04 October 2010

How to help students see differently

There is a reason that, when the American Film Institute surveyed people, Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbirdwas chosen the greatest hero in American film history.

For me this heroism is not simply represented by the fact that Atticus is someone "born to do our unpleasant tasks," as Maudie says, or by his unstinting sense of justice, but in something even finer.

Atticus teaches all three children in the story to look at the world in ways unknown to the society which surrounds them. Because of this they are able to see Boo Radley and Tom Robinson and Mr. Cunningham in new ways, and - much more importantly - those children, at least two of them, grew up able to transform our ways of seeing. 

So when we read - or see film versions of - To Kill a Mockingbirdor Breakfast at Tiffany'sor In Cold Blood, we are enmeshed in unique world views enabled by Atticus Finch, or at least by Amasa Coleman Lee, father of Harper Lee, neighbor of the child Truman Capote.

On Sunday evening on Twitter @stardiverr and I were discussing the concept of hypothesis. I tend to think schools, and especially the dreaded Middle School Science Fair, should avoid the "hypothesis" idea entirely.

I think this because hypothesis in schools - as in the social sciences - too often means "guess" or - worse - "desired outcome." We "guess" that 'fertilizing' a bean plant with nicotine will damage it, we "want" our reading program to be effective. The result of both is bad observation - confirmation bias - and bad science.

I said that I thought the most important thing we could do with our students - in 'hard' sciences, in social sciences, in literature, in history, across the board - was to teach them to see differently, to look beyond the obvious. @stardiverr agreed, but said that is a hard thing to do. I agreed with that, absolutely.

Invention comes from new ways of seeing. Most of us can not really imagine pulsed signals moving across a wire, yet those who could "see" that, from Samuel Morse to Nikola Tesla to Bob Taylor and his ARPA colleagues, have fundamentally redefined our world. Most of us can only see gravity when we, or something else, falls, but Albert Einstein saw this radically differently, because he saw time and space differently - Einstein saw so differently that we are still confirming his ideas. Most of us can't see a lawn as Scott Fitzgerald did, "The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens--finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run. The front was broken by a line of French windows, glowing now with reflected gold, and wide open to the warm windy afternoon, and Tom Buchanan in riding clothes was standing with his legs apart on the front porch," but because he could merge the new art of the motion picture with the older art of writing in his mind Fitzgerald could create a timeless masterpiece about the American dream.

Is there a way to teach this skill? Or, perhaps more to the point, is there a way not to drive this skill out of children? I ask this the latter way because we all know that if we listen to young children, they see the world in amazing ways, they ask amazing questions, they haven't yet been taught the expectations which limit our vision. Young kids might ask if trees speak to each other, which, it turns out, they seem to do. But older kids, facing "science," stop asking those questions because they are beyond the ability of kids to effectively test. Young kids might wonder what it might be like to live under a purple sky or what would happen to a fish in bowl which somehow ended up in earth orbit. But older kids know these as "dumb questions."

Young kids might be marvellously inspired to rethink what they see as they come and go by a book like And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, but soon enough, their writing is reduced to essays "comparing" and "contrasting," or worse, re-writing Wikipedia articles so they can explain who John Adams was to a teacher who already knows.

Dr. Seuss's first book
Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner in their classic book Teaching As a Subversive Activitysuggested prohibiting teachers from "asking any questions they already know the answers to." (p. 117) That's a good start, it would, as those revolutionary authors suggest, "not only force teachers to perceive learning from the learner's perspective, it would help than to learn how to ask questions that produce knowledge." Yet that's only a start.

No science experiment should ever begin with anything but observation. "I see this and I wonder..." "I hear this and I wonder..." "I smell this, feel this, taste this..." Let us observe, and wonder, and then ask systematic questions which help us get to a hypothesis - an idea far closer to the "end" than the beginning of scientific learning.

No writing assignment should ever begin with anything but, "What questions do you have about this?" or, "What do you imagine about this?" We need to push our children to investigate, to imagine, to dream, to play, to never be satisfied with the canned explanation.

We need to help our students stand on their heads, or look down from a high tree, or to look up from under water, or whatever, as long as we help them to find new ways of seeing. Once they have this new view, then structure can help us climb down into the questions. But before they have this new view, all structure does is prevent people from climbing to new places.

So, we need to create environments in our schools, real, virtual, and academic environments, which allow dreams to evolve and collide, develop and connect.

What we don't need is structures which end up as prisons for the mind.

- Ira Socol


paul bogush said...

Just today I said to the kids "if you find this hard that is normal. It is normal to feel confused when you are trying to find an answer to something for which you cannot google the answer, or simply turn to page 156 and see the answer someone else wants you to know. You are creating an answer has not previously existed until you created it."

Also I am big on "looking down at their answers from a high tree" to figure out how they can get their audience to see their answer in a way that no one had previously thought of before:

Anonymous said...

I'm reminded of the chapter in Huxley's 'Island' where the teachers give the students magic mushrooms and lead them on a vision quest. Perhaps not the kind of useful suggestion you had in mind, however. :-)

The thing is: Creativity is psychedelic. Asking even a simple question could subvert the whole world, and that feeling of risk and joy can't exist in the wrong setting. Making it safe for such a moment to be wonderful is the responsibility of the whole community, not just a teacher who is seen by the student for an hour in the middle of a hectic day.

And duh.... Everyone knows John Adams is the guy who wrote a kickass violin concerto. :-)


Anonymous said...

"prohibiting teachers from "asking any questions they already know the answers to.""

Is this supposed to apply only in limited situations or what? I can't imagine how kids would ever learn math, for example, if their third grade teacher only posed problems (say, from calculus) that she couldn't figure out.

irasocol said...

htb: I love John Adams' music!


"I can't imagine how kids would ever learn math, for example, if their third grade teacher only posed problems (say, from calculus) that she couldn't figure out." Do you mean "learn" or "test"? I can surely imagine many ways to demonstrate that 2+2=4 or 8x3=24 or anything else without asking the child who will be learning to give you an obvious answer. What I think you mean is that you can't figure out how you'll know they know these things. The answer to that, I'd suggest, is letting the student tell you what they know.

- Ira Socol

Anonymous said...

No, Postman said the teachers shouldn't ask questions that they already know the answer to. So that means no teacher can ever ask what is 2 + 2 or 8 x 3, unless it's a teacher so stupid that he has never figured out what the answer is. So I'm assuming that Postman couldn't have meant that literally.

irasocol said...

Again, I think you misunderstand the concept of "learning." You do not have to ask me what 2+2 is in order for me to learn it. You don't even have to ask me that to "teach" me this fact. You can demonstrate. You can say, "these two blocks together with those two blocks makes four blocks."

Learning, despite what you may have heard, is not about being tested. It is about incorporating ideas into your knowledge base.

Having spent time with Neil Postman and Charlie Weingartner in the years after they wrote the book, I think I can assure you - they meant this quite literally. In fact, a collaborator of their's used to begin class years by refusing to say anything, often for days, until students started their own conversations.

- Ira Socol

JessicaLeigh89 said...

Hi, I'm from Dr. Strange's EDM310 class at the University of South Alabama. I loved what you said about removing the hypothesis idea and teaching students to think differently. I think that most adults have become too structured to be creative. We need to bring up a generation not afraid to think outside the box.

Torn Halves said...

An observation from a different neck of the woods: Some days things seem so bad that it would be enough for students just to see something, engage with something (without worrying about whether they are seeing it differently). There is a horrible tendency schooling to become utterly self-referential so that the world that was once so full of wonder disappears from view. Education ought to be about cultivating a more intelligent and sensitive engagement with the world, but it so easily becomes a world of its own. I try to get students to climb that tree you mentioned and the reaction is: "Look, this is a waste of time. Just tell us what we have to learn and we'll learn it, and then we can go off and do what we really want to do."