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.

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