Friday, February 13, 2009

Lang -- Students as Learners, Part II

I’d like to take a minute start a discussion on the second part of Lang’s chapter on “Student Learning”. In the second part, Lang discusses Perry’s model of intellectual development in college. He has a lot to say that’s pretty interesting – especially for those of you who teach ethics. Check below the fold for more.

Perry’s claim is that students in college tend to talk through a developmental model as they progress from freshmen to seniors. This developmental model has two major points. First, Perry thinks that as students progress through college, they come to have different beliefs about the status of the truths of the subject matters they are encountering (its metaphysics, say). Moreover, they come to have different beliefs about the accessibility of those truths (its epistemology, say). As they progress through these stages, their way of understanding how their education should and should not be structured changes accordingly.

Here are Perry’s three stages:

Stage One: Dualism (the Education Fundamentalist)

When students start college, Perry suggests, they are dualists. They believe in absolute truth, and they think that their professors possess those truths. As a result, they want the professor to just “pass it along” in an uncomplicated lecture-oriented format. Because the transmission of facts should be uncomplicated and factory-like, students in this stage dislike discussion or small group work. After all, what’s the point? It’s not like the other students have the knowledge, so these pedagogical methods are really just wastes of time. Interestingly, Lang also suggests that students who have a difficult time moving out of this stage may, in fact, turn out to be dropouts, perhaps because thinking of knowledge and truth in a different way requires too much accommodation and revision.

Stage Two: Relativism (the Education Chameleon)

At the second stage, students have overcome Dualism. But here they start to challenge all education. As far as they can tell, if there are no right answers, then they are all the same. As a result, students start to see education as really just a game (and mostly bull). It’s just a bunch of paper pushing, a shell game that they need to figure out. As a result, they become uninteresting in knowledge, and more interested in figuring out “what the teacher wants”. The teacher has the goodies (the grades), and so they need to figure out how the teacher plays the game so they can get them.

Stage Three: Commitments (the Educational Existentialist)

I don’t think Perry uses “existential” but I will because it sounds similar to me. Here, the student learns to transcend the relativism stage and make a commitment to being an embodied learner. The student accepts that part of what education is requires their own appropriation of what they are encountering. The teacher is now not seen as a game player or a sage on the stage but instead an experienced facilitator whose job it is to introduce students to previous “commitments” and then create an environment where new facts and commitments can be formed.

There are lots of places to go with this thread, so I’ll leave it open. However,

I’ll briefly note a few things:

1. The move here from one to the next does remind me of Nietzsche. In the dualism stage, the student thinks that God is truth. In the second, God is dead, but with God’s death truth dies too. As a consequence, we might see this not as a movement away from dualism, but rather a move into a kind of lamenting dualism. The student is mourning the death of Dualism, suggesting that if there are no absolute truths, there are no truths at all. In stage three, the student finally learns to overcome dualism entirely (as far as I see it). The student learns to see truth in a new way (different from stage one and two).

2. In my own ethics course, oddly, I don’t move through these stages as Perry has them. Instead, I start with the assumption that my students are relativists, and try to get them to move past it to a form of Dualism, to a recommitment to truth. Then at the end, I use Nietzsche (specifically) to challenge their newly-formed dualism and leave them with the convictions to ethics and to living a good life, but with no preference for relativism and a new-found dislike for dualism. My hope is that this creates the ground for “commitment”. But I’m not sure if it actually happens. I’d be curious to know how other people structure their own ethics courses.

Any thoughts in general?


  1. I haven't been teaching all that long, but I've never had a class of freshmen who could, on what I know of them, plausibly be characterized as Dualists in Perry's sense. The fresh-out-of-high-school ones (I teach community college so quite a few first-year students are not fresh out of high school) sometimes do want me just to 'pass it along' -- but not because of their theory of truth, but because that's the easiest way for them to have a clear idea from the beginning of what they have to do to pass the course. Students seem to me to tend vaguely relativist from the beginning -- but, again, I don't think it's because they have any sophisticated theory of truth, nor because they think it is just a game. Rather, I think it's because the very basic and inconsistent relativism they use is a sort of way of getting by while minimizing confrontations (a sort of 'don't make trouble with my opinions and I won't make trouble with yours, and we can all be happy' strategy).

    I am very, very skeptical of the idea that any students drop out because of their view of truth.

  2. Hi Brandon,

    Thanks for the comment!

    I have some skepticism about the "students drop out due to frustrated epistemologies" claim that Lang makes as well. But perhaps he has some data to back the claim up? I'm not sure.

    Although I've been teaching for a while, I rarely teach freshmen (I usually get them as sophomores in my gen ed class) so I don't have any solid experiences about how students start off. When I get them, they are solidly relativists (of the "this is all a game" type).

    Are there are any other folks out there who have experiences teaching freshmen?

    Also, I tend to agree with you that students don't have sophisticated theories of truth in concept. But surely, I think, they have strong intuitions (in the background) on these matters that heavily affect their educational practices -- on this I think I agree with Perry pretty strongly.

    I also think -- implied in your comment, and I agree with it -- that students have strong intuitions about "what matters and what doesn't" and this heavily affects educational practice as well. So the whole "you don't other me, I won't bother you" is typically stressed in "who the hell needs this gen ed class?" environments.

    I wonder if that attitude continues in subjects that students think "matter"? If not, I wonder if Perry's developmental model is more accurately a portrayal of such engagements? Clearly I think the "who cares about this subject?" variable plays heavy, and it would be good if Perry (or Lang) could address it to perhaps make it less of a confounding variable in their way of looking at developing ways of engaging with education.

  3. I often teach first-year students. In fact, I often teach in our first-year cross-disciplinary course. I'm not sure that my students conform to this model. I do have the sense that they are very proprietary about their beliefs - as though beliefs were possessions about whom it is no one else's business. This sometimes comes across as relativism but I think it is more a symptom of not recognizing the tight fit between belief and action. There are pretty obvious psychological explanations as well - they have just had their world turned up side down and are clinging on for dear life. I see my job at this stage as getting them used to articulating their beliefs rather than merely laying claim to them. It is very important to get them talking to one another for this purpose - it circumvents the "just tell me what to say on the test" instinct and some times they are more desperate to make themselves understood to one another than to me.

  4. I think it's important we not take "epistemology" here in the narrow philosophers' sense of an explicit theory of truth or justification, etc. What seems clear to me is that students bring attitudes about knowledge — how it's gained, who has it, what value it is, etc. — to their academic work and that these attitudes shape students' efforts and choices. (Perhaps this is better labeled their "ethics of knowledge"?) Of course, that's far from the only thing that influences their efforts and choices, but these attitudes about knowledge and learning are a significant component of the emotional makeup that shapes students' academic habits. The great merit of Perry's developmental scheme is that it offers a picture of how these attitudes shape student performance.

    For those that are interested in this general topic, the material out there on intentional learning is excellent.


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