In the novel Lila, Robert Pirsig writes:

Quality doesn’t have to be defined. You understand it without definition. Quality is a direct experience independent of and prior to intellectual abstractions.

Pirsig says quality doesn’t have to be defined because you just know it without being told it’s quality. Lila, along with his prior novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, spends hundreds of pages on making sense of quality. There’s no way to scratch the surface of what quality is in this post, but it’s important to connect educational practices with quality–especially concerning technology.

A piece of technology–let’s say a MacBook–can be made well, but the way it’s used in the classroom can be considered poor quality. The way a district implements devices could be a thing of quality, but this has no bearing on blended learning once the devices are deployed.

The problem technology poses is some teachers may believe since they’re using top-of-the-line equipment, top-of-the-line learning will naturally occur. As Dylan Wiliam writes in Embedded Formative Assessment: ‘The quality of teachers is the single most important factor in the education system.’ It doesn’t matter whether the student is using a MacBook, Chromebook, or Surface, none of these tools will bring instant quality to the classroom. But the teacher can.

It’s an important distinction to be made. A quality math, English, science, history teacher doesn’t need technology to teach well. This isn’t an indictment against technology, it just puts technology in its rightful place: as a tool used to help bring about quality. Needle and thread in the hands of a skilled cobbler can make high quality shoes, but someone with no training as a cobbler will make shoes that don’t function properly and fail to look aesthetically pleasing.

It’s important to note that students require very little guidance for learning how to use computers. This morning I had the pleasure of watching Sugata Mitra‘s keynote at the Spring CUE Conference, and he has shown that it’s possible for students to receive high quality educations just by having access to the internet and encouragement from teachers. Does this mean all we need is to supply students with computers and teach teachers that their job is not so much to dispense knowledge as to foster inquiry through use of the internet? I think that’s a large part of the professional development equation.

Bottom line: Teachers need to know how to use educational tools well, and students need to be given access to the internet so that creativity and learning will occur.

Zen, the art of motorcycle maintenance, and pedagogy

Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is concerned with quality, and the prose wrings out two different forces. The first is the ‘romantic’ view, which appreciates the aesthetics of objects such as motorcycles, but doesn’t much care for dissecting the motorcycle to learn how it runs or how to maintain it. The ‘classical’ approach is interested in how the motorcycle works and the critical thinking necessary to keep it working. Classical finds quality in the understanding of the ins-and-outs of a well-running machine, while the romantic finds it in the image of a person riding the motorcycle on a lonely highway.

Teachers experience this dichotomy on a daily basis. Teach grammar, and the students can quickly lose the beauty of how words, phrases, and clauses combine to make beautiful thoughts. Focus primarily on poetry or literature, and students fail to appreciate the craftsmanship necessary to construct a piece of literature. This is true in every subject. Math can be astounding, but there’s a lot of studying and practice needed for students to appreciate the wonders of math. The same for science, languages, woodshop… the list goes on.

The struggle is: Do you teach students what they need to know with the foresight that a classical approach will blossom into a romantic awareness? Or do you teach the romantic viewpoint with the intention of delving into specifics–and in the case of a mortocycle, mechanics–and hope that a love of the idea of the subject evolves into a fascination with the parts that make it operate?

Pedagogy falls into this dichotomy as well. Some teachers want students to have a classical approach to the subject. This is the educator who would rather focus on grammar than read To Kill a Mockingbird. The romantic teacher focuses primarily on To Kill a Mockingbird, with the intent the literature will lead to an appreciation and understanding of grammar. Of course, there are some classical teachers who care nothing for developing the romantic mindset and vice versa. The resolution comes through blending the two approaches. The rub is this is easier said than done. Experience is important and so is a love for not just the subject, but the idea of the subject. If you’re teaching how to maintain a motorcycle, you need a love of the romantic notion of riding as well as a lucid understanding concerning how the parts create the whole.

Teaching is complicated, there’s no doubt about it. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance offers an important perspective for leading students toward a craft they will understand and enjoy.