Learnable Moments

Yesterday was a snow day in New York City; the first in five years, apparently. Went out walking with Jasper so he could check out the snow. Lots of dads seemed to have taken their own snow day in order to engage in large scale snowball fights and sledding in the park. A whole range of snow-fun accoutrements could be seen walking up and down the street, from snow-ball makers (kids are so lazy today) to skis. In a short walk up to Columbia, I also witnessed three “learning incidents.”

The Three Incidents

Outside of Mama Mexico, a young girl (maybe 10 or 11–though I’m terrible with judging age) was telling her younger friend or sib, “No, New York isn’t next to Connecticut, it’s, like, 300 miles away. The only reason anyone would go there is if they went to Yale.”

Further up the street, a little boy (maybe 3 or 4) was walking with a woman who may have been his mother. He was carrying a magnifying glass in one hand. He stopped suddenly, darted to the base of a shop window, picked something up and started looking at it.

Mom: “What are you doing?”
Kid: “Look what I found!”
Mom: “Don’t ever pick things up off the street!”
Kid: “But… it’s a lucky penny.”
Mom: “It doesn’t matter. You never pick anything up off the street. Do you understand?”
She takes the penny out of his hand and tosses it aside. Grabs him by by the hand and drags him down the street while he looks forlornly back at the penny.

At 110th, a boy (maybe 7 or 8) was crossing the street with someone who may have been his father. The dad was carrying a one of those saucer sleds. I don’t know what you call them–a “sliding down a snow-topped hill without directional control apparatus.” He stepped on what looked to be a broken piece of plastic on the ground, and annoyingly kicked it away. The kid picked it up.

Dad: “What are you doing?”
Kid: “Throwing this away.”
Dad: “Well. [Long pause.] You are a very good citizen… Yes, that was the right thing to do. That’s what I should have done.”

Classrooms as Learning Places

Three very little incidents in three different kids lives, all witnessed during a short walk down the street. Our children’s lives are made of such incidents–it’s how they become who they become. Brushed off as unimportant by everyone involved, I bet that if I asked these kids ten years down the road, they might remember these conversations. I bet they would remember very little of what happened in the classroom this year–but this day, and the things that happened on it, would be seared into their minds. It reinforced the awesome responsibility I have with my new son, Jasper, since I realize I don’t get to choose when he is learning.

I’ve spent a lot of time in classrooms, and–to be sure–I’ve learned some things in them. I have to say, I’ve learned more in them as a teacher than I ever did as a student, but nonetheless, when what happens in a classroom is good, it can be very, very good. But many of the things I’ve learned in classrooms were unplanned, or completely irrelevant to what was intended. I spent a lot of time as an undergraduate making elaborate floor plans of homes where I wanted to live someday, and designs for devices I wanted to build. Anything to stop from falling asleep. I would buy the lecture notes afterward, study for an hour before the exam, and sometimes do pretty well, depending on the subject. Did I retain any of that information? Maybe. I might be able to tell you something about cell architecture, infectious diseases, 20th century Japanese literature, the epistles of Paul, or designing microcode. (I spent 7 years as an undergrad, so I took a pretty disparate selection of courses.)

And sometimes I got the “aha!” moments: sitting in the back of a classroom and understanding modus ponendo tollens, or making–for the first time–a connection between the mechanism of the fetish in Durkheim, Marx, and Freud, or biting into jiaozi my group had made for the first time in a cooking class offered by an international exchange group. It would be unfair to suggest that learning cannot or does not happen in classrooms. But for me, at least, it happened there less than it happened while out camping, or at a museum.

Hallways as Learning Places

And that’s not to say that universities cannot be or are not excellent places to learn. But the fact of the matter is that most of my learning in such places happened in the hallway, chatting with classmates on break, or in the computer lab, working through a problem on my own or with friends. There were exceptions to this: classes where I consistently learned a lot. There were even lecture courses where I managed to learn quite a bit. In my undergraduate career, I can think of two or three lecturers who were able to impart information in that format. Given how many lecture courses I attended at a large state university, that is a bit of an indictment.

To be fair, in courses where we talked more and sat less, I think I ended up learning more. But one of the reasons I learned anything at all was because I was around people who wanted to learn. I think it’s easy to be idealistic about this, and say everyone wants to learn, but I don’t think this is the case. There are many environments in which being curious is penalized. And, as much as I hate to say it, many schools where this is the case. I don’t just mean the obvious cases, where interesting questions are left aside in favor of preparing for the standardized testing. More generally, a curriculum–a course of instruction–seems to work against natural mechanisms of curiosity.

Teachable Moments?

Which reminds me of a conversation I had in the hallway with two of my peers in graduate school. (Chris and Sean, I think it was). We were talking about the question of the role of teachers. I was trying on the garb of the radical anarchist, and explaining how I thought that many of the structures of the university were stifling and antiquated. Why, Chris asked, was I still working in one?

There are lots of answers to this. First, I get to hang around and talk with people who are interested in ideas and learning more than that occurs in other settings. In recent years, I’ve become more convinced that other organizations hold that draw as well, but in most cases these have modeled themselves on the university setting in some way. Second, it provides a socially accepted place to be a “scholar.” But the answer I gave then–joking, only serious–was that I wanted to undo the institution from within.

When I was a graduate student, there was a new professor who had a sign hanging in his office that read–if I recall correctly–“I want to inspire.” I hated that sign, in some ways. For me, the role of the teacher was to teach–to impart knowledge–not to inspire. The idea of inspiration seemed to me to be too intrusive: if students wanted to learn, I was there for them, but it was not my business to motivate them. But recently it has become less clear to me what teachers should do. The obvious answer–they should teach!–makes this even more difficult, because I’m not sure what teaching is.

I have a decent idea of what learning consists of. Maybe the job of a teacher is to create environments in which students can engage in learning. For me, at least, that is part of what teaching is. Creating spaces in which students can collectively learn from one another and their experiences. I think teaching is also taking students away from familiar circumstances and expectations. Giving them a bit of a metaphorical bop on the head. Putting them in positions where their old way of thinking might not work as well.

Structured Anarchy

This is hard to do in a classroom, precisely because it is so familiar. Students spend most of their lives in an environment that has been built to tell them to structure their thought in particular ways. Much of modern instructional design–learning objectives, rubrics, and outlines in bite-sized chunks–reinforces the idea of a disciplined path of exercise. There is something to be said for imitation and modeling. There is something to be said for tradition, for ritual, and for rote memorization. Twice in my educational career, I’ve been asked to sing hymns in chorus, and perhaps not coincidentally, both were in places where I learned quite a bit. The second was as part of a warm-up exercise that drew on the Grotowski method of actor’s movement training in college. The first at a small private school where we sang “Simple Gifts,” among other songs, at the all-school assembly each morning:

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,

‘Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain’d,

To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,

To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come out right.

Hardly a paean to anarchy, that. But I think more attention needs to be paid to the balance of structure and surprise. That does not mean providing grading rubrics to pander to students’ unreasonable relationship to grades. But some structural rituals can be good; some elements that introduce the unfamiliar in contexts or frames that are familiar.

I guess the prototypical example of this is “show & tell.” At several schools I attended we had a period of show and tell that was consistently scheduled. But you never knew quite what you would get. I think some Montessori schools get this right as well: providing freedom to work independently within a structure that supports that sort of independence. Maybe graduate and undergraduate faculty should be spending time in kindergarten to remember what seems to work well.

As for me, I think my best bet is still to change the university from within. That means making courses strange–surprising students. Administrators don’t like surprises, but I am not an administrator. I am a teacher. And maybe my definition of teacher is “someone who makes the familiar surprising.”

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  1. Posted 3/3/2009 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    ‘Cause baby, I’m an anarchist,
    You’re a spineless liberal……

    I think you hit something on the note of surprise. Surprise is very important, it is shock, and a sort of pain/pleasure, and we know people learn from certain kinds of things. I remember the first time i thought about surprise in this light, it was in relation to to zen buddhism, when i was an undergrad. It was the surprise and little joys of the world that I took from those texts. There are ways of seeing and being in the world that I think we need to have a sense of, that is the process, and the passing reality of the objective view. We have to find those little joys in the processes, in the play, in the incoherence and surprise. I try to get people to find those little ‘tie ins’ with their life in my classes, sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail, but really the goal is to get the students to the point of no longer wanting someone like me to provide guidance, but to find ways for them to be comfortable with creating their own world through their reading/research/work etc.

  2. Posted 3/3/2009 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    A nice post on learning and teaching, Alex. I certainly share in the idea of teaching as a matter of constructing environments, with the attendant observation that classrooms are so often overdetermined. There is such a strong push to view pedagogy as cybernetic, steering students to predetermined, measurable/assessable, reproducible outcomes. So what does it mean to think of learning as unexpected? As happening in institutional interstices? As emerging from an intellectual affectivity or something like that?

  3. Posted 3/7/2009 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    Nice post. Reminds me of the literature of how Xerox photocopy machine technicians learn from each other at water coolers. Come to think of it some of the online discussion forums usually has a place called the “water cooler” or something similar for online learners to hang out and hopefully through some happy chance find some like-minded souls and they can exchange invaluable knowledge in the process. The informal learning environment is all too important to ignore.

  4. Glen
    Posted 3/8/2009 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Very nice post, Alex. Two thoughts/comments. When I was an altar boy at age nine,, a priest used a racial slur in the sacristy. Surprised and stunned, I felt like I had been slapped in the face. I told him he had used a bad word. His reaction was not good. Up until that moment, I thought that “Men of God” were of better moral character than the rest of us. I already knew that nuns were no better or worse since I was taught by them each and every day. That priestly moment made me refocus the lens through which I viewed the Roman Catholic Church, and really was the beginning of my questioning about all figures of authority.

    Second thought, Benson R. Snyder’s 1971 book, THE HIDDEN CURRICULUM, might interest you. One of my smartest and oldest friends, Nancy Barber, did her doctoral dissertation on “The Organizations as Curriculum: An Exploration of the Learning Implications of Organizational Culture and Administrative Practice in Colleges,” and Snyder’s work influenced her thought a good deal. There is a lot in Nancy’s dissertation about how colleges and universities teach students in unanticipated way lessons about success, work, achievement that are different from, often at odds with, an institution’s formal and conscious goals and values.

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