Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Women's Ways of Knowing and Divergent Thinking

I got a note the other day from one of my former students, Carl, who was reflecting on our class together last year. He wrote, "I miss our history lessons! All the times we went off-topic and started talking about interesting things, haha!" Carl was remembering the times we were practicing connectivity on the tangent board (see this earlier blog post for a discussion of the role of tangents in fostering and inculcating divergent thinking) or explicitly practicing divergent thinking. Carl was someone who came into that class as a wonderful analytic, convergent thinker who had been well trained in the basic techniques of the sciences in Europe. 

What surprised him most about the class, however, were the times when we diverged and connected people, events and concepts that seemed far ranging and even, "off-topic." Sometimes these connections would take the form of creating analogies that seemed to contain portions of what we were exploring. Other times, we would have "metaphor practice" to try to construct a metaphor that described an historical event as fully as possible using our own experience. At the highest levels of thinking, analysis and metaphor meet as the critical and creative forces that make for original thought. To permanently separate them is to create a false dichotomy that chokes off imagination. I like to think that I was just trying to get Carl ready for a career in science (or whatever) by following the dictum of evolutionary biologist R. C. Lewontin, "It seems impossible to do science without metaphors."

As I was responding back to Carl's note I was reminded of one of the first times I ever thought about divergent thinking in this manner. I had made the conscious move to change schools from a rural all boys boarding school to an urban co-ed day/boarding school. Other than in summer schools, it was the first time I had taught girls, and it was remarkable to me how much more the girls' thinking was connected to both their own experiences as well as to other stories while they talked in class. 

This led me to start listening for "how" someone was saying something rather than only "what" they were saying. It is this added level of listening that is one of the cornerstones of shifting from thinking about teaching as being solely about the transmitting of information to examining teaching as also encompassing the exploration of how what is being transmitted is being received. Once you make this transition, it is like Alice falling down the rabbit hole or Dorothy waking up in Oz--a world full of talking scarecrows and mad hatters that consistently resists full comprehension. (I explored another form of this phenomenon in an earlier post on "The Hedgehog and the Fox.") It is has been one of the most profound paradigm shifts in my understanding of what I am doing in a classroom.

The confusion induced by my paradigm shift was compounded as I realized that having a full class of people who were ALL using different techniques to process what we were discussing was overwhelming and exhausting. But it also felt exciting every day because even if you had taught something before (I am up to having taught The Great Gatsby over forty times), you could never predict HOW a student was going read a book. 

I began to to investigate this phenomenon and, in a serendipitous moment, I discovered the Stone Center at Wellesley College. It was the work of Jean Baker Miller, the founder of the Stone Center, on the psychology of women that first drew my attention, but in the same year I had shifted schools a book appeared called Women's Ways of Knowing that made me re-think (and subsequently expand) the way I had been thinking about teaching. The discovery that Blythe McVicker Clinchy and her colleagues documented in that book was that there were identifiable epistemological levels to the way students engage material they are learning. I remember being so excited that I made my newly formed interdisciplinary course in Philosophy and Literature read the whole thing.

Clinchy discerned that there were levels of understanding that could be described and that were common to all students. But the real discovery, form my point of view, was that men and women appeared to have different techniques of making meaning at the upper levels of the stages. In short, men and women showed similar approaches in early stages of learning until they came to the level of "procedural knowledge." When people are in this stage they are asking questions about the accuracy and worth of the information they are receiving.  Is Nick a reliable narrator in Gatsby? Does Jefferson really believe what he wrote in the Declaration?

In other words, learners in this category were engaged in a reasoned reflection about the nature and authenticity of authority. Clinchy posited that in this stage there were "separate knowers" and "connected knowers." The former detached themselves from what they were studying, tried to remain objective and were often willing to argue and debate about whether something was reasonable.  These were predominately male. Connected knowers, however, were more likely to try to empathize with the source's point of view, to see the source in its real world context and to connect the source to their own experience. These learners were predominately female. Obviously, I wanted my students to be able to do both, but it seemed to be true that most students, like Carl, favored one form--separate or connected-- over the other.

But it was when I started teaching and coaching at a school out West that Clinchy's findings became even clearer. And it was not surprising for me that it was when I shifted from coaching boys to coaching girls in soccer that the difference between separate and connected knowers became most vivid--and most useful. Sports---like theater and music and all of the arts--are performance based activities and, as a result, you get immediate, real time feedback about whether something has been learned or not. Did the ball do what you wanted it to do?  Did you hit that note, or not? 

Furthermore, the more confident you were, the better you performed. But where did that confidence come from? What was its foundation? What was immediately apparent to me was that it was different for girls than for boys. With a girls team the more they empathized, saw what they were learning in a larger context and connected it to their own experience, the more confident they grew, the more they developed technically and strategically, the higher the their level of intrinsic motivation and the more it meant to them. From that moment on my teaching, and my coaching, became both more varied and more focused at the same time whether it was with boys or girls.

The point, however, is not that one way of procedural learning--separate or connected--is better but rather that it is good to know the epistemological strengths of the people you are teaching (and coaching) as well as where you think they could grow in the future. 

Finally, Clinchy's last level of learning--constructed knowledge--understands that learning is a process based on construction, destruction and reconstruction. These most sophisticated learners have a high level of tolerance for paradox, ambiguity and developed a narrative sense of self that tried to "establish a communion with what they are trying to understand." And being meta-cognitive--understanding the techniques that you yourself use to learn best--seemed to me to be a fundamental goal of any teacher or coach.

By the way, it turned out that Carl was a superb connected learner as well; he just hadn't done it much before.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Divergent Thinking about the Purpose of Studying and Doing History

One of the hardest things about starting the school year is remembering the things I need to forget. Once you have been teaching for awhile (and this only gets worse the more you do it), you build up such a reservoir of tacit, assumed understandings about what you are teaching that it is even more important to remind yourself that you have to see what you are teaching from the student's point of view. If you don't, you will never move them forward. I need to forget that I already know a lot about doing history, and look at it from their point of view. For example, if I don't let students explore what they think about history and what their past experiences have been in classes, then I will not have an accurate benchmark to know where to begin.

For example, many of them are really Henry Ford historians--"History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history that we make today." (Chicago Tribune, 1916). But some of them might be Arnold Schwarzenegger historians--"Ba Ba Ba BOOM. You're History." (The Terminator, 1984).

Another vital skill I have to remind myself to introduce is the idea of "divergent thinking." I wrote about this briefly in an earlier post where I paid the price and induced a frightened non-engagement in my class for a week because I forgot how crucial this skill is to creating an experience-based learning environment. So, what is "divergent thinking?"

The objective of divergent thinking is to generate a lot of ideas in a relatively short period if time.  As two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling famously said, “To get good ideas is to get lots of ideas, and throw the bad ones away.”

Years ago there was a study that tested “divergent thinking” on a group of people.  These people were in kindergarten. The percentage of people scoring at “genius level” for divergent thinking was --- ready, 98%.  When that group was tested five years later that number was down to 32%.  When these children were fifteen years old, the number was down to 10%.  By the time they were twenty-five, the number was down to 2%. When I ask my students what they ascribe this downward trend to they are quick to say, "School." Regardless of whether they are right, it is kind of damning that they think this in the first place.

One of the major reasons we create environments that are not experience-based is because we are so focused on convergent thinking. We have a lot to cover, and we need every second to transmit that information to our students. In the past few years I make sure I have "shadowed" a student through their class day as an exercise to try and see the world from their point of view. What I find is the explicit or implicit goal of virtually every class is to converge down to a formula, a piece of information, a previously held interpretation. In short, the objective is to know something but the process is almost always a converging down on an answer, not on an opening up to an exploration. Divergent thinking is something that fosters the latter, and I always have to remind myself to include it as part or all of classes early in the year. And then I have to remember to keep doing it.

I thought I would practice a little divergent thinking myself on the topic of the "purpose of studying and doing history." There are a few rules in divergent thinking--avoid judging what you are thinking, try to be additive and play off what you just thought and be as playful as you can are vital. As Plato said, “What, then, is the right way of living?  Life must be lived as play.”  

So, here goes:

Some Reasons to Study and Do History: 

1)    George Santayana- “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." 

This seems to be the most common starting place for history teachers in staking a claim for the relevance of their discipline. However, I find that few historians actually subscribe to it. The "condemned" part seems both didactic and prescriptive. History certainly has to do with the past, but the past can't be repeated. At least that is what every historian I know thinks. This, of course, was the downfall of that non-historian, Jay Gatsby--"Can't repeat the past? Why, of course you can." 

2) You can't repeat the past, but there are cycles and patterns that can help you identify where you came from.  

Arthur Schlesinger was very big on this idea; he saw the identification of these cycles as leading to a more ideal society. For Schlesinger, the tension between pragmatism and idealism is part of the American character. It is important, however, that the identification of cycles is never helpful as a predictive mechanism. That is a fundamental difference between social scientists and historians. The former are trying to be predictive; the latter never are. Historians are wary of generalizations and dwell in particular settings, whereas social scientists are using particulars to achieve general theories and rules. Understanding the difference between social sciences and history is crucial and often muddled in a way that confuses students.

3) Maybe the past cycles, or maybe it provides models and analogies for the present and the future.  

Richard Neustadt was a big proponent of this. Much of this argument sees the past as a powerful analytic tool for making policy decisions. It uses case studies to examine whether something happening now is analogous to something that happened in the past. For historians though, models are like lenses on a camera, they bring some things into focus while blurring other things. It is a trade-off, you see some things more clearly but you miss other things completely when you use any model or analogy.

4) Perhaps the way to see the past most clearly is to see it through the lens of myth? 

Rollo May wrote a good deal about this. Myths, in this view, are not falsehoods, they are stories that are either living or dead. The way to understand the unconscious of another world is to understand its myths. As May wrote, "A myth is a way of making sense in a senseless world. Myths are narrative patterns that give significance to our existence [...] myths are our way of finding meaning and significance. Myths are like the beams in a house; not exposed to outside view, they are the structure which holds the house together so people can live in it." Myths tell us what we have internalized in our unconscious in ways that we are unaware of--another version of the DKDK zone.
(Divergent thinking should not be confused with brainstorming, by the way, although they are related. Brainstorming is a technique that encourages divergent thinking. Brainstorming is just one of many possible ways to produce divergent thinking, however.) - See more at: http://www.creativitypost.com/psychology/most_of_what_you_know_about_divergent_thinking_is_wrong#sthash.EPeBaKCS.
5) If myths aren’t true or false but, rather, living or dead, then we gain self-knowledge by understanding change over time in the mythic as well as the “historical” sense.   

The unveiling of underlying collective, cultural myths gives one a greater control over one’s life in the present. In other words, an understanding of one's deeply held myths is essential to both national and individual mental health.

Here is an experiment I have been running for thirty years since I was reading May's work. What book has EVERY American read or had read to them? My findings have been that I can say four words to you and you will all give the same answer. Ready? Here are the words-- "I think I can." 

Answer--The Little Engine That Could. Every year, the students who are "American" howl with delight that they all shout out the same thing. The "non-American" students just look quizzically at that behavior. The reason is that the "myth" of that story, and its multiple lessons on persistent striving and being the underdog, is so deeply internalized in our culture that it tells us, as a country, who we are. Interestingly, from an historian's point of view, it may be one of the myths most in jeopardy of dying right now.

6) Mark Twain looked at the past in a kind of poetic way--"The past does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme." 

What I am realizing in this divergent thinking exercise is that studying and doing history provides a context for our lives. It reminds me of the philosophers--I remember reading Ludwig Wittgenstein in grad school--who believe that the origin of meaning is really in context. In  other words, meaning comes primarily when we are able to put something--a word, an event in our lives--in context. Without context, you have no meaning, only action. We need history in order to provide meaning for our lives. History is like the landscape of a scene you are looking at; you need that landscape to provide context that will tell you where you are. Perhaps history is to one's life what perspective is to a painter. I confess, however, that there are times that I think I am teaching history to people who are the least historical people (teenagers) in the least historical country (America) in the world.
7) And, of course, William Faulkner saw the past as always with us when he wrote, "The past isn't dead; it isn't even past." 

I think this is true, and it is most obviously seen in the idea of history as being actually similar to memoir--something I talked about in an earlier post. But Joan Didion is perhaps the person who resonates most deeply on this topic, and provides a nice closure to this first set of divergent thinking posts. She writes in "On Keeping a Notebook," “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”

Put Faulkner and Didion together and you end up with a poignant plea for history as a necessary signpost to self-knowledge and deeply understanding who one is as a person. But that understanding only comes when something means something. Studying and doing history provides the necessary context that allows that kind of deep meaning to emerge.

What this little piece of divergent thinking has shown me is the power of connection, and the way in which you create idea through that act of connecting. Next time, I will play off some of these ideas to explore reasons to study history based on the role of narrative, the relationship of stories to intelligence, and empathy.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A Meditation on the Difference between Purpose and Relevance

I remember my college freshman economics book using the example of a someone dealing marijuana in order to explain a particular principle in the study of economics. It is significant, however, that I remember that the book used marijuana dealing as an example, but not the principle. The book was making a pandering play at trying to gain my interest--and perhaps the interest of my hall mate who actually was dealing marijuana--but it misfired because of a misunderstanding of the difference between relevance and purpose. Relevance is, unfortunately, dependent upon the perception and perspective of the viewer, and that, also unfortunately, is oftentimes myopic and shortsighted.

The poet and essayist Wendell Berry beautifully expresses the problem with relevance in teaching and learning-- “Of all the issues in education, relevance is the phoniest.  If life were as predictable and small as the talkers of politics would have it, then relevance would be a consideration.  But life is large and surprising and mysterious, and we don’t know what we need to know.  When I was a student I refused to take certain subjects because I thought they were irrelevant to the duties of a writer, and I have had to take them up, clumsily and late, to understand my duties as a man.  What we need in education is not relevance, but abundance, variety, adventurousness, thoroughness. A student should suppose he will need to know much more than he can learn.” Relevance has the negative side effect of actually closing us down to what we might most deeply need. But how do we combat this tendency?

Experience-based learning gains much of its energy and direction not from trying to be relevant to the student, but by trying to identify with great precision the purpose of what is being learned. Each summer I try to spend some time thinking through the purpose of whatever disciplines and skills I am teaching that coming year, and I have been pleasantly surprised by how my thinking has grown over the years with the repeated returns. This focus on purpose has had an effect on my relationship with my students as well --  most immediately when they want to know, "Why are we studying this?" and "When am I going to use this?" To me those are legitimate questions that we, as teachers, all ought to have sophisticated answers at the ready. Learning sticks with you when it has meaning, and meaning is directly related to purpose.

As one of my favorite cognitive psychologists Robert Sternberg has written concerning the major factor as to whether people achieve expertise (see the previous post for an investigation of how that operates with historians), "It is not some fixed prior ability (that determines whether one achieves expertise), but purposeful engagement." Purpose is both the engine and the compass of experience-based learning and if you can't articulate the purpose of something, then the "abundance, variety, adventurousness and thoroughness" that Wendell Berry talks about is never really embraced. Furthermore, Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, has posited that a sense of purpose a foundational precondition for creating a "growth mind-set" that is, in turn, a key to intrinsic motivation. In short, with having a sense of purpose the stakes are high.

The other day my friend Dan sent me an article that approaches this same idea from a different angle. What happens if you don't have a sense of purpose in your activities? A sense of purpose, the creation of meaning and feeling of control are all linked together. If having a defined sense of purpose gives you a greater feeling of control over a situation, what happens when you start to feel like you are not in control of your life?  British epidemiologist Michael Marmot has concluded that you risk a significant increase in the amount of debilitating stress you endure. He writes, "Although professionals may bemoan their long work hours and high-pressure careers, really, there’s stress, and then there’s Stress with a capital 'S.'  The former can be considered a manageable if unpleasant part of life; in the right amount, it may even strengthen one’s mettle. The latter kills. What’s the difference? Scientists have settled on an oddly subjective explanation: the more helpless one feels when facing a given stressor, they argue the more toxic that stressor’s effects. So the stress that kills, Dr. Marmot and others argue, is characterized by a lack of a sense of control over one’s fate. Psychologists who study animals call one result of this type of strain “learned helplessness."" If we want to avoid the toxic stress and the resultant motivational desert of "learned helplessness" that often results, we need to be able to articulate to our students the purpose of what we are doing together.

In clarifying our understanding of the importance of purpose we might also rescue the concept of stress with a small "s." Toxic stress is debilitating, but what often happens, as a result, is that people try to avoid all stress as much as possible. There is another kind of stress, however-- "understandable stress"-- that is the basis for the creative anxiety we feel in many of our most beloved activities. The "butterflies" that someone gets before a music recital, a dance performance, or in the locker room before the big game is a kind of stress that increases the depth of the learning and, for many people, the enjoyment of the activity. We are encountering a problem, but one that we think we can solve. That process, cognitive psychologists have found, is what triggers learning, not the addition of relevance. It's the feeling you have when you have heightened sensations that help you FOCUS more clearly and INTENSELY.  Anxiety or stress in this sense is creative because it puts you more fully in the moment, more alert, and more attentive to what is needed in that moment.

Experience based learning actually tries to induce that kind of understandable stress in order to foster creativity. It is the creation of an environment where you try to coax people into the DKDK zone. The DKDK zone is where the most transformative learning occurs, and it is often characterized by understandable stress when properly managed.  How would you know what you were capable of if you only did what was comfortable -- and what you thought at the time was relevant?  Wendell Berry is right-- "we don't know what we need to know... and we will need to know much more than we can learn." The problem with teaching and learning seen through a lens of relevance is that it provides a way for both students and teachers to avoid stress and anxiety, because it is always seeking a link/connection to what is already known. Whereas transformational learning inculcates the ability to tolerate - and embrace - that sense of understandable stress inherent to the DKDK zone, that is actually a necessary spark to creativity.

So, in the next post I will introduce the concept of divergent thinking as a way of mitigating toxic stress. And then I will practice that technique concerning the PURPOSE of studying and doing History; that will be a messy operation, I suspect.

I am just finishing Roger Schank's new book Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools and in it he issues this warning about the activity we are about to undertake to articulate purpose. He writes, "We say things to students like "You will need this later." But this is usually a bold-faced lie. You don't need algebra later. Making up nonsense convinces nobody." Now, THAT is throwing down the gauntlet.