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Education Bookcast

Feb 15, 2016

Finally! An episode with the word "teacher" in the title. What kind of teacher is Andrei Toom? And what interesting comparisons does make between education in Soviet Russia and in the USA?


Andrei Toom is a mathematician, and "teacher" here refers to his teaching of undergraduates. The fact that he self-identifies as a teacher should already strike many as strange. In the US, and to some extent in the UK as well, university research staff generally see undergraduate teaching as a burden that is best minimised or gotten rid of, rather than a duty to be fulfilled, a chance to inspire the next generation, or a central part of their job description. Toom not only doesn't see things this way, but is rather disappointed that American professors do, which is one of the things that he communicates to us through his essay.


Starting us off with a description of the difficulties of being an intellectual in the highly censored, dictatorial environment that was Soviet Russia, he then discusses the strange paradoxes of being a professor or a student in a country held up as a paragon of freedom. US students and professors find themselves in an odd situation, he tells us, whereby "the market" seems to play a similar autocratic role to the one that "the system" played in the USSR.


For example, American undergraduates are usually only interested in gaining a piece of paper to certify that they have gained knowledge, not in actually gaining the knowledge - the kind of bureaucratic absurdity that he thought could only exist in a communist state, and yet in Russia students were actually interested in learning something. Not only this, American students seem to frame learning as a loss, in the sense that if they can get all their grades without learning anything, then they would much rather do so. It is as if they are "buying" their degree certificates with learning, rather than thinking of the learning itself as intrinsically valuable. And as with any transaction, the less they have to "pay", the better.


The knowledge that the students do get is brittle. It is only considered to be applicable within the context of exam questions, and ones structured exactly the same as the ones they had seen before. Any, even minor, deviation from what they have seen before is considered irrelevant or too difficult. Toom found that he needed to shore up students' basic mathematics to get them to be able to take the course they were enrolled in, but the students were mostly unwilling to cooperate. Their reaction of defiance rather than shame at not knowing basic maths leads him to question their apparent "right to ignorance".


And yet, the strange power dynamics of American universities mean that the situation stays this way. The students who only want the grades complain, but those who want knowledge don't. There have been cases where students have sued universities for better grades, but no cases where they sued them for more or better knowledge.


I felt that this would be a good time to have an episode on something a bit different to what we've had so far. The focus has been on psychology, and will continue to be for some time, as I feel that it's important to have a good grounding in psychology before going on to such topics as teaching methods and international comparisons. Here we can at least have a flavour of some interesting topics in higher education, international comparison, and the effect of the nature of society, to broaden our perspective and give us a little break from the subject of psychology and cognitive science. It should hopefully also convince you that we will be talking about teaching in this podcast, not just animals and management!


Enjoy the episode.