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Anne Dalke's picture

Exploring Reasons to Risk Uncertainty in the Classroom

In this session, led by Alison Cook-Sather and Alice Lesnick of the bi-college Education Program, we explored together the possibility of connecting everyone at Bryn Mawr and Haverford with the colleges' educational mission.

We began that work by reading an excerpt from "Working the Tensions: Constructing Educational Studies within the Liberal Arts Context," an essay by Alice, Alison and Jody Cohen published in Taking Teaching Seriously: How Liberal Arts Colleges Prepare Teachers to Meet Today's Educational Challenges in Schools. We performed a "read-around," calling out the passages which most struck each of us with regard to risking uncertainty in the class, and so "re-writing the text in the air spontaneously."

We then reflected together on what we noticed. The activity "revealed people" to one another, as each of us took the risk of selecting from the text. Alice and Alison were also taking a risk as teachers: in asking us to make the selections, they were ceding control over what would happen, and inviting us to "co-construct meaning." Our objective was not arriving at the meaning of the text, but rather at the meaning being made among us, by the intersection of our responses. This had, in part, to do with our naming the terms of our own discussion.

We described how different this activity was from a more "goal-oriented class." The whole educational system is generally "set up for success and failure" (it was observed that "coverage at a certain level is always doomed to failure," that when students are exhorted to "be a pump, not a filter," it seldom works). In contrast, this exercise made it difficult to imagine what failure would look like.

But do we agree that the goal of student learning is always transformation? That the activities we design for our classes should be centered on student transformation, rather than some other goal of the teacher? Do we think that experience always leads to transformation?

"Tacking between freedom and structure," deciding "not to abandon their plan in the service of the moment," Alice and Alison then led us into the second exercise of the session: "playing sculptures." Each of us was assigned a role either as sculptor or as clay, and instructed, accordingly, either to design or enact two of the phrases we had noticed in the text: first "failure," then "exploring limitless challenge."


When we gathered again to discuss what had happened, we noted our shared discomfort with such body work; some of us had engaged in "caretaking," by not asking our colleagues to do anything we thought they would find too uncomfortable. We also noted that we would not have done these activities with someone we didn't trust; most of us don't want to be that vulnerable.

But why does enacting ideas physically make us feel so much more vulnerable than exploring them verbally? We all take risks in writing and speaking all the time, so it's not just the "not knowing what might happen." Why do words seem safer? Because they are more familiar? More abstracted? When we write or speak, we are always translating; why is the embodied version of this--the "concrete bodily expression of complicated abstract ideas"--so hard for us to do? Is it because we are "letting out unconscious knowledge"?

It was observed that "most people actually don't communicate well either orally or in writing," that "most effective communication takes place in other ways, through dynamic bodily interactions." The academic world is unusual in the way it valorizes the word; we certainly place an enormous value on the ability to read. (Mention was made, in this context, of McDermott and Varenne's essay on Culture as Disability.) We admitted that, in our shared exercise, all the "sculptors" failed to follow instructions, and "used words."

We then turned to thinking about the ways in which these exercises might be used to model possible classroom interactions. Can we take from these embodied experiences qualities we would like to use in our courses? Are there ways that we might "go beyond the verbal" in the courses we teach? Can we create a forum in which we can name the tension between the verbal and the embodied, and write about it?

It was suggested that the most successful way to create a risk-taking environment in the class is being willing to model it oneself. It was also argued that having a goal--any goal--inhibits risk-taking. The counter-argument was made that "there is only risk if it is about something": as teachers we always have a "place we want people to get to." Is there a way to measure failure in such an environment? Is it failure if the participants do not come out changed?

Might it be useful to distinguish between having an objective and having a goal? In the former case, you are not anticipating an outcome, only transformation. Is all transformation equal? Mightn't there be changes that are not desireable? How about "transformation in the ability to transform" (further)? There is also the issue of the class as a community: what is the group seeking and achieving? What is okay, what hurtful for all the members of the group?

The final question was whether, in order to be successful, the group needs to know what you are doing. There was some disagreement about this, as well as a range of responses about how explicit one needed to be in naming the ways in which this sort of risk-taking teaching diverges from (and so reinforces?) the norm.

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