Sunday, May 10, 2015
In reflecting upon my experiences as a student I have come to understand that the heart of my belief system relies on what was done poorly by my teachers. In thinking about my high school and even college experiences (to a lesser degree) I am amazed that I can not recall a single positive learning experience that has had an impact on me today. I often wonder how have I come to know anything at all? I have crafted my vision of thinking, learning, and teaching based upon my perception of the failings of others. I have found myself determining what I should do as a teacher when confronted with what I believe should not be done. In fact, one of the most influential passages I have read in terms of helping me form the general basis for what I want to do, in light of what should not be done, was from a reading for a previous graduate program (not completed) in History. In the chapter, Docile Bodies, from his book, Discipline & Punish, Michel Foucault outlines how formal schooling could be a place created and perpetuated for the purpose of instilling the cog-in-the-wheel ideology needed to essentially subjugate individuals. When Foucault writes, “From the master of discipline to him who is subjected to it the relation is one of signalization: it is a question not of understanding the injunction but of perceiving the signal and reacting to it immediately, according to a more or less artificial, prearranged code,” I can not help but draw parallels to my experience with formal education. Everything was to be done without question or, in many cases, full understanding as to why the action was being required (be it cursive writing, memorizing dates, or solving for x). Further, judgement of said menial task was often seemingly arbitrary, even when great pains were taken to tell me why I needed it for some abstract future endeavor. Some may call this “hoop jumping.” I firmly believe that it was the hoop jumping I endured that made me believe what I do today about effective teaching and meaningful learning. I also, unfortunately, see much “hoop jumping’ still occurring in classrooms.
It would be safe to say that my experiences, or at least my understanding of them, are in stark contrast to Thorndyke’s Law of Effect which states, “[r]esponses to a situation that are followed by satisfaction are strengthened; responses that are followed by discomfort are weakened.” (Ormrod, 2008) Clearly it is my belief that the discomfort of my schooling experience has strengthened my resolve to not be that way for my students. I would go so far as to argue that Bandura’s concept of modeling has, for me, been effective in the negative sense. The modeling of what not to do has been the driving force in helping me understand what I should do.
So far I have espoused my beliefs in the negative. I have alluded to what I believe by making explicit reference to what I do not believe. That line of reasoning can only go so far, and at this point has run its course. In short, I believe that thinking is a situational endeavor that is at once reliant upon others and occurring solely within one’s own mind. It is paradoxical in nature as we rely on others to help us understand and create meaning, but ultimately the meaning we derive is our own and is based on our experiences and previous understandings. It is both social constructivist and solipsistic, if such a combination is even possible. Furthermore learning is ultimately conditional on motivation, and motivation is largely situational. The goal of teaching, then, becomes less about the impartation of knowledge and more about creating an environment that is highly motivational and personal while staying within the framework of a common goal (a community).
I believe that optimal learning, that is, true and meaningful learning, occurs when individuals are placed in authentic situations with well defined frames and ill defined problems. Authenticity gives a sense of true purpose. It provides a powerful motivation that can not be artificially recreated. The motivation to do or learn something is never greater than when it is intrinsic. Surely extrinsic motivators can get the job done. We accomplish tasks all of the time that have extrinsic motivators attached. The problem is in the very phrasing I chose to employ: get the job done. The word “done” suggests that it is a finite concept. External motivators such as, for example, grades, tend to motivate students to do the minimum required to achieve whatever they deem to be an appropriate grade and that is all. End of story. “I got an ‘A’ on my paper and therefore I do not need to think about it anymore. My learning here is done.” (Interestingly, while this paper I write is ultimately for a grade, what makes it legitimate for me is that I am not writing it for you. I am writing this for me, as it is my philosophy and I am about as authentic an audience as I can think of for that end.) True learning should never stop. I often liken it to a never ending staircase when I bring the subject up with my students. The acquisition of a certain amount of knowledge should lead to more questions, which leads to the search for greater understanding through the acquisition of more knowledge, which leads to more questions, and so on and so forth for all eternity. This process should be as personal as possible, after all it is your staircase. Too frequently, we are asked only to build the first step, then stop and have that step judged, and then maybe build a first step somewhere else, have it judged, then stop, and so on. Soon, one might question the purpose of having to build various “first steps” for others to judge and provide reward or punishment and then begin to simply go through the motions of “step building.” There is a loss of motivation and true learning is not occurring.
A key factor in creating authentic learning environments is to include ill defined problems that need to be made into well defined ones. The creation of the problem, and the process one must go through to decide what is important to ask, and what is important to know, is perhaps more important than finding the correct solution. The ill defined problem exemplifies the authenticity of which I have spoken. I attended a conference several years ago (TEDxNYED in 2010) where one of the speakers (Dan Meyer) explained this in a manner that stuck. He was speaking specifically about math, but the concepts carry over into every subject or better still, life. After showing a typical word problem from a text book, he pointed out how all of the information needed to solve the problem was laid out in an orderly fashion, essentially walking you through the steps. In order to pass the chapter test, you did not have to learn the concept, or even understand the problem, you just had to be skillful at decoding the textbook. Dan then asked the audience how many problems we have solved in real life (ones that were worth solving) where we knew all of the given information in advance? This was a watershed moment for me. I suddenly realized that everything I have ever solved in my life, every authentic issue that I had to grapple with, everything that caused me to learn something, all revolved around forming the proper question first and defining the important terms. Nothing worth solving in life comes pre-defined. The authenticity is derived from the construction of the problem. The construction of the problem is where social constructivism plays a vital role.
We ultimately come to understand things on an individual level, but we take a social road to get there. I would argue that both Piaget and Vygotsky have equally valid points to make about this. Piaget’s notion of sociocognitive conflict (Ormrod, 2008) certainly has its merits. An individual forms an initial understanding of some phenomena, and when this does not mesh with a different individual’s interpretation of the same phenomena, conflict ensues. It is in the process of resolving the conflict that negotiation occurs. The negotiation that takes place is akin to haggling in the marketplace of ideas. Both parties laying their best offers on the table, listening to the other’s point of view, constantly refining their argument, until both sides settle on a mutually agreed upon understanding (or else walk away and begin the process elsewhere). The refinement of such thinking would not work as well if the individuals in question remained isolated from one another. However, even if kept in isolation with an idea, individuals still attempt (albeit in a less effective manner) to socially negotiate meaning with themselves. Vygotsky’s notion of self-talk or inner speech (Ormrod, 2008), while dealing specifically with children, clearly carries over to adults. Playing devil’s advocate with oneself is precisely what I am talking about. I do it all the time.
One aspect in which Vygotsky surpasses Piaget is in his approach to scaffolding. The ill defined problem of which I spoke earlier is only viable in a classroom setting if it is contained within a well structured framework. If we are to teach, then we must provide a scaffolding of advanced thinking. The trick is knowing when the structure is too generous. This is a fine line to walk. How does one provide authentic experiences with ill defined problems and yet contain these experiences within an artificial structure? Surely that takes away a hint of authenticity, does it not? This is something I am still trying to come to grips with. Obviously children need adult models in thinking as well as action. For a multitude of reasons, the world cannot be run by babies! So it is our job to find the threshold of authenticity, the minimum structure for the ill defined question, and walk that edge. I am speaking, of course, of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (Ormrod, 2008).
There are several obstacles to creating the learning environment of which I speak. First and foremost is the manner in which school itself is set up. How can I help my students to craft meaningful and authentic learning experiences within the span of 40 to 45 minutes? Further still, how can anything be truly authentic in school, when it is so compartmentalized? Life is not compartmentalized. We do not wake up each day and break the day down into seven or eight blocks of time and devote each block to the specific study of one particular aspect of the whole. It is therefore a struggle to conceive of real world problems that are to be digested in bursts of 40 minutes over the span of several days. It is not impossible, but it is a struggle to do so and to do it well. Additionally, in many cases the mandated curriculum is one that follows the “inch deep, mile wide” philosophy. This typically leaves little room for exploration and requires artificial time lines which skim the surface of understanding, cheapening the entire process.