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Choosing Who We Are

“Choosing Who We Are”
Notes for 3rd in a Series on Choices and Constraints
Anne Dalke & Wil Franklin
Oct. 9, 2008

I. Two weeks ago, Anne told the story of a student who’d said to her, “I don’t know how I’m doing.” We mused together about how we must be failing as teachers, if our students are looking to us to tell them “how they are doing,” and how giving too many instructions/ offering a review of what is "great"/giving grades can contribute to this effect. This is, of course, part of a larger social phenomenon, of asking experts (doctors, esp.) to tell us "how we are doing."

II. So: turn to your neighbor and tell her how you are doing….

III. On Sept. 12 (presumably having made a similar assessment of how he was doing) the writer David Foster Wallace committed suicide. Several years ago, he had said this in a Commencement address he gave @ Kenyon College:

…everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence

[He goes on to say that a good education will take you outside yourself,
enable you to imagine the lives of others, be patient in grocery story lines....]

the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: …. learning how to exercise some control over…what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to… if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed….

[But--and here's the turn of the screw we want to worry today--
Wallace then "loops" back to the beginning:]

Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education…is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize … instead of simply paying attention…to what is going on inside me.

This is today's (triple) topic: the dance between attending to the self and to the world around us, and what a liberal education might play in that dance.

William James, the great 19th century psychologist, wrote [similarly, and] at length about the varieties of human attention…To James, steady attention was…the default condition of a mature mind [in contrast to the] “extreme mobility of the attention” that “makes the child seem to belong less to himself than to every object which happens to catch his notice.” For some people, James noted, this challenge is never overcome; such people only get their work done “in the interstices of their mind-wandering.”

These comments by Foster and James seem to accord with much of the current work being done on the brain and education, which focuses on ways to stop students from mind-wandering, to get them engaged, to attend. One question we have is whether such attentiveness involves limiting our students' choices.

Consider the comment made the first week we talked, on the educational consequences of Mark’s idea:
there may be more “choice” (to mind-wander)--because less engagement?--
in a lecture than there is in a discussion?

Wil’s report on The Art of Changing the Brain

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential Learning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall

Zull, J. (2002). The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching
by Exploring the Biology of Learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Experimenting-->Experiencing--> Reflecting--> Theorizing-->

So: what does it mean for us as teachers, if education,
understood generally,
is teaching/learning what to attend to/think about?

What are the psychological (and political!) ramifications of thinking about education
as a training in attentiveness? (vs. mind-wandering)?

What is our project here?
Getting students to attend to what they haven’t noticed before….?
To stop their minds from wandering….?
Why might we want to do that…?

[Think about this while we play]
Beatles, “Fixing a Hole” from
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Clubs’ Band (2:36):

I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in
And stops my mind from wandering
Where will it go
I'm filling the cracks that ran through the door
And kept my mind from wandering
Where will it go
And it really doesn't matter if I'm wrong
I'm right
Where I belong I'm right
Where I belong.
See the people standing there who disagree and never win
And wonder why they don't get in my door.
I'm painting my room in the colourful way
And when my mind is wandering
There I will go.
And it really doesn't matter if
I'm wrong I'm right
Where I belong I'm right
Where I belong.
Silly people run around they worry me
And never ask me why they don't get past my door.
I'm taking the time for a number of things
That weren't important yesterday
And I still go.
I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in
And stops my mind from wandering
Where it will go.

Notes from the conversation
What's the relation between wandering and attending?
Do we "learn to remember" or "remember to learn"?

There are a million ways we are "not at the center of our experience."

This is "too narrow an index to engagement."

There needs be no opposition between self and other, between structure and wandering.
There's no need to set up binaries bewteen objective/subjective,
between mind/body, between understanding and experiencing.

Theorizing requires wandering.
Getting students to attend might be like resetting the reistat.

Think of a porous "participant structure,"
with people free to do what they want in their heads.

"People aren't responsible for their passing thoughts, only the ones they hold onto."
We might try to create participant structures that encourage "holding on."


alesnick's picture

"staying in the game" metaphor

It's nice-- I was heading back to the open-ended transactional working group page to find my student's wonderful essay when I came across something I wrote in 2006 about "staying in the game" as a metaphor for learning -- in that case, science learning.   It's at:



The relevant part is below, but in some ways more relevant is the idea that in this case Serendip is the game and it's interesting to think about it as a game that enables the kind of open-ended continuity (paradox there) that we seem to be talking about.  

Re: your post, Anne, about legal reasoning, could we see this as, at its best, the part of life whereby we need to hold with/to a particular working story for a while? 

"In thinking about the first meeting of this group and how to make it useful for everyone, I thought I'd share a few thoughts and also a few of the vantage points from which I offer them. As a third grade teacher during the 1980's, I stumbled into an inquiry-based approach to science as a way through a science fair my class was required to participate in. As with other things I got to do as a schoolteacher (drawing and dribbling a basketball come to mind), teaching science allowed me to recover a way of knowing and doing and asking questions that had gotten away from me for fear that I lacked sufficient mastery or talent to stay in the game."

Anne Dalke's picture

Still game

I've just come across an article about the philosophical work of David Foster Wallace (the author whose graduation musings first kicked off this conversation). Foster was "wary of ideas...perpetually on guard against... abstract thinking (especially thinking about your own thinking)." In his undergraduate philosophy thesis, he seems to have shown the limits of logical thinking about metaphysical conclusions (specifically, about fatalism).

Reading this account of his work, it occurred to me that logic is a rigorous attempt to "end the game," to get out of it by coming to a final "proof." How very different from Alice's description of Serendip as a "game of open-ended continuity" and of herself as a young teacher learning how to "stay in the game."


Anne Dalke's picture

on keeping the game going

I'm writing this week from a road trip, to visit my son, who is a law student in St. Louis. Sitting in on classes with him, talking with him and his lawyer-father about what it means to "think like a lawyer," it occurs to me that the activity they are trying to master might be described in terms of "ending the game," by getting the story right, getting a judgment passed on it--and so stopping the play of alternatives. Very different from the activity we are describing here, of keeping the game going....
Anne Dalke's picture

staying in the game

I really, really like this defining of health--and the analogous definition of educational achievement--as "the opportunity to stay in the game." I'll plan to carry that idea back to one of the games I'm playing close by this semester, a College Seminar called Food for Thought.

We've been working there (among other things) @ defining health. What you add to our definition--which had to do with a kind of personal functionality--is the notion of participating in a group activity. What I'd like to add to that is the notion that it's an activity where something new is being made by the group, something an individual mightn't be able to manage on her own....

Alice Lesnick's picture


My sense is the the lens of achievement tends to take lived experience (whether or learning or of other things) out of time, out of the flow, and usually in distorting ways, so that it becomes a matter of isolation. Maybe here a medical metaphor is (surprisingly) useful: We don't speak of "achieving" health, but rather we work at it, enjoy it when it can, worry about it, repair it, define and redefine it, in an ongoing way -- the main achievement seeming to be the opportunity to stay in the game, and, within the game, more specific things, such as lowering cholesterol, say, or gaining stamina or an easier mood. In relation to learning, I think people can learn to know it when they see it -- when they have experienced it or been in its presence -- and that disarming more traditional, summative modes of assessment is part of this learning.

In a sense, this connects with the issue of how to help students feel comfortable and confident participating in open-ended, collaborative inquiries such as wikis. We assess our safety in relation to our beliefs about the risks we run and pleasures we court in venturing out.

Alice Lesnick's picture

coercion vs. structure

I sensed in the presentation yesterday a concern with the possible tacit coerciveness of seemingly hip teaching strategies.
For me, the practice of teaching as building/structuring a learning community in which I as the teacher am a member, not an orchestrator, is a way out of this apparent bind. I'm also thinking about how important it is to teach from the inside out -- from the inside of me, what I feel able to lead, and from the inside of the particular students and group before me. So any text that proposes A Way (whether brain-based or otherwise), falls short, must be articulated with the people involved.

Wil Franklin's picture

personal buy-in

I completely agree that students and the teacher need a personal buy-in.  That is why I started my course with an discussion of the Biology of Learning.  I was jazzed, the students loved playing the memory games I set up and we finished by reflecting on what type of "learners" we see ourselves as.  It was the best lab of the year so far.

I'm troubled when everyone is bored by the topic, unengaged and wishing they could just finish.  I'm still excited by the topic, but students can't relate or don't see the point.  I suspect I've failed to tie it together for them, but some days I don't have the luxury of building every bridge they need to cross.  Maybe that is a "symptom" of the "health" of my learning goals.  I may have a "health" program that is unhealthy if the learning goals are not conducive to healthy learning.

I love the health metaphor, especially using vital signs to diagnose a class.


Alice Lesnick's picture

thinking from today

Thanks, Anne and Wil, for a session I can't stop thinking about. I wish we'd had about three hours this afternoon.

Each of Wallace's framing claims here bears looking into. About the first, I wonder about the theme of isolation v. freedom to go one's own way that today's session evoked. Wandering, alone and in company, is a happy kind of independence. Solipsism is a sad kind. The absolute quality of Wallace's conviction that he is the center of the universe, most real, vivid, and important, isn't convincing to me. I mean, he may have felt that, but I don't take it as a given human state, and I have often thought that an important project of formal education is to encourage us to de-center the self as we learn, over time, how big and bigger the world is, in James Baldwin's terms, bigger than anything anyone has ever said about it.

About the second Wallace passage, I wonder what happens when we stress the choosing rather than the what that is chosen. If it's the choosing faculty that needs strengthening, then that make sense to me as a spur to education.

The third statement of Wallace's erroneously, to my mind, opposes "intellectualizing" to "simply paying attention to what is going on inside me." Paying attention, whether the attention is directed outward or inward is a blend of intellectual and emotional, receptive and searching, symbolic and embodied energies whatever the location or prompt. To attend to inner life is as complex and demanding, and subject to skilled practice, as attending to studies or politics. More, what is going on inside me is in an important sense part of what is going on around me, in that I am part of the world that my brain is connecting me with, and others' brains are connecting them with, and my states of mind and being are in dynamic relation to those of others (human and otherwise).

It's interesting, then, to consider the implications of these ideas when the teacher is considered in relation to them, not as above or apart. If you were all here with me, I'd want to talk more with you how we could shift the terms of the inquiry by using a collectivist unit of analysis, a "we" as classroom community or team. Maybe this connects with Paul's point last time about team sports as an important pattern for learning. Maybe it's the teaming, not the competition, that is focal here.

Looking forward to more,

Wil Franklin's picture

Individual participation in a Team Participant Structure?

Along the lines of collective wandering and the team metaphor, I would like to add observations that Peter Brodfuehrer shared with me.  In what I see as an effort to structure "collective wandering" in one of Peter's courses, he does not give out lectures, lecture notes or PowerPoint slides, rather starts a wiki and asks students to add, alter and post questions directly to the "collective lecture notes".  This seems to me an invitation to co-explore new topics that Peter would like students to think about, but leaves plenty of room to move in unforeseen directions - in student directed lines of inquiry.  

Only problem is students don't participate.  Are they too unfamiliar with this "participant structure" or perhaps, too unfamiliar with the topics to know where to wander or feel safe wandering?

I like his strategy, but is the perfect balance it requires achievable?

I very much appreciate the idea that the classroom is not full of binaries, but rather a place to help students (and ourselves) practice stepping out, reflecting back in, comparing both and constructing meaning from the interplay of both.  However, the same initial questions still remain for me.  Where is the balance, how is it achieved and how would one even know if it was achieved?  Especially, when assessment is primarily summative/content based?


Paul Grobstein's picture

Education and mental health: intersections

I'm inclined to see "mind wandering" and "paying attention to things" as reciprocally supportive rather than oppositional. And to see "paying attention to things inside oneself"" and paying attention to things outside of oneself similarly. And, for that matter to see individual and "collectivist" not as alternatives between which one must choose but rather as complements. For more along these lines in a different but related context, see Mental health: a new story in progress? and Mental health: thoughts about the adaptive brain.

Could one perhaps replace "mental health" with "education" in the following ...

"Maybe "mental health" is . ... not something that is a given that we try to achieve, but rather something that is brought into existence and continually revised by our efforts to find commonality in diversity, not only between people but within ourselves?" ... Mental health and the brain: from meaninglessness to meaning?

Which might then suggest some new ways of thinking about the "teacher" ....

"Maybe the general need is to help keep things moving/evolving, sometimes by emphasizing the availability of multiple stories, other times by emphasizing the usefulness of having a particular working story at any given time?" (See Mental health and reality, multiple worlds and following comments)

"Still trying to locate a place for therapy in the bipartite brain, perhaps a place for a therapist too. So I am offering another horse and rider metaphor, where the horse is the unconscious and the rider is the storyteller ... the trainer’s role is to help the horse and rider pair perform better or get their story less wrong. The most important ambition is to increase meaningful communication between the horse and rider." ... A Metaphor


Anne Dalke's picture

preparing for the unexpected

I'm grateful to you, Alice, for taking the time to continue this wandering conversation not just in your head, but among us....

I was feeling peculiarly discouraged by our conversation today, because what seemed such a clear-and-present tension in my head-and-life--between going "mind-wandering," and being asked to "attend" to things we might not choose to look @--just didn't seem an issue for (or even to make sense to) others.

I think you've nailed just where I was getting hung up: on the notion of a power gradiant, with the teacher as somehow above or apart from the process. Thanks for leveling the playing field. What I especially appreciate here is your reframing the question (rather: the answer!) as a kind of team-work. What I'm imagining now is something a little less structured than a soccer game: more of a collective wandering, in which we help one another along, calling one another's attention to things we otherwise may not notice. I'm also put in mind of the work of Lewis Hyde, who speaks so profoundly of how we might "prepare our students for the unintended and unexpected," and so "awaken the mind into right relationship with a happening world."

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