Deep learning about deep teaching?

In the narrative evaluations of an experimental course on Creative thinking, in which the students read the explanation of the experiment before going into the course, was a negative one from a student who hardly did any assignments and didn’t show that they’d done reading or other preparation.

My first response was to discount the evaluation in the sense that it wasn’t something I could learn from.  After all, what is a teacher to make of comments that the processes x, y, and z used during the class-time didn’t work for the student when the student hadn’t given them a chance to work?

My second response was a chicken-and-egg one: If lack of preparation and submitted work was a consequence of the student not being engaged in the experiment, how should I have interacted with the student so we could both have learned about changes we needed to make?

My third response was too (mis)recall the title and lesson of educator Herbert Kohl’s essay about a student who refused to learn.  I had remembered him saying that there are students who, if they refuse to assent to learning, you have no way to make them learn.  The essay, “I won’t learn from you,” does include that idea, but only in the context of a deeper lesson: We have to “distinguish not-learning from failure and respect the truth behind [the] rejection of schooling by students from poor and oppressed communities.”  Or the truths (plural) that the students see.

My fourth response is to chew on the idea that Kohl’s lesson might include students not obviously from “poor and oppressed communities,” but nevertheless carrying the burdens of being given a hard time by their situation in life.  Of course, part of my privilege as a tenured professor is that I can avoid going beyond chewing on the idea.  After all, my plate is very full and it would take a lot of effort to delve into and respond to the truths of the student.

My fifth response is to share this with other participants in MOOCs that I’m part of and see what effect their responses have on my going deeper in my learning about deep teaching.

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

8 Responses to Deep learning about deep teaching?

  1. jennymackness says:

    >> if they refuse to assent to learning, you have no way to make them learn.

    This has reminded me of a child I taught for 3 years between the ages of 4 to 6. The first year was fine. He was 4 years old and the ‘curriculum’ was such that he planned his own learning day. The second year was also fine. He was much like all the other children with good and bad days. The third year (aged 6) was a real problem. This lovely child suddenly decided that he would not do anything he was asked to do. For a whole year he simply would not engage with any of the more formal learning – such as learning to read, write, do number. He was not naughty. He was not belligerent. He just would not do it. His mother and I had endless discussions about it and fortunately for me, she never blamed me – but for a year – he dug his heels in. It must have been an awful year for him. He moved on to a new teacher the next year and he slowly began to come out of it. Years later, I met his mother again and learned that he had become an actor, and that made perfect sense to me. I think school and formal schooling – as it was then and probably still is – was simply the wrong place for him. Some children are simply not suited to a school environment. They can’t, won’t conform and nothing we do can make them!

  2. Hi Peter and great story Jenny, in school and in life I’ve felt at times like not letting people in to mess with the order of things inside me. Or worse, to set up their little tent and start issuing unwanted advice. We clumsily come between people and their tether to reality / self and get batted away as a kind of nuisance. We weren’t invited and we forget about that. Sometimes we don’t want advice or input because it disturbs our connection to what we are doing / creating.

    Will have to finish Kohl’s essay tonight. It reminds me of teachers I’ve met in the stress of moving their practice to online. How they lose themselves in the feeling of betrayal of “their” face to face students who they will not be able to serve. Many of these students have been abandoned by the system anyway and the “efficiencies” of online delivery are seen as further abuse or marginalization. Thanks for this!

  3. Teryl Cartwright says:

    I am left with the essay line “learning what others want you to learn can destroy you.” I am especially trying to relate this post to peer to peer learning–each “side” offering to teach yet even if one side “submits” to learn, there is no reciprocity. Is teaching then linked with “power” or establishing “identity?” Or, is it too much work to separate the learning you want to keep and discard as you go and just easier to not even engage? It still doesn’t answer the question of the lurking non-learner. Why stay–is there such a thing as a student not learning anything if he/she keeps coming back?
    There is a lot to chew on that we don’t know the full story, the why. I think of the couple two years ago who noisily and abruptly walked out of one of the best creative classes i had, drawing attention to themselves but not followers. I tried to learn the why after, but I think I learned from them that I can only do my best to improve with what I know. If nonlearners want you to learn to doubt yourself too much it can destroy you, but you can choose how to nonlearn from them too.

  4. Rhoda Maurer says:

    After following the above comments and thinking about your post, I am caught thinking about the negotiations of student-teacher role expectations and the concept that taking responsibility for your learning is not the norm in the majority of US schools, K-12 or beyond. Teachings seems a relationship and if one party wants nothing to do with the relationship, then might the initial work be in building trust?

  5. Rhoda Maurer says:

    And later last night I found this in “Trust the Process” by Shaun McNiff… “The most threatening element is the lack of confidence that people have when the procces becomes difficult and tense. They don’t realize that the conflict and uneasiness that they are experiencing are necessary and part of the process. Transformation occurs when we lose our way and find a new way to return. In my personal experience as a teacher, it was the student who fought and struggled the most in her research into the workings of the creative process who produce the most memorable and convincing study of how the creative spirit moves through our lives. The depth and wisdom of her findings were shaped through the authority of her experience. The student taught also me to trust the processes, because I was the constant target of her frustrations. When things were going badly, I was the object of her fury. It was very difficult and I privately wondered whether I was doing the right thing. She needed someone to fight against, someone who would hold firm amid all the turmoil. What distinguished this student’s work from the more conventional nay-sayers and complainers was the way she stayed with the process. The gave it the opportunity to transform itself.”

  6. Kemlo Aki says:

    I wonder if “making someone learn” is something that only works in a social or cultural setting where strict obedience and deference to authority is the norm? Compliant students are perhaps more likely to go along with what they are told to do or learn. However, in a more democratic, egalitarian situation, where students are allowed (or even encouraged) to question authority and choose their own paths, it seems reasonable that some would reject or refuse to learn what a teacher insists they should know. The role of teachers thus becomes more complicated, as they have to both teach and persuade. Instead of educating by fiat, teachers have to work collaboratively with students to get their “buy in.” This makes teaching more challenging, but what better way is there to nurture students who are self-motivated, invested in their own education, and able to think for themselves?

    Personally, I find it almost impossible to know why a student is refusing to do the work of learning. Is it because he lacks interest in the material (or, as Scott Johnson wrote, “Sometimes we don’t want advice or input because it disturbs our connection to what we are doing or creating”)? Is it because he needs to learn in a different way (because, as Jenny Mackness wrote, “Some children are simply not suited to a school environment”)? Or is it because, as Rhoda Maurer points it, he needs someone “who would hold firm amid all the turmoil,” someone who can help him get past a rough patch? If I don’t know the reason for a student’s lack of participation, how can I presume to know the right course of action?

    I think it’s unfortunate when education is presented in a “right here, right now, all or nothing” way. As teachers, we can try to nurture students through frustration. We can help them find educational alternatives when “regular” classes aren’t working for them. But sometimes “wait and see” makes the most sense—given time, students may choose to go back to material that didn’t interest them in the past. Or, they may find a vocation that doesn’t require the specific type of leaning that a teacher once believed was so essential. Either way, I think being able to say no is an important part of the learning process.

    • There is one kind of saying no that isn’t to be simply accepted. That’s the “I’m not convinced this will be valuable for me” as a way to avoid getting involved, when the student won’t be able to see if it’s valuable without participating at least once. That is, the teacher/facilitator can’t provide the experience through words in advance. Thus the “Be Here Now” node in my “mandala,” http://www.faculty.umb.edu/pjt/MakingSpace.html.

  7. scottx5 says:

    This just came to mind: if learning is a form of sharing how does a student engage when they have nothing to return that is “theirs”? In answering a question on a quiz to demonstrate learning, they are sharing nothing of their own. School returns nothing of yours. It takes what you offer, decides on its correctness and returns a corrected version that apparently is pulled from a box of approvals that come from where?. The student need not even be there for this machine to keep running.

    The quote I mentioned above. The idea of a “third intermediate object” really interests me as a tool of learning that diffuses the personal (somehow):

    Quote from “Being a Character” by Christopher Bollas
    “Errors convey to the analysand the uncomfortable truth that the psychoanalyst’s interpretive work is always flawed, and as analysts appreciate this they possess different techniques which allow for the correction of error, misstatements, or “not quite right” formulations of the analysand’s communication, which interestingly enough become a reliable matrix for use: in this case, something which is useful because it is wrong and serves the interest of a more accurate representation. Further, the analysand gains greater experience of the analyst’s sensibility (his very particular way of working), and although this may lead to the disappointing realization that the analyst does not know everything (a powerful infantile wish in the analysand), it increases the patient’s unconscious sense of the nature of human communication. The patient-analyst relationship is inevitably dialectical, as each participant destroys the other’s perception and rhetorical rendering of events, to create that third intermediate object, a synthesis, that is owned by neither participant and objectifies the loss of omnipotent wishes to possess truth just as it situates the participants in that collaborative place from which the only analytically useable truth can emerge.”

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