Frozen Knowledge

Student-centered learning is one of the hot buzzwords in higher education these days. The idea is universally accepted, and it is almost heretical that a professor, as a superior being with knowledge to disseminate, looks down on students and yells at them. Oh, I hate to be one of those professors. In principle, therefore, I understand and agree with the idea of repositioning students as the active subjects of learning. But the phrase “student-centered learning” accompanies other sub-tenets that I am less sure about “Don’t teach difficult material that doesn’t interest students. They won’t learn anything from it” is one of such tenets.

I am not saying that I expect Ph.D level research from a freshmen writing seminar. I am not advocating the teaching of material that is so removed from students’ interests as to fail to engage them. I understand that we can expect maximized educational effects when we properly engage students and adopt material that is appropriate for the student body’s intellectual calibre. What I want to ask today, though, is whether or not to teach material that students don’t get right away is such a lost cause as we are led to believe? My answer is negative.

When I was a student in Korea, I was bombarded with tons of lessons. I was a very good student with a good record of achievement, but nevertheless, I could not understand everything I was taught. Nobody would be able to process that much knowledge and information. When judged by the standards of student-centered learning, therefore, my Korean education must be pronounced a total failure. But I really don’t think it was a failure or a waste of my time. I rather appreciate having been taught a lot.

Do I remember everything that I was taught in high school? No. Two decades after graduating from high school, the retention rate of high school knowledge may not be higher than 20%, I think. Then, does it mean that the other 80% totally vanished out the window? I don’t think so. I think that the 80% of knowledge is stored somewhere in my brain, in the form of retrievable knowledge. To me, retrievable knowledge is like frozen food. You freeze food when you know that you don’t need it immediately but will need it some time in the future. Frozen food is not a waste. It is storage. It is there for the day when you need it. When you need it, you take it out from the freezer, thaw it, and voila, it becomes edible food.

Let me throw another example. As a literature major, I read a lot of novels. Do I remember everything I read? No. Also, some novels require certain types of life experience, and they may mean nothing to people who lack such life experience. Even then, however, I don’t think it is a waste of time to sit down and read them. True, they may fail to engage you the day when you read them. You may think that you wasted your time. Yet life throws all kinds of shit, and ten years after reading the novel, you may experience in your life what the novel portrays, and that’s when it rings the bell in your head. You will want to re-read the novel and gain some insight. If you had never read the novel 10 years ago, I don’t know how a chance to gain insight from the literary text would become available to you all of a sudden.

A novel which does not speak today may say many, many things ten years later. That’s why I try to read voraciously today, and that’s why I appreciate my high school education that bombarded me with knowledge I could not absorb then.What we read and are taught – once we experience it – never disappears. It becomes frozen and put on the shelf, waiting to be thawed some day.

This is why I believe that student-centered learning does not necessarily mean teaching material that is of immediately interest to students. One goal of education is to expand a knowledge base that will serve the students in the long run through their lifetime. From your education, you want to get something that you like and is useful right away. But don’t you also want to get something that will serve you well 10 years later?

The Right to Silence

hair-salon

I go to a hair salon twice a year. Today was a day for the semi-annual events, and I spent about 2 hours with my hairdresser. I like my hairdresser a lot, not only because she is good at what she’s doing, but more importantly, she allows us not to talk. Yes, you read it correctly. We are noticeably quieter than other hairdresser-client pairs. My hairdresser Lisa may be an excellent talker, but I am socially awkward, and after explaining to her what I wanted to be done to my hair, I had nothing else to say. But people around us consistently talked, talked, and talked.

Visiting a hair salon always awakens a little scholar in me, and I feel a strong urge to conduct research on women’s hair salon talk. What do women talk about in hair salons, and what does it mean? Today, I was listening carefully to the conversation from the next chair.

Client: So hot day. I like your dress.

Hairdresser: Oh, thank you. I got it from T.J.Maxx. You know T.J.Maxx moved, and it is right across the street now.

Client: Yeah? Do you like T.J.Maxx?

Hairdresser: Well, it is okay. But one day, my coloring client made a last minute cancellation, and I went there to shop. You know, it is convenient, and it is T.J.Maxx, meaning you can stop shopping at any time.

Client: I never shop at T. J.Maxx.

Hairdresser: Oh, okay. So did you say that your son got married this summer?

Their conversation hopped around from one topic to the other this way. Maybe I am wrong, but when I hear this kind of hair salon talk, I usually observe a pattern and feel bad for the hairdresser. The pattern that I observe is two fold: first, it is usually the hairdresser who initiates conversations and picks a new topic when the conversation that the old topic starts comes to an end. In the example above, when the client shows no interest in T.J.Maxx, the hairdresser quickly switches to a topic that interests her, her son’s wedding. Second, when the client asks a direct question about the hairdresser’s preference or value, the latter usually equivocates. “Well, it is okay” is the most common response. The hairdresser is poised on the fence to go either way, according to what the client thinks.

We all know that service workers, such as hairdressers, gain a significant portion of their wages from tips, and to earn good tips, they do their best to keep their clients entertained. And this is precisely what I want to think about with you today: the expectation to be entertained. We’re all humans, and it is natural that we seek attention from others and feel good when they show interest in us. But, when someone pays attention to us in the expectation of monetary reward, the quality or value of the attention is very much questionable. My argument is that attention that implicates money is offense both to the person who pays attention and to the person who receives it. To the client in the example above, it is pretty obvious that the hairdresser does not really care about her son’s wedding. She just mentions it to fill in the vacuum or to assure to the client that she is taken care of. Okay, this may be empty but there is nothing wrong with it. But an entirely different picture emerges when we look at this harmless or innocuous chit chat from the perspective of the hairdresser.  Her job today was to add a new color on the client’s hair. If you observe this process closely, you know that this is hard work. You imaginarily partition the head into hundreds of sections, apply the hair cream on each strand, and fold it in aluminum foil. The smell, repetitiveness, tediousness of the job will drive me crazy, if I do it.

coloring

On top of this already exhausting work, the hairdresser tries to entertain the client by talking about topics that honestly, she wouldn’t give a flying fuck. Isn’t it sufficient that the hairdresser colors the hair? Wouldn’t she deserve a fair wage for successfully changing the hair color? Why does she have to go an extra mile to entertain the client? Additionally, we can ask these questions: what if the hairdresser has a bad day? For example, what if her son injured his leg and her heart is all with her son while her body is at work? What if she got a call from her mother’s doctor that her mother is officially diagnosed with a cancer? All kinds of things happen to service workers, and as we are, they are entitled to different emotions. They can’t be always skylark happy. As we sometimes don’t feel like talking, they don’t feel like talking sometimes, either. Given that, I think it is a harsh expectation to ask them to be always happy and ready to talk to us, pay attention to us, and entertain us.

I may be a particularly difficult client at a hair salon, because I don’t talk back much and I don’t seem to be interested in any topic. But I go to a hair salon to get a hair cut. When my hairdresser Lisa cut my hair to the length that I desired, she did her job, and she should be paid for her labor. I paid the amount that I was charged plus 20%, not because she kept me entertained but because, really, she did her job.