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Jay Lemke is Professor Emeritus at the City University of New York. He has also been Professor in the PhD Programs in Science Education, Learning Technologies, and Literacy Language and Culture at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) and most recently adjunct Professor in Communication at the University of California - San Diego and Senior Research Scientist in the Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition (LCHC). Professor Lemke's research investigates multimedia communication, learning, and emotion in the context of social and cultural change.

Entries in Jay Lemke (6)

Feeling Science

How does it feel to engage with Science?

20 years ago I wrote a book called Talking Science: how we use the language of science to describe, explain, design, investigate, teach, learn, reason, read, and write. Later on, I also wrote about how science integrates language with mathematics and graphs, tables, charts, maps, diagrams, and images.

But all that was about the meanings we make with words, images, and equations. It left out how we feel about them, how we feel about doing science and using its tools. Feelings are important in themselves, but also because they guide our judgments: about what research to do, what solution or design to try, whether an idea seems likely or not, a fact important or not, a procedure comfortable or not, an approach attractive or not.

At a recent conference on the Learning Sciences in Chicago, I tried to deal with just one part of the role of feelings in science: how we feel about images, equations, and a wide range of representations in science. I began by recalling that a lot of us got interested in science early on because of the feelings we had for dinosaurs and galaxies – things we experienced through awe-inspiring reconstructions and computer-enhanced photographs.

Most scientific images today are products of both data and human esthetic choices about to render that data in ways that highlight it meanings, but also in ways that engage our feelings. This is nothing new in science, as the famous drawings of bird species by Audubon easily remind us.

Not all the feelings we have about scientific images are pleasant ones, but they can certainly be very powerful ones:

We have feelings for and about the modes of representation (e.g. visual vs. mathematical), the media (diagrams vs 3D models), the technologies (print vs. video), the genres (topographic maps, star charts, chemical formulas, etc.), and even the individual styles in which these are rendered. Usually in science these come as packages, so it does not make sense to try to separate out our feelings for say a medium or a technology in the abstract. We don’t feel in the abstract; we feel as we experience real, concrete instances.

How we feel about scientific images or scientific tools, how we feeling in using them (comfortable or not? pleasurable or not? appropriate? proud? inspired? mystified? frustrated?) is part of our identity as a scientist or just as a person who encounters these images, tools, and ideas. What do we identify with? What do we distance ourselves from? Learning science, even in school, is not just about learning to reason like a scientist, it is also about learning to feel like one, even if only in some limited ways.

Feelings, which may also be called more elegantly affects or just emotions, are generally ignored, denied, or pushed to the side in the teaching of science (and mathematics) and in school curricula. But they are fundamentally important for motivation, for long-term memory, for developing attitudes, for career choice, for decision-making, and in fact for scientific reasoning itself. All reasoning requires choices, choices depend on values, values are grounded in or appear to us as feelings. Judgment and evaluation are fundamental to science, and both depend critically on feelings.

Feelings are not animal instincts; in human beings, at least, they are also learned and cultured. Feelings of appropriateness and moral rightness, of guilt or pride, are learned, built on top of whatever basic capacity for emotional response our biology gives us. So also with “a feeling for the organism” in biology (in the famous phrase of Nobel geneticist Barbara McClintock), or a feeling for the pathways of complex organic chemistry reactions, or for the world of quantum physics.

Feelings, like meanings, usually come to us through our engagement with words, images, sounds, and hands-on experiences. A famous chemist once told me that I couldn’t understand chemistry just by manipulating equations; I had to “smell” it and see it in the laboratory. I needed, in other words, to get a feel for it. No less obviously, we have feelings about meanings (ideas, proposals, explanations). Maybe we ought to say that how we feel when we make sense of something is an inseparable part of the meaning we make, of the activity of making that meaning?

And so feeling is also fundamental to learning, to development, to education. And not just in science. Why do we so often try to pretend that it isn’t? Well, that’s another story.

Moral Struggles Matter -- to Learning!

Even in fiction and games, we care about what’s right and wrong.

I’ve been trying to work out a puzzle lately: why do our feelings matter to how we make sense of the world around us? The answer, I think, lies in the contribution of feelings to the process of making evaluations and judgments. Not just about what is good or bad, but about what’s important or trivial, what’s surprising or ordinary, what to take seriously or just as a joke.

Last week at the International Congress of the Learning Sciences, where I was talking about the role feelings play in how science represents the world [see my next blog entry], I attended a session on learning through computer games. There’s no doubt that games play on our emotions; that feelings matter to what we do next in the game. But what hit me in this session was how deeply engaged we get when there are moral issues at stake, when we’re trying to figure out what’s right and wrong, and having problems deciding what’s right.

Many theories of learning imagine that all learning is like problem-solving, but then they mistakenly assume that problem-solving is or should be purely logical and rational. It never is; it never can be. Solving a problem always requires us to make choices and decisions along the way, about what is relevant, important, likely to succeed, etc. Take away our feelings about what to do next and we can’t do much of anything (that can, unfortunately, happen; read Antonio Damasio).

Likewise, most problem-solving involves the use of tools, especially information tools like books, notes, computers, or just counting on your fingers. And we always have feelings about those, too (my topic at the conference). Computer games put us in imaginary worlds full of problems to be solved and tools to solve them; they offer us adventures that rev up our feelings. And it turns out that what can draw us in most deeply is not the shooting or thinking, but puzzling about what is right and wrong when our choices matter to ourselves and other people.

Schools, on the other hand, seem scared to death of both feelings and moral issues as essential elements in learning. The main feeling reported by most students about most of their time in school is: boredom. The last thing the curriculum wants students to engage with, it seems, is issues of right and wrong. It’s all about knowledge and not about life. So most students learn little, forget most of that, and basically just don’t care. They feel that everything that matters is missing, and I think they’re right.

We learn when we have a need to know, when something really matters to us. It can be imaginary, but it has to feel important. Like being fair, like choosing between justice and forgiveness, like making the right decision when the wrong one will harm innocent creatures. No one can learn how to always make good choices, but we do learn passionately when we believe learning something can help us make a better choice here and now.

A century ago, and for a long time before that, the purpose of education was to build good moral character. When our society lost its consensus about what was morally right, education lost a critical link between learning and life. And schools lost a key principle for engaging students emotionally with learning.

We can’t teach students right and wrong. But we can engage them in deeply felt and learning-rich projects of trying to figure it out for themselves.

If we have the courage to try.

Images: Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice; Pilot of the Hiroshima bomber, years later; the Dalai Lama. People who faced and had to live with profound moral choices and their consequences, with no easy answers.

Popular Culture Supersedes Copyright Law

What are the limits of private ownership of popular culture?

The people own what the people love. When a character, a story, a fictional world becomes so popular that people want to make it their own, then it passes beyond the limits of private property and becomes the property of us all.

The world and characters of Harry Potter were created initially by JK Rowling, but in the years since, Harry’s fans have written and published online nearly 300,000 original stories of their own using these characters, places and themes, not to mention tens of thousands of works of fan art, music, video and multimedia. Rowling meanwhile has sold rights to Harry to a very small number of movie studios and game producers, toy makers and even a candy company. She has made a billion dollars, and the others have made even more. Copyright law has done its work, perhaps too well.

Of course she has the right to profit, substantially and globally, for having given us all the pleasures and the resources of the imagination that come from Harry and his world. But only up to the point at which her creations become the raw material of the public imagination, the point at which what was originally her own intellectual or cultural property becomes part of the common culture, folk culture, the people’s culture, our culture.

So also with Star Wars and Star Trek, or with The Lord of the Rings, and many other recent works, just as much as with Cinderella, Pinocchio, or Don Quixote. What matters to public vs. private ownership is not how long ago they were created, but how much they have become part of the common culture of our childhoods and the raw material of our grown-up fantasies. No one today can really “own” Harry or Hogwarts, Darth Vader or R2D2, any more than they can own Macbeth or the Emerald City.
Which means what, in practice? Only that the original creators, much less those to whom rights have been sold, cannot tell us what we can and cannot create, privately or publicly, but not-for-profit, using these building blocks of the human imagination. The copyright owners can continue to reap their profits, and control the commercial use of their creations for some reasonable time, but they must not be allowed to try to control or coerce the popular culture use of these creations.

We all know that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was corrupt. It was created solely for the benefit of the large media companies, and not in the public interest or even for the good of the writers and creators of new works. It was opposed by the nation’s public libraries, by the universities, and by every fair voice. Its sellout to corporate greed is a national scandal, and private persons have every moral right to ignore it.

As Harry ignored the Ministry’s decrees to try to take control of Hogwart’s.

After Democracy?

Is Democracy really the last word on how a society should make its decisions?

Is it possible that thousands of years from now, people (if any are left around and still consider themselves “people”) will look back and say that ideas about government changed from Egypt and Babylonia (god-kings rule!) to Greece and Rome (the rich vote, politicians decide), to Medieval Europe (landlords rule), to Enlightenment Europe (divinely anointed kings rule), to early modern times (the rich vote, parliaments rule), to now (everyone votes, politicians decide) … and then it all suddenly stopped and nothing ever changed after that??

Not very likely. Ideas about how to make good decisions keep changing. Facts about who has power (armies, landlords, rich people, managers) keep changing. And bad decisions keep being made. About when to go to war, about who doesn’t qualify for equal rights, about who should receive taxpayers’ money.

In our times, decisions are made by politicians, who are influenced by lobbyists for special interests and financed every expensive election-time by rich people’s donations, backed by media owned by special interests, and elected by voters who mostly know nothing at all about them and even less about the issues to be decided.

This is widely regarded as the best possible system of government. Not by me.

The purpose of government is to make decisions. Good government avoids making bad decisions. Decisions are bad if they go against the interests of most people or unfairly oppress any group or category of citizens. In order to make good decisions, you must:

  1. Take into account the experience and preferences of the people who will be most affected by the decision (stakeholders)
  2. Take into account the knowledge and projections of those who are most expert about the available options
  3. Not apply decisions to people or places where their consequences cannot be foreseen or where local conditions require a different decision

The logic of good decision-making and the economics of power are generally at odds with each other. Decision-makers tend to become decision-makers because they have amassed power: economic power, political power, military power. People with power always want to have more power, because they know how they got theirs and they know someone else will grab it away if they don’t have enough power to stop them.

The result is that more and more decisions that affect more and more people are being made by fewer and fewer people. And that is basically why we are getting more and more bad decisions.

Our “democracy” is simply a justification for this bad system of government. We elect in the United States (and similarly in most other democracies) about 500 people to make all decisions about all subjects on behalf of hundreds of millions of people. That’s ridiculous!

So what would be better? For a start, a principle that each decision should be made locally unless it really has to be uniform across a nation. Each decision should be made at the most local level of social organization (neighborhood, town/city, county/province, region, nation, international organization) that it needs to be made at. Why? Because local conditions are different. What is the right decision in one place will be the wrong decision somewhere else. Unless you want to force the whole world, or the whole country, to become totally uniform in every way. I don’t want to live in that kind of country or world.

What else? Each decision should be made by a different group of people who actually know something about what they are deciding: A mix of experts, stakeholders, and elected representatives of the general interest.

Where local decisions or decisions on different issues come into conflict, and the conflicts really must be resolved, then there should be courts of reconciliation to find the best compromises.

These are simple principles. Allocate decisions to the relevant level of government. Make decisions through balanced groups who represent the relevant knowledge and interests. Reconcile differences when necessary.

Rule by power is outmoded and dysfunctional, but its what we’ve really got, even if it is well disguised. Rule by electing people you don’t know to decide things they are clueless about makes for bad decisions.

We can do better. The history of forms of government is not over. Something will follow next after today’s idea of democracy. And we had better start thinking now about what it will be.

After Schools, What Comes Next?

What, in the history of Education, comes after the really bad idea of schools?

Do you remember how totally boring school was? In class. If it was ever exciting, that was usually somewhere outside the official curriculum.

How well could your teachers get to know you in 30 weeks? Or 15? Before you moved on to yet other new teachers? Your interests, problems, needs?

And if by chance there was something interesting to learn about, 40 minutes and 30 other students in the room made real learning almost impossible.

Gathering a few dozen students in a room empty of all but textbooks and worksheets, with one teacher, sitting in rows, all day, to all learn the same standard things at the same pace – was an idea invented by the Sumerians in about 3000 BC.

So much for the march of progress!

How else can people get an education besides sitting in the factories we misname schools?

And why in Hell’s name does everyone have to learn exactly the same thing week after week, year after year, for 12 very long years?!

The institution of schooling, as we know it, simply cannot possibly prepare young people well for the world of the 21st century. There is no point in trying to fix it or reform it. It is structurally dysfunctional for our time in history. It needs to be replaced with something better.

Such as? More time spent talking with teachers and other adults, instead of just listening to them. Talking one-on-one or in small groups (small is no more than 6!). More time spent out in the real world, in internships, apprenticeships, and service learning. Doing. And then coming back to small groups with experienced adults (not necessarily always trained teachers) to reflect on and critique what they’ve done and seen other people doing. To ask questions. To put things into a bigger picture.

Such as … More individualized learning of subjects you are really interested in; more attention being paid to what you’ve missed and need to pick up in order to go on with what you want to learn; more learning online of what you can learn online, with teacher time reserved for what you really need a teacher for.

Schools need to be replaced with a mixed system that combines these elements in new ways, keeping only as much of the old system as can be proven to work better than any alternative. No large classes, at all. No standardized one-size-fits-all curriculum for everyone, at all. No ludicrous multiple-choice testing, at all.

I have been a professor of Education at leading universities for over 30 years. I know all the arguments pro and con. I have worked with teachers in public schools, sitting in their classes several times a week, for most of that time. I know that most teachers try really hard. Their job is impossible except under the most ideal conditions, and the best they can achieve is rarely good enough to produce thoughtful, critical, informed, and skilled graduates with a passion for understanding. The usual result is just the opposite.

Most experienced educators I have talked to agree with me. But they are afraid to try changing something as socially gigantic and historically entrenched as our failed system of schooling. They also fear, legitimately, that any changes will put those least well served now by schooling even more at risk.

We can do better than sending kids to schools. Now is the time to say so and to start talking about what comes after schools.

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