Saturday, April 11, 2015

Part Two: Challenge and Support

Earl Weaver was once asked about the essence of the game of baseball. He replied, "A very simple game--you throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball." But, of course, hitting a baseball has been documented as perhaps the hardest thing to do in sports. There was a time after I had been teaching for awhile when I began to think that teaching could be distilled down to one phrase, "Challenge and Support." But, like Earl Weaver's remark about baseball, while true, that phrase is such an unbelievably hard thing to do in real life and get it right.

When you are engaged in teaching in an experience-based model, however, there are very particular kinds of challenges (and supports) that bring the greatest possible transformation in the learner.  Put most simply, if you can effect a "paradigm shift" in someone's world-view, then you have added a level of learning that will be transformational. If you do it enough times, you may have the good fortune to have that person become someone who deeply understands and can effect their own self-transformation on a repeated basis. In other words, the very act of learning becomes a form of ACTIVISM that the learner uses to effect change in themselves and their world. Sometimes I think of it as service learning on yourself.  If you get interested in the psychology behind this, Bob Kegan has been my go-to person since his book The Evolving Self transformed my own teaching in the early 1980's.
But the book that really informed my thinking about paradigms (see the earlier blog post about the paradigm shifts induced by the experience of awe) was one I discovered while teaching a History of Science class:  Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn was the person who had me first seeking out the valuable "anomalies" in my own teaching that would be the key to my own craft evolving.  In addition he got me to realize that if I could effect a "Copernican Revolution" in my student's world view, then I would be creating experience-based learning. So, you may ask, how do
we do this?

Like Copernicus, you first have to have deeply understand the world the way your students (or, in his case, Ptolemy) do. They have mental models of how the world of learning works and you have to know what they know--and HOW they know it. Years ago, I was on a federal government grant team studying "effective teacher behavior." I ended up staking my claim in that study that the number one teacher ability for effectiveness was "cognitive empathy." However, Kierkegaard probably put it best in his journal when he wrote:

"If real success is to attend the effort to bring a person to a definite position, one must first of all take pains to find him where he is and begin there. This is the secret of the art of helping others.... In order to help another effectively I must understand more than he - yet first of all surely I must understand what he understands. If I do not know that, my greater understanding will be of no help to him. Instruction begins when you, the teacher, learn from the learner, put yourself in his place so that you may understand what he understands and in the way he understands it..."

The act of cognitive empathy is perhaps the foundational feature of the experience-based teacher; it is what I think should be the backbone of teacher development. If you understand the world the way your student understands it, then you can design curriculum where the student's model will "fail" or not be sufficient to fit the situation they find themselves in. It is this "expectation failure" then triggers experience-based learning.

This epistemological "split-screen" teaching where you are conscious of not only the content of what is being learned, but also the cognitive skills that are being taught, is what allows the teacher to identify the "mental models" a student is unconsciously using. What I have found so encouraging for the future of experience-based learning is that this kind of thinking/learning/teaching is available to all teachers--those new to the classroom and those with years of experience.

But let me give you two concrete examples--one that effects the student's disposition and one that effects their worldview.

On the first day classes at CITYterm students have read an excerpt about "wondering and wandering" by Harvard professor John Stilgoe. The first day of class is actually a fabulous time to design something based on re-arranging the mental models that students come in with; it is prime time because you will have already established mental models in the students by the end of the first class. CITYterm students arrive having done the reading (maybe the night before) and ready to "discuss" the reading. Some of them are also waiting for an "expectations" sheet to be handed out including plagiarism and grading policies. But after a few minutes identifying the basic concepts of the reading the students and teachers head outside for the rest of the hour to actually DO what Stilgoe is writing about. They literally spend the rest of the hour making increasingly detailed observations about everything on the campus and generating questions and hypotheses about those observations. I know this sounds simple, but it has surprised me how memorable and defining this day becomes for students in their attitude about where learning occurs. What the faculty is trying to do is to have the physically felt experience of what they will do all semester in New York City.

The second example of expectation failure is a bit more complicated but is one of the most powerful Copernican Revolutions (paradigm shifts) that can happen where students learn to read in an experience-based way. (For those of you who follow this blog,  I have discussed this in an earlier blog post about the act of reading.) The other day in class I was telling the story recounted in an earlier post about the author Junot Diaz responding to my query as to where he was on his latest book project--"Oh, yes I am just about done. All I have to do is go back and put in the symbols." However, when I tell students this story virtually none of them ever laugh. In fact, one of them remarked, "that makes a lot of sense because it would be more efficient." That is because his quip fits their mental model of reading as being decoding books for symbols--cue the "green light on the end of Daisy's dock" from The Great Gatsby.

The other mental model that students generally hold is that the author's intention is what solely controls the creation of a piece of fiction. Therefore, they are stunned when an author whose book they are reading tells them that an observation of theirs makes total sense and is very interesting but that "they (the author) did not intend that and had never seen that in the text." Students are befuddled by that until they come to realize that, as the poet Cassie Pruyn writes, "a text is a living beast."
A large part of learning how to read in an experience-based way at CITYterm is designing experiences for students that challenge previously held mental models and force them to create new paradigms for themselves. Many of them, for example, come to a new model that believes that "to read a book is to author it." That shift changes the act of reading for them forever--it is truly Copernican. It also allows them to actively create their own personal understandings of what reading really is. I have found that once you get people comfortable and embracing self-transformation they become enormously creative at it.

There is an enormous amount of creativity and joy that goes into empathizing with students, coming to understand the mental models they hold, and then designing curriculum that forces paradigmatic shifts in thinking. It is when you provide this particular kind of challenge that experience-based learning becomes transformational. It also has the effect of bonding the faculty in wonderful collaborative design efforts that evince and even create a sense of common purpose in what school is supposed to be about--creating students that are their own teachers and teachers who are constantly learning about learning.

But what of support? To be sure, some of the most essential support comes in the form of personal and psycho-emotional awareness of what the student is going through. And there is a great deal written about to be effective in this manner. In the next blog post, however, I will explore what "cognitive supports" might be most helpful in these moments pf paradigmatic, transformational change.

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