Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Hedgehog and the Fox

I remember reading an essay by Isaiah Berlin while I was in a college history class entitled, "The Hedgehog and the Fox." It is a famous essay for historians because in it Berlin explored Tolstoy's view of history in a way that unpacked Archilochus' phrase, "The fox knows many, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Berlin had fun, I think, placing intellectual and artistic personalities into these classifications--Dante, Plato, Nietzsche were some of the hedgehogs, Shakespeare, Goethe, Aristotle represented the foxes. And there is always an attractive quality to dichotomous thinking that allows us to understand things in dualities. And, having just come back from watching Woody Allen's new movie, To Rome with Love, I am also reminded of the hilarious scene from an earlier film of his, Husbands and Wives, where Judy Davis is sorting her friends into hedgehogs and foxes while having sex with Liam Neeson.

About a decade ago, business leadership guru Jim Collins utilized Berlin's idea in his book, Good to Great, and his video, the Art of Money,  but with a little twist--"all good to great leaders, it turns out, are hedgehogs." Whereas Berlin was trying to make a fine distinction amongst a group of thinkers, Collins was looking for a principle that could guide business decisions. Collins posits that "hedgehogs know how to simplify a complex world into a single, organizing idea--the kind of basic principle that unifies, organizes and guides all decisions. You want to lock onto a Hedgehog Concept that works." (As an aside, notice how the hedgehog in the graphic above seems so happy with her one, big idea while the fox is either confused, anxious, angry or sneaky with her many--much smaller-- ideas.)

But one of the central principles of experience-based learning is that you need to be wary of something that is presented as an "either/or" and see if it is, in fact, a "both/and."  After I was out of college and was teaching, I began to look at my students from the point of view of epistemology rather than just as students of History, or English, or Philosophy or whatever interdisciplinary course I was teaching. Epistemology is the philosophical discipline that studies "how we know what we know," and it is a way of adding a layer onto teaching that is endlessly fascinating because it adds the focus how something is being learned as well and what is being taught.

I began to notice that some of my students gained understanding through analysis. They were very good, in other words, at taking things apart. Many of them were gifted at the level of precision they could achieve by looking at a text and breaking it down into component parts that they could attach labels to. And I noticed that my Advanced Placement English curriculum was very analytical. As was Advanced Placement American History. And, as I looked around at other departments, I saw that the whole school was really very weighted in favor of analysis. I wondered whether or not we were teaching people to be very good at digging into things and burrowing around; we were training epistemological hedgehogs! (Much later I realized that there were reasons for this, but that will the subject of a later blog post. )

But what of the students who were more inclined to be be "epistemological foxes?" Well, to begin with, their primary way of understanding something was not to tear it apart but to connect it to something else. They tended to work through analogy in history, with metaphor in English and often through comparison and contrast of whole texts rather than with smaller parts of texts.

Then, I had the idea to pick up tests and quizzes from the faculty xerox room and look at them to see if they could give me clues about which particular cognitive skills would be most useful in "acing" any given exercise. As you might imagine--leaving aside the fact that "short term memory recall" was, by far, the most important cognitive skill that would determine success--the hedgehogs were at a distinct advantage in every discipline.

So, I began an experiment to see if I could manipulate the performance of my students in ways that would be completely legitimate from the point of view of anyone teaching in the discipline. Every discipline, obviously, requires being both a hedgehog AND a fox, but each of us tends to have a leaning toward one or the other either through training or disposition. I would create tests that were based on a student's ability to create meaning through analysis, and then switch it around on the next test to favor the foxes. And I began to explore whether if I asked questions in an analytic way, certain students would respond more immediately. Then would switch the nature of my questions to be more connective and comparative the next time, to see if that brought out more of the foxes.

And what I found was that I could, in fact, manipulate student's performance (and grades) based on even a subtle emphasizing of one cognitive skill or the other. This was an invigorating, but disturbing, development, and one whose implications we will probe in future blog posts. In the meantime, enjoy the cartoon below that one of my students sent me this year with a note--"is this what you are talking about?" Yes, yes it is.


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