Everything I Learned From Comics: xkcd And Education


This is the first of a series of posts on what I have learned from comics or other unusual sources.

Sometimes surprising insights spring from the unlikeliest of sources.

xkcdOne of the best web comics, xkcd, deals with a huge range of subjects and scenarios. This one in particular resonated with me as an educator. It can be found in full and downloaded from here.

On the surface, this seems like a fairly obvious commentary. It is doubtful anyone in the education field would find it appropriate to tell a student your parents are Mr. & Mrs. Santa Claus. But it does raise a very interesting question about how educators deal with students who question the teacher.

There is a lot of hostility that can come from an educator when they are confronted with these type of questions. The teacher can feel like their authority is being challenged, or that the student is trying to undermine the learning of others by distracting from the material as presented. This often leads to the second answer panel shown in the strip.

This reflex response of teachers has been linked to how the earliest forms of education were established.

Guy Claxton in his book “What’s The Point Of School?” highlights how education was originally established by religious orders with the purpose of passing on “Eternal Truth”. This encouraged the view of the educator as being the person to impart truth, and the responsibility of the student to accept this without question. This monastic view of education has remained in the community of teachers’ collective subconscious.

The logic goes that the educator has had to study this subject and so has gained some element of the “Eternal Truth”. Therefore, they are experts, and if you question them, you are doubting their knowledge and hence their very ability to be an educator. This can in turn lead to fears that the educator will lose the respect of the students and from there, the control that they have.

This mindset creates a division between those who “know” the information and those who they impart it to—a mindset that is easily dismissed if an educator forsakes the monastic model of learning for a more apprenticeship based model. This would be where the educator is engaged in collaborative learning with the student while trying to solve a problem. In this situation it’s not only acceptable to question the educator, but it can lead to a deeper examination of the material being presented, and sometimes more elegant solutions.

When confronted by a difficult question, it is too easy for an educator to fall back on the “Divine Truth” authority model and dismiss or ignore the question. However, the truly great educator will see it as a learning opportunity, and remember that there is more for them to learn.

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