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?


  1. Thanks for your very thoughtful and thorough post, Chris. What I know from the literature on teaching and learning suggests that Lang is correct that learners are very good at accommodating recalcitrant information so as to save their existing conceptual schemes, and so (as you point out) we philosophers, who are trying to get students to critically evaluate their conceptual schemes, are working in rough pedagogical terrain.

    I'm not sure I have a solution to the challenge, only a few ideas to share:
    First, I think it's basically hopeless to try to persuade students of the value of conceptual overhauls, etc. by talking about it and talking about critical thinking. In my experience, students' eyes glaze over. What's needed are ways to help them discover these things. Our task is to lead them to this discovery in ways that are not heavy handed or didactic.

    Second, I think it can be important to emphasize that perhaps accommodation is limited. When teaching ethics, for example, I try to underscore to students that the conclusions we reach in ethical theory or concerning controversies in practical ethics probably should be constrained by our core convictions (or as people are saying a lot these days, by the 'platitudes' that constitute these domains). So any moral theory that claims or implies that one person's well-being or interests should be accorded greater significance than other persons' — absent some compelling moral reason to the contrary — is most likely one we should reject. Or any argument in practical ethics that assumes or implies that killing human beings is morally unproblematic is an argument we should reject, etc. This takes a bit of the edge off the idea that philosophers question everything just for the sake of questioning it. There are, in a broad sense, 'facts' to which our investigations should be faithful.

    Lastly, I think role models are useful here. A reason that people still teach Plato/Socrates (and maybe Descartes too) is that students find these figures invigorating precisely because of the relentlessness with which they attacked the conceptual frameworks of their eras. I've had some success by asking students who the Socrateses are in our society -- or if there are any. (They sometimes put forth names like Chomsky.) This can work because I think students are pretty self-aware about the origins of their own philosophical convictions. They recognize they live in a pluralistic society and they see their own convictions as products of media and parental influence, etc. So they sometimes implicitly recognize the need for Socrates-like figures in their world, and this makes my invitation to engage in investigations that mimic Socratic inquiry a bit less foreign or threatening.

  2. I just linked over here from A Ku, and I've never taught philosophy, so I hope I'm not too out of place here. But I found one aspect of this post very striking, as it relates to something I remember feeling when I took a philosophy class.

    The problem is: why do philosophy lecturers have to be so demanding? From the student's perspective, philosophy is just one class among many. Philosophy teachers tell us it's the most basic, the most important subject of all, but guess what? History teachers tell us the same thing! English teachers never cease to remind us that grasp of language is key to success. Science lecturers are so convinced that science is more important than anything else, they don't attempt to persuade us, they just assume it.

    So, as a student, we are bombarded by people who have devoted their careers and lives to certain disciplines, and who try to make us understand why theirs is the most important (in their life and ours).

    What I remember from my philosophy course was my teacher being disappointed that I could never take Heidegger's side in an argument. To this day, I still can't; don't get Heidegger, probably never will. And I felt/feel resentment that I should have to. Because, if truth be told, up till postgraduate level, what philosophy courses teach is actually history of philosophy (correct me if I'm wrong here). I could pass the exams with no difficulty (if with no flair) by learning Heidegger's positions as facts and recounting them in exams with relevant criticisms (also learned).

    So while it is certainly useful to point out the relations between whatever bit of philosophy you're teaching and assumptions that students actually hold, I don't really see the value in attempting to "attack their models" or ask students to "engage in a constant stream of accommodation". Why not allow students to just learn philosophy? Why try to force them to believe it?

    Phil Hand

  3. Sorry for the "post and run" -- it's been a crazy week packing for our trip (I'm in the airport now). Some thoughts:


    I have no doubt Lang is right (or at least that Piaget is, since he's really relying on him here). At the very least, as teachers we are doing some serious violence to their pre-existing ways of organizing and sifting through data.

    I agree with you, as I noted, that it's hopeless to try to "full frontal assault" and try to persuade (or shame, as many teachers do) students into conceptual thinking. I think they don't just glaze over -- I think they start to resent it.

    On your second point, I think I'm mostly with you. Unfortunately, especially in ethics, we focus on dilemmas and problem situations. So we try to get students to focus on what is problematic in their thinking, or unfinished, or whatever. We want them to see that their thinking fails to capture this or that thought experiment, or that the TE reveals inconsistencies in their conceptual schemes, and as a result we needle them into rethinking their convictions. What we can hide when we do this is the large area of unproblematic intuitive ground that they start off with, which is not in need of accommodation. So we can make it seem as if ethics, say, is all about theoretical reflection and little about intuitive response.

    Perhaps emphasizing this large body of unproblematic intuitive groundwork can help to make whatever accommodations we later want them to make less threatening.

    But still, even though I agree here, there's still the issue of the fact that students will, in fact, resist those leaps of theoretical fancy. Or they may just say "but what's the chance that I'll wind up in one of those stupid TE situations, anyway?" As a result, they question the theory on pretty much any level.

    Hi Phil -

    Nice to see you. I think you are cheating on your "no english" pledge, no?

    You raise some valid points. But when you say "just let them learn the philosophy" I get the impression that you are indeed thinking of it as simply a number of disjointed facts, no?

    I guess here I'll have to admit that I'm partial to Plato's argument here in the Meno: that there's no real sense in suggesting that the student "knows" the Pythagorean Theorem if the student merely memorizes what number of spout if given two numbers to start with (the measurements of the two shorter sides). Without understanding how/why those numbers lead to the third, something seems missing -- the skill.

    But here we're back to the original problem, in a way. How do you get students to learn the skill of philosophy when they see no point to it?

    Of course, you might suggest: what if there *is* no point to it. As you note, all professors think that their subject matter is the only one that matters. Perhaps, but I think there's a baseline issue here. I don't force students into my class. They enroll. Sometimes because they must (a required ethics course). But even then, the school doesn't force them -- they matriculate at the school, and those are the requirements. So I can't assume that they don't care, so I won't teach them the skill they don't value. I'm taught to teach philosophy -- which is partly a skill. So that's what I must do.

    So how do we do that in a way that meets Piaget's worries?

  4. I know I'm a bit late to the party, but teaching, reading, and writing have kept me from reading and writing about teaching in the last few weeks. I'm just catching up with the reading group now.

    This discussion has me thinking anew about Socrates' saying that "philosophy begins in wonder." In the Socratic dialogues, Socrates' interlocutors begin without wonder. Euthyphro, for instance, knows what piety is. So Socrates begins by getting Euthyphro to elaborate on his own mental model of piety—by encouraging assimilation, not accomodation. It's when Euthyphro can no longer assimilate Socrates' "recalcitrant data" that he begins to wonder about piety, and that's when he begins philosophizing. Socrates' trick, it seems, is to move slowly enough that no recalcitrant data is rejected because "some people are weird and think about stupid things." Can we do the same?

    "Minute-papers" and class discussion might be useful here. Give students time to elaborate a bit on their own mental models, and them get them to see that others have different models, or extended their models in different directions.


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