Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Replacing blame with generosity in classrooms, inquiry, and culture

Paul Grobstein's picture

Interesting conversation this morning growing out of, among other things, "The Design of Learning Environments," Chapter 6 of How People Learn, together with some college student comparisons of experiences in their own courses with observations of elementary school classes at a local K-6 Quaker school.  The upshot was, for me at least, a clearer understanding of what one needs to do to create not only more effective learning environments in classrooms but more humane exchange environments generally.

The starting point is the presumption that the business of classrooms is to enhance inquiry skills, to help people become better at the ongoing and looping process of making sense of what is going on around them, questioning the sense they and others make, coming up with new "less wrong" understandings, and testing those new understandings in new contexts.  The more people engage in this process, the better they get at it, and the better they get at it, the greater the skill, success, and satisfaction people find in shaping and reshaping their own lives, as well as in contributing to the sharping and reshaping of the lives of communities of which they are a part. 

The inquiry process depends fundamentally on being willing to make explicit to oneself, and expose to others, one's current understandings in order to acquire and contribute the new observations that are necessary to reach new understandings.  Both the making explicit, and the exposing to others, are inhibited in educational contexts whenever there is a presumption that the aim of the inquiry process is to reach a "right" answer. In such contexts, there is a fully understandable reluctance to make concrete existing understandings.  One is at risk of being judged "wrong," by other people and/or by oneself.  And "wrong" in this case is not the inevitable wrongness which in turn provides the ground work for new understanding.  It is instead a definitive assessment of failure, a judgement that enhances a sense of risk that in turn discourages the inquiry process itself.  The very concept of "failure" is, I would argue, inconsistent with a sophisticated understanding of inquiry and so should, in all its various guises, be rooted out of classroom environments, along with the concept of "right."  Students need to feel comfortable being always "in process," always "wrong," and never "failing," always able to use wrongness as a stepping stone to new understandings.

It is not only students but also teachers who need to feel comfortable being "always in process."  When a class goes less well than one might have hoped, there is in all of us a tendency to experience "failure," and, what is worse, to try and assign "blame:"  the students were not well-prepared or the students weren't willing to work hard or ... ; alternatively, I myself am not good at teaching because of ... any of a variety of reasons.  And the same, of course, holds for students taking a class that went less well than they had hoped: the teacher wasn't well-prepared or is a jerk or ...; alternatively, I'm not a science (or humanities or language or ...) type or I'm not smart or ... .  Whether done by students or by teachers, and whether judging self or other, the inquiry process is interrupted by the effort to assign "blame."  Students and teachers both need to be able to accept what is less successful than they imagine it might be without labeling it "failure," and to use the difference as a valuable stepping stone to new understandings.  Just as I'd get rid of the concept of "right" in a classroom, so too would I get rid of the concept of "blame;: it not only ignores the subtleties of multi-dimensional and reciprocal causation but, even more importantly, it interrupts the inquiry process.

There are, for me, interesting and quite general resonances in all this.  The central importance of "conflict" in the classroom, and how to create environments that make conflict productive has been very much on my mind since this summer (cf The brain and education: three loops and conflict resolution).  The Evolving Systems core working group has been wrestling with the closely related problem of "againstness," the role it plays and might better play in intellectual activity generally (cf  Againstnesses, external and internal).  And there is, of course, the still wider problem of human social and political interactions and whether we treat difference as a problem or an opportunity (cf Diversity and deviance: a biological perspective, Must cultures disable?, As the numbness wanes, and A neurodiverse world).  In all these contexts, my sense is that we all, as human beings, need to develop a more generous approach to each other, one in which we look at each other not in terms of deficiencies but rather in terms of possibilities.  The issue here is not "fairness" or "niceness" but rather a commitment to continuing the shared process of inquiry that is life, with confidence in the process itself and in the varied and unpredictable roles each of us has to play in that process.  


The conversation this grew out of involved Peter Brodfuehrer, Wil Franklin,  Emily Lovejoy, Brie Stark, and Ruth Strickland.  All contributed valuably to the conversation but none of them should be held responsible for my particular take on it.  I'd be delighted if one or more of them, and anyone else interested, added their own thoughts in the on-line forum below. 



Deborah Hazen's picture

Generosity + learning in community = radical politics

It is radical to imagine the kind of generosity that expects that "there is no one from whom I am essentially estranged in this relationship."

We are studying human rights --and while we have spent some time on the history of human rights, most of our time will focus on human rights at the local level--we are taking up Eleanor Roosevelt's challenge on that front. So, this is potent stuff--given that for the average 5/6 grader the shift in focus from parent/teacher to peer group carries with it all sorts of explorations into popularity, cliques, definitions of "us" versus "them"... Popularity starts to define social and academic relationships---students need to be really thoughtful to speak their own truth--not simply follow the ideas presented by the most popular kids.

Last week we were looking at some quotes and one by Adlai Stevenson really grabbed the student's attention. "A free society is one where it is safe to be unpopular."  So, we are grappling right now with notions of non-conformance to the norm, feeling safe when you have a radically different idea, accepting differences/different approaches even when you are in the midst of pre-puberty, being a work in progress... it is cool stuff!


Wil Franklin's picture

Inquiry as More Than Just Questions

To start, many thanks to Paul for summarizing a very generative conversation; ripples of which are intersecting with several other conversations regarding deep learning and designing curriculum to foster it.  It is becoming more and more apparent to me that the best laid plans – an engaging curriculum, student-centered and question driven - is not enough. What I am beginning to see is the importance of several new components of the learning process, of inquiry.


Inquiry is not just good questions; it is a process that takes as its most fundamental assumption that all we have is the process.  In that light, “blame”, resistances for fear of being wrong and expectations of learning what is “right” all interfere with the inquiry process. Having worked and collaborated with Paul an several occasions I have seen him go to great lengths to make students aware of the process, to question the notion of “right” and “wrong” and to become more comfortable with engaging in that process.  Starting all conversations and courses in this way goes a long way to helping the participants engage.  I have co-opted many of Paul’s strategies in my own way in my own courses and I see benefits.  But much more in fits and starts.  For me, I need to add something more than just asking students to relinquish the idea of right and wrong.  I think I have achieved some level of success with getting students to give up the idea of the right answer, but there is more to the process that just that. I see now that I need another step or steps that help students to stop blaming, stop resisting and hopefully take responsibility for the constructing of new understandings.  Yes, realizing there is no absolute truth is a first step to true inquiry. Inquiry that results in new understanding, however,  must include the formalizing of one’s own ideas and the “againstness” of those ideas to others. It is the realization that there is no such thing as understanding, only understanding something new for oneself.  Understanding perhaps is a theoretical construct of what falls out or between the cracks of a collaborative effort.  But in the end, for an individual there is only one’s own understanding.  If it is a new understanding than is it learning?  And what structures in a classroom help students take the next steps to put forth their ideas, place them in context to others and see what new understandings emerge?  Getting rid of TRUTH is a good start, but how do educators helps students trust themselves?  And once trusting themselves, how do we help them see they have a responsibility to “give and take” as Alice Lesnick pointed out.


To Paul's credit, I have heard him talk on many occasions to his colleagues and students about the responsibility we all have to help each other learn, to learn from one another. Any suggestion on how to structure curriculum and classrooms to achieve this?



Deborah Hazen's picture

Helping each other learn

There have been many conversations about creating the respectful community and the teacher's role in setting expectations, and environment, to ensure that everyone in the room understands that they are responsible for each others learning. I'd like to nudge the conversation in another direction--toward a discussion of Bloom's Taxonomy.

Bloom identified three learning domains: cognitive (knowledge), affective (attitudes), and psychomotor (physical skills).  Within the cognitive domains, Bloom went on to describe six categories of behavior ---knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. They are listed starting with the simplest behavior and ending with the most complex cognitive behavior.

I would argue that many classrooms are structured to expect and and assess cognitive work at the two simplest levels---knowledge (recall) and comprehension (understand the meaning to put it into your own words). I would also argue that you cannot begin to see students and teachers learning from each other unless you move the classroom through curricular choices to the application level (use of a concept in a novel situation, application to novel problems in the real world, abstractions). The application level asks the teacher to take a risk--use of concepts in novel situations can quickly lead to even higher level cognitive work but it also creates a situation in which the teacher won't know ahead of time where the class will end up.

Knowledge and comprehension set the stage for the teacher/classmates to simply ask factual questions of each other and assess the answers for adherence to the notes or book. Discourse is limited to keeping score in a  right or wrong game. 

I teach my students Blooms' Taxonomy--and in the interest of fairness, we talk about how the levels of learning behavior play out in assessments and the report card. Students in my class know that as a Quaker educator I believe that each person in the community has "truth" to share, that learning in community is very important, and that hanging out on the lower limbs or learning behavior---regurgitating facts, simply restating ideas in their own words---will result in lower grades. Reaching for the higher branches of learning behavior--will result in higher grades. This also means that I have a responsibility to teach and model that "getting it wrong" is not attempt at application, a foray into analysis, synthesis or evaluation, can end in a real "mess". (I'm using "mess" intentionally here---it seems appropriate as the word comes from ME and meant a course at a meal. All stages of learning ought to be thought of as courses at a meal--each serving a purpose to feed the learning that is taking place--none judged as wrong or useless.) "Messes" are not failures--rather they are evidence that an intellectual risk was taken---and student and teachers need to be comfortable with the idea that they can hold a real "mess" and learn from it---form new questions, think about how they think and gain greater insight into that process...

What about basic knowledge? I would argue that you can't get to the higher cognitive behaviors without taking in the basic knowledge in a discipline. Being given the opportunity to play on the higher branches can actually be a great motivator for many students to learn the basics. On the other hand, being forced to sit quietly on the lower branches while the teacher/prof regurgitates last night's assigned reading demotivates.

alesnick's picture

choices, multi-lingualism, and listeners

From this helpful framing, I envision questions acting as doorways or entry points.  My sense is that in order for students to trust themselves and each other to enter into or launch from questions, they need to have genuine options to make as part of the curriculum.  A question a teacher might ask in designing curriculum is "Where do students have choice/decision points, and why?" 

Students also need to be free to enter into curricular explorations speaking a variety of languages -- their own idiosyncratic diction, those of their home and peer communities, and those of academic/professional specialists.  A question for curriculum design here might be, "Where in these assignments do students have opportunities to be multi-lingual, to merge or mingle different ways they have of speaking, making sense, and exploring with different people in their worlds, and with different talents, preferences, and tastes of their own?"

Further, in order to develop trust in themselves and others as inquirers/knowers/thinkers, students need ongoing, recurrent opportunities to witness and attend to one anothers' ideas and real contributions to the work at hand.  And they need experiences of being witnessed and attended to.  A teacher might ask: "Are there opportunities for them to cite one anothers' ideas in the academic endeavor?  Can the way they make choices in the curriculum be mutually informing, be part of that curriculum?"  In other words, how can students' learning from one another be made integral to course processes and assignments?


alesnick's picture

generosity as an antidote for estrangement

I very much appreciate these ideas and look forward to continuing to explore them.  One question I have about the conversation referenced above is what contrasts between students' current experiences taking college courses and their field experiences in elementary school classes were salient?  I would like to hear more about this.

Generosity. A typical definition of it is to be "giving" -- to want to give to others, to share willingly.  What this definition lacks is the *taking* that is part of the term's meaning as Paul is using it.  In this sense, to be generous means I am willing to give and take, to exchange, to trade, with another, with as many others as I possibly can.  There is no one from whom I am essentially estranged in this relation.  Everyone I can learn from and part of the groundwork of this learning is for me to be myself, just that, and for them to be themselves.  To be radically what one is, not defensively, and also not provisionally (as in, I can only be myself if I am blameless, "good," acceptable by a standard, norm, or ideology), and also at the same time to be in process.