Socrates at the Terminal:

Emotion's Neglected Role in High-Tech Education

By Norman Weinstein


Sequence: Volume 32, Number 6
Release Date: November/December 1997

The newest educational technology can spark reflection upon the most ancient style of education. I've been sitting at my computer lately, searching the Internet for information about the newest uses of computers in long-distance education - thinking, all the while, about what many educators aren't including in their high-tech plans, and what the ancient Greeks did. In a word, feelings. Think of the image of Socrates as a master teacher, and how Plato depicts him as so capable of wholly engaging the hearts as well as the heads of his fellow citizens - how his provocative queries could lead them to laughter, tears, rage, awe, all emotional preludes to hitherto undreamt-of insights.

Now try to imagine an educational software designer with the courage and wisdom and passion of a Socrates. Forget about today's captains of industry who are busy pouring a 19th century "wine" of vintage curriculum into 21st century, digitized, "new" bottles. And imagine faculty with the emotional as well as intellectual resourcefulness to use computers as tools for emotionally-charged, intellectually open-ended education. What might such inventors create? Fantasize the following:

Software designed to engage heart and head equally. Think of a "Freshman Composition" software program tapping various student feelings about self image, language structures, rhetorical styles, various academic subjects, and computer technology itself, all at once. Think of a software that encourages students to improvise unconventional links among apparently contradictory ideas, using hunches as well as clearly-etched concepts. Envision an input device other than a keyboard - a sensing glove or hat that could input student emotions during the learning process, sending data to a computer that could then cogently modify its own program as a consequence. Lest this sound like science-fiction, Rosalind Picard's "Affective Computing" research group currently is working on just this technology at MIT's Media Lab.


Internet-based learning groups where students of a certain range of psychological temperaments (bookish introverts, for example, with a strong ambivalence toward computer-mediated learning) are connected to other students with contrary temperaments and values (say, TV fans with more enthusiasm for computer games than books) in order to provoke learning through stimulating debates over both educational form and content.


Educational e-mail discussion groups where emoticons, those crudely simplistic glyphs symbolizing subtextual emotions, are forbidden, and new inventive metaphoric and imagistic writing styles, or graphics presentations, or best of all, multimedia programs, must be invented to communicate feelings buried beneath the surface of text.


Courses on utilizing emotions during educational computing in order to expand one's grasp of the different "mind sets" identified with different academic disciplines. A course on "emotional" code switching, computer code switching, and cognitive code switching in the arts and humanities? Using the navigational metaphor omnipresent in the computing world, how about a cyber- "outward bound" explorations course? There, tips would be offered on how to jump from virtual worlds on computer monitors to real life ones, and back and forth, including how to best deal with the psychological consequences of such world-hopping.

All of these possibilities can only be conceived of in a context of educational settings where today's most rigid dichotomies are dissolved. Faculty must give up the one-upmanship implicit in being chiefly accurate (though one-dimensional) data transmitters, and students must surrender passivity and dependency patterns, abandoning their primary roles as "receivers." Both need to redefine themselves as critical, feeling-laden thinkers in search of innovative as well as traditional means to solve pressing life problems. Educational administrators would need to re-define "results" in terms other than today's narrowly defined tests based on outmoded (emotionless) notions of "Cognition." The entire educational computing industry would have to re-think what kinds of catalytic agents computers can be. The old role of the computer as a surrogate authoritarian instructor, an all-purpose "answer machine" blindly imposing rigid learning protocols upon its users, has been uselessly kept in place for too long. The age of the computer in education as the ultimate "question machine," a machine sensitive to the heartbeats as well as brainwaves of its users, is just beginning.

Are you ready for Socratic software? A search engine named "Mr. Chips" - a disgraceful pun, granted, but one suggesting the need for a symbol embodying affectionate teaching encoded in educational computing design.

To design computer technologies with the emotional needs of students centrally in mind is a tall order. The dominant psychology undergirding the emergent field of Human-Computer Interface design is still a cognitive psychology which rarely takes into account how emotions cloud or illuminate thinking. As long as the primary input device to student computers is a keyboard - not an instrument sensitive to emotional currents - there will be no easy way for a computer to respond to the emotional needs of its user. The image of the humanoid computer Hal in the film 2001 - a machine capable of guile, remorse, and even a flow of tears, in response to human interaction - seems unlikely to be actualized by that date. But educators can assume the leading edge in raising questions to technologists about the kinds of future computers they'd like to see in universities.

We have only to reflect upon our most emotionally charged moments while working at a computer to realize the extraordinary importance of connecting computer responsiveness to feelings. There are those depths of depression that occur when a hard drive dies, software crashes, a dialogue box in a program is befuddling. But there are a full spectrum of joyful moments also: complex statistical problems miraculously solved in seconds, Internet connections linking us to invaluable library resources continents away, impressive graphics accomplished simply by those of us who can't execute a straight pencil line. The feelings associated with these computer-mediated experiences are themselves jumping-off points for further learning, grist for the educational mill, if taken advantage of adroitly. But how?

Socrates utilized the emotions of learners through the creation of verbal cul-de-sacs, logical impasses disrupting habitual thought patterns. Passions are easily aroused when one's predictable problem-solving behaviors no longer work efficiently.

Why not create educational software with a like capacity to frustrate the most conventional problem-solving mind-sets? In fact, such educational software might already be on the market, but it has never been labelled as such. A game like the best-selling "Myst," in which players wander through so labyrinthine a fantasy world that their assumptions about how to win a computer game are instantly foiled, might be a prototype for a new form of educational software. The trick involved with enjoying "Myst" is learning how to periodically seize as well as surrender goal-directed thinking. One needs to play a game to win, and to achieve a level of understanding transcending any notion of winning, both at the same time.

Qualities found in the most daring of thinkers - knowing when to trust intuition, looking for aesthetically pleasing as well as logical explanations - are qualities notoriously difficult to teach students. When we dream of new educational technologies, why not begin dreaming of how computers can aid us in instructing those elusive qualities? Perhaps we can create "virtual realities" so saturated with stimulating paradoxes that intuition can be fine-tuned in the process of meaningfully navigating their geographies. When I was child in the '60s I can remember gleefully going to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, a science museum far more welcome as a learning site than my elementary school. There were rooms to enter there, kid-sized, where optical illusions were everywhere, creating the vertiginous sense that all normal laws of gravity and perspective were in abeyance. It stirred the head, and quickened the heart, to try to get one's bearings enough to figure out where the exit door was after entering.

Such a provocative world students now can enter by donning a "VR" helmet and sensing gloves - but the principle is the same. The learning space is an architectural/electronic equivalent of a Socratic question stopping shopworn response patterns. Learning begins when feelings are stirred and thought swiftly flows because old habits are rendered useless and new strategies necessitated environmentally.

"What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross," wrote poet Ezra Pound, a bard who never surrendered his charge as an educational reformer. I am waiting to hear educators talk about computers on campus as tools to enhance student love of multi-dimensional learning. How can student enthusiasm be heightened for quixotically "impossible" problems to solve? For hydra-headed questions provoking cross-disciplinary study? How can learners fall in love with artfully improvised as well as logically plotted thinking? In the historic shift of the last decade marking the transition of the computer as calculating machine to a simulation machine, we are also noting a redefinition of the educational end-user. No longer wholly the coolly calculating student, we are witnessing the student also as player and playwright in multitudinous real and artificial worlds. When all talk of speed and bandwidth, the miracles of long-distance electronic learning and intranets, begins to dissolve into a weak
hum, think of how the Socratic form of education can be technologically recast. Dream of how the inquiring intellect might dance, and the passionate heart play, to a computer's tune.

Norman Weinstein is a widely published poet and critic who writes about technology for Wired magazine and MIT's Technology Review. nweinste@micron.net





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