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Teaching on a Triangle

alesnick's picture

A "geometrical" view on the three interrelated sources of teaching and learning: Inquiry, Mystery and Mastery.

In my senior seminar last Monday, we thought together about midcourse feedback.  Students asked me to talk more about the ideas that link and unify the various course topics (social justice education, oral history and other forms of qualitative research, psychoanalytic theories of communication and learning, and what it means to listen, to help, to teach and learn when learning depends on conflict, struggle, and difficulty).
One way I am thinking about linking these topics reflects in  part a recent discussion in the evolving systems group and is expressed in the drawing to the right.  It portrays the way I think about education as a process in which mastery, mystery, and inquiry play ongoingly vital roles, in various relationships to one another.  You can't do without any of them.  As sources of teaching and learning, I think of them as on a triangular wheel.  I have heard that the triangle is the most stable form;  its use here makes the point that all three "points" of education are here to stay.  Inquiry -- posing questions and problems, investigating, exploring, experimenting, interpreting, exchanging ideas and possibilities -- is on top because, for formal education, I think it's the most important. 
At the same time, I see it as resting on, and fed by, both mastery and mystery.  By  mastery, I mean technique, protocol, procedure, skill, tool-using, the ability to do things in whatever sphere of action one chooses.  By mystery, I mean areas of experience and imagination that are not explained/exhausted by any framework, that refuse prediction, comprehension, and clarity, and yet that pull us towards them (within and outside of ourselves) because they are generative and powerful.  Mystery can refer to a realm we haven't explored yet, or to one that we can explore only provisionally, bit by bit.  Inquiry can lead both to mastery and to mystery. 
Mastery is on the left and mystery is on the right, because I want to suggest that mastery leads into mystery (as if one were reading from one to the other, left to right) -- this is the idea that the more one experiences, knows and can do with something, the more it opens/deepens in possibility; it and the one learning change in ways not anticipated or necessarily bounded by anything yet thought or said.  A challenge here is that formal education tends to be clunky and non-responsive when faced with mystery.  This is an under-theorized realm in educational studies, and it raises difficult questions for education insofar as education is usually activist (whatever its ideology) and mystery is not best met by activism, but better by susceptibility, presence, or groundlessness.  (For a discussion of the role of groundlessness in educational studies, see Cohen, J., Lesnick, A., & Himeles, D. (2007). Temporary anchors, impermanent shelter: Can the field of education model a new approach to academic work? Journal of Research Practice, Vol. 1, No. 2.)
It could be interesting to put different things on this triangle and see if they suggest a reason to turn it so that something else is on top.  Like maybe for prayer, mystery would be on top, with mastery (of self?) and inquiry (into community?) as supporting it. 
I'm hopeful that this diagram might evoke a system of education that is both coherent and open.  I look forward to developing it in dialogue with my students and with anyone who would like to think with me about it here.