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My friend John wasn’t sure he liked what he saw in the list of big ideas behind Investigating Systems.

He quoted from the document:

“For sense-making purposes, the real, everyday world is a better “textbook” than textbooks about it.” …

and wrote:

The disdain of textbooks is disingenuous. The “real, everyday world” is big, chaotic, and distracting; you need some way of focusing and organizing in order to begin thinking about it. Textbooks are not the only way of doing this, but not inherently worse than any other way.

My take on the Bradys’ idea is different from John’s.  I am not, it is fairly well known by now, a lover of textbooks.  But I like what I see in the opening portions of the Investigating Systems document.  And I think it represents what the Bradys are trying to get at.  They describe a scene in which a visitor arrives at a Bedouin camp.  After the description, they ask readers to identify the patterns they see.  Then they ask them to go someplace where people are likely to gather and meet and greet each other to observe the patterns that exist in their own culture and environment.

What is wrong with textbooks, in my view, is that they rely too much on explaining things to students and do not provide sufficient freedom for learners to make their own judgments about the topic at hand.  The information they provide is often out of date frequently biased.  I believe that if a more project approach or inquiry approach is used, learners are encouraged and even forced to think.  I do not mean to imply that text books make it impossible for students to think, but all too often I think that is what happens.  The textbook becomes gospel.  Students are expected to “learn” and regurgitate.

John also said about the statement “Everything you learn should be useful, right here, right now.” :

And I could not disagree more with the assertion that learning should only be practical. Learning is good for its own sake. Otherwise we reduce education to nothing more job training; such an existence would be too meaningless to contemplate. And who knows what knowledge will useful later, anyway?

I guess for me, this is largely a question of semantics.  If I am interested in a topic and learn about it, that knowledge is useful.  I have added it to the list of things that I can pull out to use at a later time to evaluate or consider or question or understand something else.

In the first part of Investigating Systems, I do not see anything that smacks of job training.  It is looking at patterns in communication, in nature, in music, in literature, etc.  Maybe I haven’t delved into it deeply enough, but I see a lot of knowledge that might be considered by some to be useless.  But anything that helps us understand something has immediate value.  Later on, in part 2, they ask you to design a system and then analyze it, starting with classification of its parts.

The only real practical thing I have seen is that you are asked to apply what you have read to a real-life situation.  Read about the Bedouin and then look at what happens at your neighborhood coffee shop.  That is the kind of “use” and practicality I see in these materials.

As for the value of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, it seems to me that if we ascribe to that philosophy (and I do!), we generally ascribe some additional value to it.  As John writes,

And who knows what knowledge will useful later, anyway?

That to me implies that I value this knowledge, at least in part, because I think it may be useful someday.  So maybe I don’t entirely value it just for its own sake!

I think discussion of these topics is important.  I thank John for raising the issues and, in effect, forcing me to actually go beyond those “big ideas” and see what the document is all about.  I am going to keep reading and doing the activities they outline.  It is making me think.  And that is what education is all about, as far as I am concerned!

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