use, but not a random showing for entertainment purposes.

Talk about a tiny, tiny niche. I know. But I believe it's instructive; it shows how far away we are from a real understanding of how learning happens. (And, mirabile dictu, we're not even in a classroom!) For us to be so far away from something so basic means that we’ll revisit A Nation At Risk every thirty years and wonder why Harry Potter doesn’t come back and do something about it.

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