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Paul Grobstein's picture

The open-ended, transactional classroom extended ...

Very rich conversation yesterday, on two different but related fronts. Reminders/subsequent thoughts for myself and any one else interested ...

The transactional classroom

The on-line forums I use in my courses (much like this one) help to get students involved in shaping a course but have some problems (that also turns up in discussion based courses). One is that participants tend to write what they think and/or for the teacher, without reference to other participants' comments. And hence often write things that are repetitive, not interesting to other participants. Some ways to deal with this (in both forums and face to face classrooms)

  • Encourage participants to write/talk about not about what they know but about what they have newly discovered, what they have recently been surprised by.
  • Encourage participants to not only post/voice their own thoughts but to also comment on the posting/contribution of at least one other participant. And to do so "without sounding like an English professor", ie not to say what is wrong/they disagree with but rather to find/sum up an interesting point and pose a new question/direction for further exploration based on it.

The general idea here is to emphasize similar roles of both teacher and student in the transactional class setting, and similar objectives as well: to find new understandings in oneself and others, use them as a platform for further questions/understandings, evaluate new understandings by not their "truth" but rather there ability to open up new productive lines of inquiry.

Metaphor = Story = Inquiry

Both Willingham and Tobin moved our discussion along substantially, despite the fact that neither is about "science education" per se. As Luisana says, a metaphor (Tobin) is a story, ie a way to make sense of observations that is challengeable. And indeed, as per Willingham, stories are "treated differently from other kinds of information" by the brain, and are more engaging.

One might leave it at that, with the recomendation that science (and other teachers) should use more stories in the classroom, but I think there is something much deeper going on here. The reason why stories are more engaging, why they are "easier to remember" and "easier to comprehend" is that they are in fact an essential component of how brains are organized to make sense of things (see Parallel Changes in Thinking About the Brain and Education). We make observations, create stories to summarize that information, and then use the stories to generate new questions and observations that in turn lead to revisions of the stories. To put it differently, stories shouldn't be thought of as a pedagogical trick, a way to engage students so that serious learning and learning can be done, they should be recognized as an essential component of the inquiry process itself, not ony the classroom but in general.

Asking students to assimilate information without story (be it the names of parts of the brain, important dates in history, or literary genres) doesn't, as we all actually know, work very well. We can all memorize to one degree or another but its hard and doesn't stick. For good reason. What the brain is actually designed by evolution to do is to relate information (observations) to stories, to notice connections of information to existing stories and to use observations to challenge existing stories and create new ones.

The upshot, it seems to me, is that we all need to stop trying to teach "information", background or otherwise. Whatever we're teaching, we need to start with stories that people have, provide observations/information that challenge those stories, and encourage students to develop new stories that accomodate the new and relevant observations. In so doing, I think we will not only more effectively get across to students whatever stories we have in our own minds but contribute to the continuing development of their abilities to themselves tell and revise stories based on new observations/information. And we might even find we're able to enjoy the challenges students present to our own stories and the resulting observations and stories students provide that productively challenge our own.

From this perspective, the important point about stories isn't that they "appeal" to students. Its that they provide a way give coherence to information/observations, to connect them to something, to become personally engaged with them. And, at least as importantly if not more so, they provide something challengeable, something that students can become involved not only with "mastering" but with revising. Stories create conflict, in a way that information/observations don't by themselves. And it is out of those conflicts, between observations and stories and among stories themselves, that new understandings (stories, motivation for new questions/observations) arise.

The bottom line?

My guess is that whatever we're teaching, and to whomever, we'll do best, both for our students and for ourselves if we keep in mind that our fundamental task is to help them (and ourselves) become better inquirers, "to try something different, to do something differently ... to see what happens." And then to make up a challengeable story about that.


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