Cargo cults, wooden phones and superficial learning

During a conference at Plymouth University recently, my colleague Oliver Quinlan told us all a fascinating story about the Cargo Cult movement, and equated it to superficial learning responses. Cargo Cults are an interesting socio-cultural phenomenon, because they derive from a collective misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the world, brought about by simplistic beliefs. One example of cargo cult can be found in the Melanesian Islands of the South Pacific, where, during World War Two, the islanders were invaded by the Japanese and then liberated by the Allied forces. Both occupying armies were far more technologically advanced than the society that hosted them. On both occasions, the primitive islanders were exposed to the advanced technology, and the alien culture and philosophies of their visitors, which altered their world view. They benefited for a while from them. Both the Japanese and Allied forces gave them manufactured goods such as clothing, tents, food and other commodities, which expanded their consciousness and increased their collective wealth.

When finally the war ended, and the Allied forces departed, the islanders were left with an interruption to their new found wealth. They attempted to regain this wealth by creating replicas of many of the iconic technologies their visitors had used. For example, they created landing strips and aircraft from straw or made wireless radios from coconuts.  One could perhaps imagine them today carving a mobile phone out of wood. They attempted from their collective memories to fashion their society into the image of their technologically advanced visitors. Some staged marches and parade drills using sticks to represent rifles, and painted military style insignia on their bodies to make them look like soldiers. They tried to recreate a set of circumstances that they believed would attract the wealth back into their communities. Essentially, they fell into the trap of commodity fetishism, and an entirely new belief system grew up around it.

Oliver drew our attention to the manner in which many novice learners, and in particular undergraduate students, attempt to build into their work what they believe their lecturers require from them. This is a superficial response to learning. For example I have often heard students asking 'how many references should I include in my essay?' to which my reply is: 'include what is relevant to support your arguments and justify your choices.' Just as the Melanesian islanders failed to understand the inner workings of technology, but attempted to recreate it from its surface appearance, so undergraduate students who 'don't get it' attempt to write critical essays by stringing together references into some form of meaningful narrative. It barely scratches the surface. As Oliver pointed out, we send our students a better message if we ask them to 'inform their essays' from the literature, rather than asking them to 'reference their work'. I go farther and advise students that they need to engage with the theories and published work they incorporate into their work, rather than quoting them disjointedly. Once students get the idea that they can write critically by going deeper, actually understanding the concepts and theories rather than simply creating replicas, they will begin to assimilate these ideas successfully in to their professional practice.

Photo by Erik Wilde

Creative Commons License
Cargo cults, primitive cultures and superficial learning by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Dominik Lukeš said…
I think cargo cults are a useful metaphor for education but I'd look for slightly different mappings.

First, I'd say that this is a very simplistic interpretation of cargo cults. The intellectual and social work that goes in any cult is much more than just simple similarity. Cargo cults are just a type of analogical social conceptualization that goes on in education all the time. I've collected some here:

Second, in my experience the reason students ask these questions because of the cargo cult of referencing and formalities that is presented to them by their teachers all the way through their educational experience. Just look at the ridiculous nonsense many universities put on their websites about academic writing not ever being in the first person (despite research evidence showing the opposite) and that not writing in the first person promotes objectivity (not supported by any evidence but contrary to common sense elicited by a moment's reflection). I know of PhD candidates who had to deal with this, too. I once read a book on some obscure topic published Stalinist Russia and the references at the end were organized alphabetically except Stalin's work which was listed first. Cult Ahoy!
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks Dominik. For me, your second point is much more valuable than your first. Yes, I'm oversimplifying the metaphor here deliberately, because people tend to appreciate simplicity, allowing them to apprehend the concept, and can then develop their own complexity as their understanding develops. For me, that's an important principle of learning. That is the style of this blog, take it or leave it.

Your secondary comments are valuable because they draw upon the cargo cult concept (which you thankfully apply in a simplistic manner in this instance) to drill down into the reasons why students perform dutifully instead of thinking for themselves. I agree that there is a lot of nonsense written in university essay guidelines, and for the record, I encourage students to find their own writing voice, which if necessary can include the personal pronoun. Some rules aren't worth the paper they are written on.
Anonymous said…
Isn't it the case that the focus on teaching in education (as opposed to learning) means that the students are trying to produce what it is that pleases the instructor? If the teacher is happy, the student will be reinforced. As you write in your post, the cargo cut of education is flawed, but a teacher centric environment reinforces the production of artefacts through rewarding superficiality.
Steve Wheeler said…
That's certainly my view on the current education system, and it's a key reason why I continue to call for change. Education after all, is for the benefit of the learner, not the teacher.
Legno Cases said…
Our present educational system is not playing a significant role in shaping the future of our youth. It makes students corrupt and teaches them only indulgence and self-centeredness. Some of the major problems with this system are as under.
The aim of this system has become to make money for the owners of the institutes and in turn this education also makes youth who are hungry for indulgence, power and money. They just think of partying, sex, fashion, food, gadgets and vehicles. They blindly followwestern styles and culture. For these youth, earning money is the only goal of the life and their only motivational force is money. They want to go abroad and earn money and stay there forever. These youths perceive the education as a means of making money.
Steve Wheeler said…
That's a rather negative view of education Legno. What part of the world are you referring to? Or are you saying this is true of all education systems around the world?
It seems simpler to me. The student has simply not been taught, explicitly, how and why to reference their work. Those who know how to include references assume it is a simper process than it actually is so do little to teach other than to say, 'Make sure you include appropriate references.'
I have a slightly different view: It's not so much inadequate education that causes students to ask the question "how many references", but rather lack of intelligence or laziness.

The reality that I failed to accept when I studied at university, is that students are expected to sacrifice nearly every waking hour studying and trying to understand academic papers. Not just that, but they are expected to enjoy it! If you don't have an almost undivided passion for what you are studying, then you have no business studying it in the first place.

As for those who lack intelligence; those are the ones I feel the most sorry for, because they are the one's who try hard, and who spend every waking hour studying and still they end up not getting it.

It seems that the people with the most intelligence are often the least deserving of it.

Popular Posts