published September 1, 2005

SENCER E-Newsletter, September 2005, Volume 5, Issue 1

Seeing the Forest and the Trees, Part I

Wm. David Burns

I want to tell you about a visit I made to my doctor recently and what I think it revealed about pre-medical education. But before I get to that, I need to follow up on a couple of things from this year's SENCER Summer Institute. Because I think these diverse issues - the items from SSI and the revelations from the doctors visit - are related, I'm collecting them under the general title, "Seeing the Forest and the Trees." I do this to make a plea for attentiveness to both larger themes and specific elements. We've broken this essay into two parts (you'll get the Dr's visit stuff next month).

At SSI 2005, Paul Grobstein of Bryn Mawr and I co-facilitated a session to explore some of the ideas about risk and student opposition to progressive pedagogies that I began to describe in the essay, "With Friends Like These..." I want to mention just a couple of highlights from that session, one that expands to the "risk portfolio" and the other that succinctly captures a strategy to reduce risk.

The expanding portfolio of risk: My essay centered its analysis of opposition in what might be called pragmatic terms. It argued that students, like most of us, were parsimonious, that students had valid instrumental purposes for striving to reduce risk, etc. Colleagues from Acadia University in Canada introduced something completely missing from my analysis. (As background, they noted that Acadia had a very substantial enrollment of students of Asian origins, though they hastened to add that what they were reporting was by no means isolated to Asian students.)

Our Canadian colleagues made what I'll call a "cultural" claim about risk They described cultural traditions that demanded great deference and respect for elders and persons in authority (like professors in the cultures in which the professoriate still enjoys great respect). These traditions are so powerful so as to render a student paralyzed in the face of pedagogies that encourage challenging a professor's point of view, arguing with a professor, or even hinting publicly at a disagreement with the professor. Within these cultural legacies, a failure to understand the professor is permissibly expressed only when such failure is claimed to be the student's alone.

Initially these points seemed to be a bit exaggerated to me, accustomed to and comfortable with disputation as I am. However, as I thought about what we were hearing, as I recalled some notable studies of gender differences in learning, and as others offered further testimony, I began to see that these "cultural claims" require our understanding and un-packing as we look at resistance and risk.

Now, in general, what our colleagues were describing is hardly news. For years scholars have made powerful arguments about differences in learning styles, the need for cultural specificity and sensitivity, etc. What did seem new to me was the location of this challenge within what would otherwise be labeled as fairly progressive pedagogies. (Indeed, many of the new pedagogies were specifically offered as remedies to the conditions that gave rise to uneven and unacceptable learning outcomes. It should also be mentioned that these approaches are also sometimes associated with the new "ethnography" implied by calls for "student-centered learning" or incantations to transform the professor from being "the sage on the stage to the guide on the side.")

To the extent that the cultural claims our Canadian friends were making are true (and they certainly seemed genuine), they pose a special challenge to those who, in the name of placing students in a more egalitarian relationship to authority, try to "teach the controversies" robustly, or who set themselves or others up as "straw men" to be dismantled, or who seek to elicit truth though argument and disagreement in some Socratically-inspired pedagogy. How can we achieve the benefits of the pedagogies we seek to promote without encouraging what turns out to be for some students painful, transgressive, and even "immoral" acts (like "disrespecting an elder")?

While I was thinking broadly about culture in my analysis, what this particular observation by our Canadian colleagues revealed is a need to think quite specifically about cultures, as well, not to mention specific individuals, each possessing dignity. This the first of the "forests and tress" situations I'll mention in this essay. So as we think more about risk, we now have still more vexing challenges: there's more for us to do.

The other occasion for follow-up from that session was a helpful suggestion on risk reduction. Sonia Gonsalves, our colleague from Richard Stockton State College and a professor of psychology there, offered a great maxim: "when I raise the risk, I lower the ambiguity." This I take to be a cleaner, shorter version of my own recommendation that the obligation to show the benefits of new approaches falls on the shoulders of the proponents of new approaches. What Professor Gonsalves says so eloquently is that she takes it as her responsibility to try to be transparent, clear, and attentive to students' situations when asking a student to venture out on a limb. She would be the first to say that one can't reduce all the ambiguity. After all, ambiguity is a fact of life. What we can do is reduce the ambiguity that readily admits to being reduced. Sonia believes that she has a professional obligation to do so, just as she has a professional interest in getting students to stretch themselves intellectually. Reducing ambiguity might take some of the "sorcery" out of science education, but that's a small sacrifice to make if the result is better learning.

I'd be shirking my responsibility to you if I failed to mention one of Sonia's other great contribution to our discussion. Paul and I were heading off in one of our favorite directions, that is, talking about the "eros" of education: the fact that one works hard at what one loves and that there is an element of love in what got us all in this line of work in the first place. (Within the sacred precincts of Santa Clara University, perhaps we should have used the word "vocation"!)

Sonia seemed to agree with Paul and me, but in what was a necessary refocusing of our riff on eros, she urged us to remember that for something to be erotic (as eros would be understood today) "it has to be erotic for both parties." This seems like good advice to all of us who think that our love of something must imply that somebody else must love it, as well. (By the way, Paul and I thought that Sonia's counsel was worth writing on the board. On the advice of another SSI member, however, we cleaned the board before leaving, speculating that Sonia's plea for mutuality might prove distracting to those subsequent users of the room who wanted to concentrate on the gigantic depiction of the periodic table of the elements displayed above the chalkboard. So, with an the eraser, we reduced the risk and the ambiguity! )

On to the second SSI follow-up piece: Steve Bachofer of St. Mary's of California wrote to give us his reflections on this year's Institute and to bring to my attention the possibility that something I have always said at the beginning of the Institute might benefit from clarification.

Each year, I've inaugurated the meeting by asking us "to make three promises to one another." The promises are:

1. to do our best for the people who have made it possible to be at the Institute. This is to acknowledge and discharge our debt to the people whose tax dollars support our work,

2. to meet our obligations to be moral today. Not simply to have perfect 20-20 moral hindsight, but to use what we know to act on today's obligations, and lastly,

3. to create, while we are together, a polity that supports the work we have to do. This involves working to create a community in which we all contribute to each other's learning.

I set this last point up by noting that, with the great array of experts among us at the Institutes, it would be pretty easy for any one of us to show the limitations of another's knowledge. An interrogation on string theory would reveal my own ignorance, for example, in just one question! I posit that, maybe not on string theory, but surely on many other things, the same would be true of all of us. And so, I ask us to not indulge in that game, but instead to work to fill in the gaps in each others understandings of things.

The creation of this kind of polity - a genuine community of learners - is a goal of the Institute. It is the goal of a SENCER course, as well. It is also a necessary and important recognition that, in this day and age, we don't even really know all there is to know about what we know, let alone what is largely unknown by us. (This theme is developed in "Knowledge to Make Our Democracy" to justify a public policy favoring so-called "scientific literacy" in non-defensive terms.)

So where's the problem? Here's what Steve wrote:

One minor critique: I want to make you aware that some of the newest participants misinterpreted your opening address point with respect to the thought that we should be more respectful of each other's limitations. You may wish to be slightly more deliberate. I sat with some new participants who asked me whether there had been an issue the previous summer and I stated you were working to insure the multi-disciplinary audience would work in a collaborative fashion and not retreat to our comfort zones.

Steve gives me a chance to say that I wasn't so much asking people to be respectful of one another's limitations - though being respectful of one another surely matters - as much as I was asking us to bring what each of us knows to enlarging what all of us can come to know.

This latter point is to be contrasted with an approach that would use what we know to demonstrate that others have less knowledge than we do - at least on those few areas where we do know more!

Burns Quote

As to whether we had had a problem with disrespect the previous summer: interestingly, from what I can gather, one of the distinguishing features of the SENCER Summer Institute is that it has generally NOT had this problem. SENCER people usually treat each other with dignity and respect. Of course I'd like to think this is because people are heeding my injunctions, but of course I know that is nonsense. I have been warmed, however, by the number of people who, over the years, have written to thank me for "bringing up our obligations to the taxpayers" and the "three promises." Indeed, Gary Booth of Brigham Young expressed his appreciation in a piece we published in the February 2005 issue of this newsletter.

I suspect that one reason why this game of "gotcha" has not been a big factor for us is because people interested in the SENCER approach are at some level quite cognizant that it means that one will soon find oneself in pretty uncharted territory - after all, the problems at the center of these inquiries are "complex, capacious and largely unsolved"; they are "messy" representations of "multidisciplinary trouble." Though we do science and scholarship to add to what we know, none of us likes to be found "not knowing." It's just what Steve said above: one powerful antidote to the need to retreat to one's comfort zone is collaboration.

This, of course, gets us back to the student, who is generally most vulnerable to being found "not knowing" in a SENCER course unless, of course, the course is built around finding out what contributions to knowledge the student is actually already prepared to make. I think of the example in the Ferguson backgrounder where the students who used what they had learned on their jobs - at Walmart, in one case, and with the state game and hunting commission, in another - extended the knowledge available within the classroom and collaboratively "filled in gaps" useful to the learning of applied mathematics. What's important about this is that these gaps could not have been filled by Professor Ferguson, himself. I say this to distinguish this kind of contribution from the more familiar "distribution of labor" model where a student makes a contribution that would otherwise be "covered by" by the teacher.

The take home lesson is simple: the creation of a community of learners, capable of adding to what is known, requires what we might call a moral commitment to the social production of knowledge that equals, or at least comes close to, our support for individual intellectual production and initiative.

Part II of "Seeing the Forest and the Trees" will appear in the October SENCER e-newsletter.