Heavy backpack or light tablet?

by Carl Bossard

Cramming knowledge is out. Quite rightly. The old school of drill is passé. And yet no ability can do without knowledge. There is no insight without knowledge. Not even in digital times.
We children had “well-filled schoolbags”. That way the cantonal school inspector praised us after the final so called examination visiting day in the fifth grade. We were sufficiently equipped for  further learning and our future life. That he was quite sure of, he added with a wink. The teacher smiled and the parents nodded relieved. We children were satisfied; we had shown what we were able to do: safe mental arithmetic, reading aloud, singing a song by heart, some Swiss geography. In addition, Helvetic heroic story, arranged on the timeline. Some things had been practiced, some had been discussed in advance, a lot had been even learned by heart. A little show was part of it. That didn’t bother anyone. Life knows the echoes of the theatre stage.

A tired smile for the antiquated backpack

The alpine backpack metaphor for scholastic matters? The picture seems outdated. At most, it elicits a mild, tired smile from the audience of professionals. A performance from the pedagogical moth box! What’s the point of the school bag and its contents, the knowledge? It only weighs down and hinders speedy, light-footed progress. Therefore: no unnecessary load, no unnecessary ballast.
The call is omnipresent: Digitisation makes learning easier. Lernen 4.0 (learning 4.0) doesn’t need a backpack anymore. In times of Alexa and Siri, knowledge is available anytime and anywhere, so factual knowledge is superfluous. This is the message of the technology companies and their constant mantra. Digitisation is revolutionising teaching and is changing everything.

Learning remains learning

This may be true for certain areas: for the world of work and industry, for example. Technical innovation is changing a lot at a rapid pace. However, the digital lure call fails to recognise one thing: there are anthropological constants. Human evolution cannot be equated with the digital revolution.1 Learning remains learning, whether digital or analogue. And for the success of learning, effort and commitment, targeted and persevering practice and repetition as well as human contact with positive relationships are still required.
Technology at school needs people in order to work. This was true for previous media such as textbooks and calculators; it is also true for the use of computers, tablets and smartboards. Education takes place in the interaction between people, in teaching-learning processes. Education needs relationship. Exactly: pedagogy before technology.2

There is no thinking and no doing without knowledge

But where is the truth? In the old education backpack or in the new tablet? Neither here nor there alone. We don’t stand in front of an either-or. Effective learning has always resulted from the dynamics of as well… as.
Good teachers have always distinguished between necessary factual knowledge as a prerequisite for thinking and understanding insight as the basis of ability. mere drill was as foreign to them as empty drill, stuffing their backpacks full to the brim was a taboo. This only leads to sluggish knowledge. Experienced pedagogues know about the connection between surface understanding and deep understanding. For pupils to think and act creatively and problem-solving, they must have acquired a certain amount of reproducible knowledge. By intensive practice and repetition – like the young violinist or the little astronomor. Exactly: They need a backpack that has been filled specifically. Only in this way they can reach the realm of deep understanding. Deep understanding is based on surface understanding. It is therefore not enough just to know where something is said and where information can be found. For the pupils to be able to penetrate into the depth and process the information further, the facts must be in the mind, in the mental backpack – and not just in the tablet.

I found it! – ergo I know it

The insight that there is a fundamental difference between retrieving information and understanding something is in danger of getting lost. In the age of the internet, aquisition and comprehension are often replaced by finding, guided by the idea that all there is of knowledge is already there. You just have to look for it. When I find it, it automatically gets to the inner hard drive. Then I have it and know it. I hardly need to learn it anymore; the art lies solely in finding something. But if you only know where and how to look up to know something, you don’t really know anything.
I cannot consume knowledge the way I pour a glass of water into myself. Only the Nuremberg Funnel tries that. Even Socrates caricatured this attempt: it was like trying to insert the face into a blind person. The acquisition of knowledge must go through me; I must work it out, incorporate it into myself, process it and put it into context in a reflective way. Only then I can understand. Friedrich Nietzsche called this (aquisition) process analogously: “I digest it.”3 And by this “digesting” the educational process is realised. Education as an appropriate understanding.

Intelligence or creativity without knowledge are no good

Education as an appropriate understanding is based on knowledge being understood, on nets of factual contexts; they must be comprehensible for children and young people. But without knowledge there is no insight and no understanding – and also no ability. This is the modern interpretation of the old backpack. In this sense it may also be well filled. You don’t solve problems with empty hands; intelligence or creativity without knowledge are useless. This also applies to dealing with the new media. The laptop is best operated with good knowledge and skills from your personal backpack.
That’s probably what our school inspector meant – even if he had other skills in his head than handling the tablet.    •

1    Zierer, Klaus. Die Grammatik des Lernens (The grammar of learning) In: “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” from 4 Oct 2018, p. 7
2    ibid.: Lernen 4.0. Pädagogik vor Technik. Möglichkeiten und Grenzen einer Digitalisierung im Bildungsbereich (Learning 4.0. Pedagogy before technology. Possibilities and limits of digitisation in the field of education) 2018, p. 93
3    Nietzsche, Friedrich. Kritische Studienausgabe in 15 Bänden (KSA)  (Critical study edition in 15 volumes (KSA), edited by Giorgio Colli, Mazzini Montinari, Berlin/New York, 1988. Vol. 11. p. 539, pp.608

Source: journal21 of 19 April 2019

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