Friday, December 23, 2005

Evolving from our children

This is my last post till after the New Year. Most people I know are either winding down or have already gone on vacation. I’m going to do likewise and so I hope will most of the readers of this blog. Happy Holidays!


I meant this title to be taken in a serious vein although I understand fully that Darwin and Evolution are hot button topics and that the causality there runs from the genetic makeup of the parents to the character and behavior of the offspring and not vice versa. I am not trying to defeat that idea here. I have something else in mind.

To a certain extent we all pine to be school children who have elders that watch us, nurture us, and evaluate us. We might especially want this as we reach middle age and beyond, although we expect to have much more self-awareness and internal radar to guide our own judgments. The issue with spending a lot of time in introspection and self-analysis is perspective and if one misses essential aspects by being too close to the situation and not being able see things as others, especially highly informed others, might see things.

So the thought is that we might learn things about ourselves by how others see our children and then to rely on Darwin and Evolution in the more traditional sense, that those observations about our children speak loudly about ourselves. What evolves in this case is our self-understanding. We may become better parents as a result. And we may also become better attuned to our own environment.

Let me give a personal example. I have two boys, ages 11 and 13 and their difference in ages (20 months) pretty much mirrors the difference in ages between me and my younger brother, Peter. (I also have an older sister so I’m the middle child, and that may have had substantial impact, so the analogy is not perfect. But my sister is 5 years my senior and hence our experiences during the grade school years didn’t overlap much.) So I’ve likened myself to my older boy, Nathan, and likened Peter to my younger boy, Ben.

In certain ways, that has played out. Nathan was the tallest and youngest in his classes, just as I was. He seems to have the “math gene” and he’s a little reticent to open up around adults. Ben is much the younger brother. This has been my preconception for some time and it seemingly fit, so I didn't bother to challenge it.

But now I want to talk about my own self-learning by considering Ben and seeing some of him in me. Ben’s grades are not as good as Nathan’s and yet his teachers talk about Ben as exceedingly bright. The issue, so it appears from conversations between my wife and Ben’s teachers (and I got a little of this from the parent-teacher conference this fall), is that Ben races through his written work with the sole goal seemingly to get to the end point. So he is careless and sloppy (his hand writing is atrocious) and as consequence he makes mistakes along the way and he doesn’t go back to correct those.

This is not a perfect description of me, but it is sufficiently close to the mark to feel that I am seeing a reflection of myself. My wife and I talked about why Ben races through his work and she wanted to discipline that out of him. I was much less sure that is the right thing to do. I’ve written in a post a few weeks ago that I have some ability to do a quick and to the point analysis. The racing through things is essential for that because at root is to get to the heart of the matter and discarding a whole bunch of other stuff that is window dressing only is critical. But this is clearly something that I cultivated on my own rather than having it taught to me. Indeed, part of the issue is whether pleasing the teachers is more important than pleasing oneself.

I will say that somehow I figured out how to do both and Ben doesn’t quite have the right balance yet, but this idea of wanting the right answer (or at least a good way to frame the issue) by zipping through things seems to be an important part of me and I’m grateful that the evaluation of Ben has brought this point home.

I now want to turn this idea to teaching, particularly at the college level. The connections to our students are at the species and cultural level rather than at more direct heredity level. But might there be this same type of learning about ourselves from observations of the behavior of our students? The literature I’m aware of emphasizes the “otherness” between us and our students. We faculty are unlike our students in that they for the most part will not go on in academe and they have inclinations that are much more practical. They eschew theory for theory’s sake. They want to learn things where the usefulness is obvious to them and not otherwise.

There is another source of otherness that has been emphasized recently. They are digital natives. They can’t remember a world without computers. Their core behaviors have been shaped by the ubiquitous presence of information technology. Books may matter less to them as a source of knowledge. We are digital immigrants. We grew up in a world that was different. Television was the defining technology and in the main it was viewed as a source of recreation, not as a source of information. So we read newspapers and books. We tended to trust authoritative sources.

I don’t want to deny either view of otherness, at least not entirely, but I do think there is some benefit from also seriously considering sameness and looking for hints of ourselves in our students. This really can’t be done in a lecture style class. It can be done in seminars where the students speak up frequently, so their world view and approach to life are pushed front and center.

But beyond this, and I think this is extremely difficult to do at the undergraduate level at a big Public university but it is something we should think about as we try various things to reform instructions, the faculty might engage from time to time in discussions about the students. If we are seeing reflections of ourselves in the students, what are other instructors seeing? Knowing that would seem to be enormously important. To the extent that we perform Schon-like experiments in our teaching modifying our approach from one semester to the next, this would seem to be the driver. It is much harder to find the right way to teach when conceiving of the students as the other. It is much easier to conceptualize about ourselves.

The current approach, in essence, is that the instructor has a blank slate on each student when teaching the class and an opinion is formed only from the experience with the student during the course – based on the written work and occasionally on what the student says in class discussion. Why does it make sense to start a course with instructor ignorance of the students? And how might we make more overt the process from instructors seeing themselves in what the students do to them reconsidering their teaching in light of that reflection?

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