Tuesday, February 3, 2009
On Course: Session 8-Students as Learners, Pt I
Hey everyone! Sorry for my being “out to lunch” pretty much all last semester. It was a hectic one – a new baby, planning for our semester in China (starting next week) and trying to get my own research and blog (insert shameless plug here - http://www.akuindeed.com) on course (pun intended) had me with my hands full.
That said, let’s move on to the next chapter of Lang, on “Students as Learners”.
Lang’s chapter is, as far as I can see, pretty straightforward and uncomplicated (particularly if you have ever taken a Philosophy of Education class). That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot to think about in there, because there certainly is. What I’ll try to do here is walk through the chapter (at least the first half) and raise questions, especially at the end.
Lang starts with the uncontroversial (at least to me) suggestion that people learn in different ways. Some of those ways are broadly developmental and likely linked to innate structures (he cites Piaget) and some are more specifically tied to the (non-innate) developmental stages that emerge in college learning (citing Perry’s work). His aim in the chapter is to talk about these two different developmental models and talk about how it might impact the way that teachers think about their jobs as educators.
Let’s talk here about the more “innate” developmental structures that Lang discusses (Piaget). In the next thread (Part II), I’ll talk about Perry (there's too much to discuss in each model, so each deserves a thread).
So on with it:
Lang works hard to get us to see that human beings are very similar to the kinds of “model building” creatures one might expect to pop out of an early modern philosophy textbook focusing on empiricism (I was thinking of Locke, specifically). The story is familiar: Humans get battered with the bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion of experience, and over time they slowly build up models of reality and of the objects within it, models that in the end are based on how interaction with the world tends to play out. Simply put, each of us develops a conceptual scheme that is full of assumptions about what is what, what things are like, how things come into being, and so on.
This is all quite normal and pragmatically useful. However, as it turns out we can get a little too attached to these buggers (our conceptual schemes). Once we have one built up to some degree, it starts to take on a life of its own. In a way, our conceptual scheme or model is like the Borg. It seeks to assimilate all future experience and data to conform to its own pre-established model.
In fact, Lang points to this very vocabulary. To process future experience in accord with one’s model is called “assimilation.” On the other hand, when I am forced to adjust my conceptual scheme and revise it to make room for new data, it is called “accommodation.”
Not surprisingly, once a conceptual scheme or model is fairly well established, it does indeed become Borg-like. It resists opportunities for “accommodation” and opts for “assimilation” whenever possible (which is most of the time). In many ways, this preference for assimilation makes perfect sense. Accommodation as a method requires more energy expenditure than assimilation. So unless there are clear benefits coming from accommodation, it just ain’t gunna happen. Basically, if the conceptual scheme can "get away" with assimilating (there being no high cost consequences) then it will do so.
In many ways, this is like the criterion of “conservativism” in philosophy of science (or the way in which belief revision works in Quine): if there are two theories, T1 and T2, each of which explains some new data, and T1 is more conservative -- causing less damage to one's overall existing body of beliefs (model), then T1 will be accepted each time. Since these beliefs work together to produce a pragmatically useful model for worldly interaction, alterations (accommodations) will have to be forced in with a shoe horn.
How does all of this affect us in the philosophy classroom? Well, it seems to me that there if this distinction between assimilation and accommodation does not affect us as pedagogues (in philosophy, specifically), not much does! As far as I can tell, the distinction pretty much maps out in theory why teaching philosophy (especially in general education courses) can be so difficult.
Essentially, philosophy calls upon the student to engage in a constant stream of accommodation. We attack assimilation, even mock it. We want students to “rethink” their conceptual models and to question them and revise them, to be prepared to toss large chunks with other newer chunks. All semester long, we attack their preconceptions and models.
If this or that belief is inconsistent with this other one, we ask, doesn’t that call for accommodation? “How can you still believe in free will when you also believe X?” we ask, waving that philosophical finger. "You are a relativist? But what about your belief in..." You know the game. We all do it.
The interesting thing is, however, that students respond to us as if right out of Piaget: “and to what practical value is all of this accommodation?” they ask. “Why should I spend my time thinking about and revising all of these high-faultin’ theoretical assumptions latent in my conceptual model?” (of course they don’t say it just like that, but you get the drift). They ask us, over and over (sometimes verbally, sometimes by ignoring us and texting one another under the table): “What’s the value in all of this, anyway??”
In the sense in which the conceptual model is created for (presumably, the capacity to get around the world successfully, to navigate objects and to have a reasonable chance to get one’s plans and projects off the ground), they have a point. Or at least they have a point that is reasonable enough that we have to give them a decent argument for why we are doing what we're doing. After all, accommodation requires a lot of energy, and there’s got to be a clear “payoff” if one is going to engage in it. In some sense, philosophy is, well...unnatural.
Of course, we return with our bromides about “critical reasoning” and how learning to revise one's model actually helps the student to better navigate a changing world and it helps them to learn to put their plans and projects into play in more sophisticated ways. Yeah, maybe – but for a large number of students, this may not actually be so. At the very least the student might have an argument that rests on the notion of “diminishing returns.” What if the majority of your students don’t want to have these sophisticated plans and projects? What if they are doing just fine, in their own opinion, navigating the world using the models they have already developed? Given their plans and projects, if the world changes, they'll make the necessary (and I stress *necessary*) revisions to their models. So to what purpose is it to ask them to investigate whether people have free will? Or to question whether the external world exists. Or that other people have minds. Or whatever.
Lang, rightfully I think, asks us to “chill out” – to stop getting defensive or even upset when students react to us with hostility, anger, or even with total indifference to what we are doing in the classroom. They are not doing anything we shouldn’t expect them to do. After all, we are the unnatural ones. We are the ones who are attacking their models when *reality* has not asked them to do so. We are the recalcitrant data, in a way (which can be assimilated under "some people are just weird and think about stupid things").
After all, they are the Borg, and we are resisting them. They want to assimilate philosophy, to reduce it to nuggets of familiar facts, and we refuse to let them assimilate. So there’s an undeniable result: frustration. We need to accept that, and thinking of developmental learning styles can help us to see where they are coming from. Of course, we need to also use this knowledge to better figure out how to get students to learn to be more comfortable with accommodation.
Which is where I’ll leave this (admittedly long) thread – with a challenge: without retreating into the familiar territory of “convincing students of the value of critical thinking” (which I personally do not think is a particularly successful strategy, regardless of how I may agree with its target), how can we use Piaget’s distinction here to get students to more successfully engage with the “accommodation” style thinking that we expect students to do in philosophy?