Show vs. Tell

January 2, 2010

One of my past homework assignments….

In his book, the Discoverers, Daniel Boorstin brings up the same concept multiple times – the idea of how showing time and telling time are different.  He writes, “The sovereign time that governed daily lives would no longer be the sunlight’s smooth-flowing elastic cycles.  Mechanized time would no longer flow.  The tick tock of the clock’s escapement would become the voice of time.”  This brought to my mind the difference between two education styles – experiential knowledge, and learning solely from a textbook.

Showing time and experiential knowledge are similar because both are elastic, natural, and various.  The water clock, sundial, and hourglass show time by using natural substances; water, sun, and sand.  Knowledge from experience is also natural.  When a person listens to different composers, or looks at different art pieces – weighs the differences and similarities, discusses why one is more popular than another, learns the back story of the piece – they come away with an intuitive knowledge of the subject.  Since this method is natural, and gently directed, it will have inconsistencies.  The water clock, sundial, and hourglass will be “seasonal or temporary,” and the experiential learner will know more in a handful of certain areas than a little about a lot.

Telling time and learning solely from a textbook are similar because both are controlled and uniform.  Mechanical clocks are constant and unchanging; the pendulum swinging from one side to the other, the second hand ticking religiously.  Textbooks are widely used because they are controlled and uniform, so that information can be readily available for the masses.  When a student reads a textbook, they process previously processed information and then try to commit it to memory.  The downfall is that students become bored, and an inherently interesting subject, such as history, can become dull.  Think about the mind-numbing quality of a ticking clock late at night when try to fall asleep – by the time a student has reached junior high, textbooks become something the student has to survive.

Time and education are both such vast areas, it is not necessary to appoint one way as the best.  In time there is space for long, languid days where minutes and hours all seem to meld together, and on the same breadth there is room for Olympic titles being won by carefully measured hundredths of seconds.  It is the same in education, there is time for both individual explorations where the student soaks in information through natural sources, and there is time for knowing tested facts.  The beauty in both time and education is that without the elastic and the controlled, neither would be complete.


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