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Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Lesson from Abigail Adams

I'm reading David McCullough's fine John Adams (2001), a biography of our second President.  In it, he describes when Adams was sent to Paris during the Revolution to help negotiate peace.  Adams invited his son, John Quincy Adams, to go with him.  John Quincy was reluctant, wanting instead to prepare for his entry into college.  However, Abigail Adams encouraged him to go, likening his travels to, as McCullough reports it, "a river that increases its volume the farther it flows from its source." (p. 226).  She goes on to tell her son:
These are the times in which a genius would wish to live.  It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed.  The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties.  Great necessities call out great virtues.  When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman." (ibid.)
 Of course, John Quincy Adams went on to become President himself.

Abigail Adams' advice suggests education itself should actively engage the learner in problems that give the learner experience in "contending with difficulties."  The large, passive lecture--be it in a campus lecture hall or a MOOC--does little to give students the opportunity to experience knowledge directly as a solution to a problem.  Both on campus and online we should encourage a problem-centered, inquiry-oriented approach to instruction that actively engages the student in confronting problems, seeking out information to inform action, and then applying knowledge to solve the problem, in the process identifying principles that can be generalized from the specific problem.

Technology gives us the means to offer this kind of learning at the scale we need in order to properly meet the needs of our students and the society in which they live.