Where’s The Beef?

This was a phrase that first appeared in a burger ad in the U.S. in the early 1980s and gained fame when Walter Mondale used it to attack Gary Hart in the presidential primaries. I thought of this phrase when listening to Matt Cooper interviewing David Putnam the other day. Lord Putnam, he of Chariots of Fire fame, spends a lot of time here in Ireland. To his credit he is very interested in education, believing passionately in the importance of education for societies and economies.

Lord Putnam was basically making the point that teachers haven’t adapted to take advantage of new technologies and develop new, and more engaging, teaching methods. The usual stuff about toddlers playing and simultaneously learning with gusto was mentioned. I don’t buy the whole comparison with toddlers thing – I think they’re fundamentally different in that their little minds are just trying to make sense of what must be a baffling world – it’s not quite the same as learning algebra when you’re 14. Indeed, I’m skeptical of the whole ‘learning is fun’ thing. Mostly learning is hard work and often boring. Anyway, I would like to have heard some specifics. The devil is really in the detail in all of this.

I get a similar feeling when I look at this talk on ted.com. It’s all about teaching/encouraging creativity in education and about how education supposedly crushes creativity. It’s a very popular talk and mildly funny, although not as funny as the speaker thinks. There’s some stuff there about the arts, dance in particular, but there are no real specifics. The imagination of very young kids is mentioned of course, the implication being that this is destroyed by the ‘system’. Again, I think this is a fundamentally unsound argument. I think it’s mistaking creativity for an imagination that is unfettered by constraints. It’s not thinking outside the box because the child has no concept of there being a box there at all – and boxes do exist. Real creativity is not about saying or doing whatever comes to mind. It’s about doing or saying something original within certain constraints. Having a good knowledge of those constraints is essential.

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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