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Subjectivities and objectivities in classrooms and beyond

Paul Grobstein's picture

Interesting conversation last week in the Neurobiology and Behavior course about .... class conversation (see A loopy classroom?), one that intersected in interesting ways with, among other things, a conversation in the Neural and Behavioral Sciences senior seminar (Some relevant thoughts from last week), and one on evolving systems (Bridging for commonality of expansion).

"we need to define our terms ... Our discussion topics are focused on everyday words like 'brain,' 'mind,' and 'universe,' but from class, I could tell that everyone else's definitions differed from mine"

"If terms like this were clearer, wouldn't our answers be, too?  Shouldn't we start from the same place -- grounded in common definitions of the terms we are using -- in order to understand each other more fully, and use time more efficiently?"

Yes, I suspect we would indeed get more efficiently to clearer answers if we defined our terms more clearly at the outset.   And I honestly sympathize with those who get impatient with the time it takes to discover that people think about the same words in lots of different ways.  Why not just define the terms so we can get on to the clearer answers?  Its a good question, deserving of a thoughtful answer.  Let me take a crack at it.

Yes, of course, I could define the terms so that everyone would start from the same place, and that would almost certainly get many of collectively to some further same places.  But is that actually the objective?  To get us collectively to some future same place?  If so, how come, after lots of education and lots of conversation, we still usually find ourselves with different starting places?  One could, of course, regard that as a long-standing failure of both education and conversation, and accordingly redouble one's efforts to get everyone to start and end at the same place.   But maybe there's another way to look at it.

As teachers (and human beings), most of us have extensive experience with trying to get everyone to start at the same place. And we know that some people will indeed accept definitions provided to them and work with them to get some place else; these are what we call "strong" students.  But others have trouble doing things that way because they don't understand why they should start at that particular place (or why they should want to get to a particular other place) and so what follows from accepting a definition and a path to a particular other place often doesn't "make sense" to them.  Its not that they don't "understand;" its that their existing understandings conflict with what we're asking them to do.   And even students who don't have trouble starting from arbitrary understandings and following us to other understandings often don't "generalize" very well; they know how to get from A to B to C but it has very little impact on what they do starting from A' or if the path from B to C isn't available.  What they've learned is highly context specific, and prone to disappearing as soon as the class is over, at which point they revert to earlier understandings.   

The point is that people don't come to classrooms as blank slates on which a careful and prepared teacher can etch a new understanding.  They come instead with a rich array of personal and idiosyncratic understandings.  We can certainly ask them to put these aside and start instead from some arbitrary shared set of starting points in the interests of getting most efficiently to a particular shared ending point.  That works for "good" students, the ones who have mastered this approach, and we can continue to try and make it more palatable for the rest and provide "remedial" experiences for those we still don't get it.   Maybe though we would do better, with all students, if we built on the diverse array of understandings that people start with rather than trying to override it?

To pursue this path, we would need to more fully acknowledge, to ourselves and others, that all understandings, including those we bring to the classroom as teachers, are constructed, tentative, and arbitrary, and that they are no less so because some particular group of people shares them.  Understandings are ways of making sense of experience, individual and shared, and are continually revisable in light of new experiences.  Moreover, they are always only one of multiple possible ways of making sense of experiences.  For both reasons, it makes sense to treat understandings in classrooms not as something to be transmitted from one person to another but rather as something to be constructed out of existing understandings. 

From this perspective, what we should be bringing to classrooms is not particular understandings to be conveyed, no matter how convinced we personally are of their value nor how collectively sanctified they are.  And hence no expectation that others should be willing to put aside their existing understandings in order to most efficiently acquire the one we have in mind.  What we should instead be bringing to classrooms is some understanding that we think may be usefully different from those that others come with and a commitment to a process in which the sharing of understandings contributes to revised understandings by everyone involved, ourselves included.  And to new shared understandings as well.  That is, of course, where collectively sanctified understandings come from in the first place, from the cacophony of sharing individual understandings.

Start where people are rather than where we want them to be?  And facilitate a process of constructing new understandings, both individual and collective?  That strikes me as an interestingly different approach to classrooms, one worth exploring further.  Among other things, it might speak usefully to "social justice" concerns, by giving everybody an equal starting point ("individual expertise"), a reasonable personal goal (create for oneself a new understanding) and needed materials (the understandings of others), and a role in shaping a collective product ("shared understandings").

Actually, it strikes me as an interestingly different approach not only to classrooms but to human interaction generally, to the practice of inquiry, and to making sense of the brain.  I find myself in general less interested in definitions than in the diversity of different ways that people use everyday words.  Rather than being a detriment, I think the differences are actually an aid to ... making sense of the world.  Let me explain.

Imagine a brain, trying to make sense of the world.  What it has at its disposal is a host of observations, past and present, and, from other people, a host of ways that others have made sense of their own host of observations. From all of this, the brain constructs its own way of making sense of the world, its own subjective understanding.  And by sharing these, the brain in addition contributes to the subjective understandings of others.  Along the way it discovers that there are commonalities in the constructed understandings, shared subjectivities.  And that such shared understandings, including starting definitions, can be useful in a variety of contexts, particularly in those where collective effort facilitates the achievement of objectives that are shared.

At this point, though, there arises an interesting problem.  The brain, remember, is trying to make sense of the world as best it can given what it has available to it.  Sharing subjectivities can indeed help with that, by providing a rich array of alternatives to consider when the way one is trying to make sense of the world no longer seems to quite work.  On the other hand, shared subjectivities can also sometimes get in the way, particularly when they are reified as "objective."  The array of alternatives the brain can come up with is larger than those that fit easily into shared objectivity at any given time.  If the brain rejects those in the interests of either objectivity or community coherence, it is handicapping itself in its efforts to make sense of the world, as well as depriving others of what may be useful ingredients for their own efforts and the community of materials that could contribute to a richer and more useful shared subjectivity. 

The upshot?  Sure, make use of shared subjectivities when they are useful.  But keep in mind that they are a contribution to making sense of the world, not themselves the solution to making sense of the world.  We would all be worse off if we depended only on shared subjectivities.  Individual subjectivities are equally important, they are the material from which shared subjectivities arise.  And they are essential to the continuing evolution of shared subjectivities.  Finally, they are not in conflict with shared subjectivities or community coherence as long as we keep in mind that individual and shared understandings need not be the same.  We can and perhaps should evolve both simultaneously. 

Group understandings I can get from books.  What I would rather have from individuals is their own distinctive understandings, the alternative ways of making sense of things that I might not be able to get from books. Maybe along this path we could have not only richer classrooms but richer and more satisfying interpersonal, cultural, and political lives as well? 


Wil Franklin's picture

Movement and Placement?


This understanding you present of what a classroom is and how it should operate makes me think about learning goals.  The way I hear your argument, the goal you are setting for students is movement.  Start where they are, find intersections with others and build new understandings.  Learning as movement seems very well defined in “the education discourse”, but you have let me see (or tease apart) two different types of movement – let me call them movement and placement. There now seems to me, a movement as you prescribe from the student to wherever the student can and is willing to go and a movement to (placement) a particular location in discipline content/skill “space”. I agree with you completely that NOT assuming a starting point is more egalitarian and “socially just”, not to mention a more effective way to begin any movement/learning.  However, I find it hard to believe that you really don’t have some goal or at least direction you want students to head. And, if you do really have some direction in mind, which I think you would agree on the premise that we are all subjective beings with only our own points of reference that to privilege movement over placement is to simply reverse discriminate.  Would not it be even more egalitarian to accept a more pluralistic “set of goals” so more types of learners can achieve?  Perhaps weight a course on movement and placement equally.  This translates into exams and creative productivity.  The burden now shifts to the instructor to clearly define the role of “movement” and “placement” in the process of knowledge building. 


Paul Grobstein's picture

bagging "placement" at both beginning and end

I'm perfectly happy with BOTH "not assuming a starting point" AND "a more pluralistic set of goals."  And not (or even primarily) because it is more "egalitarian" and "socially just."  "Weight a course on movement and placement equally"?  My own trajectory has been to steadily downgrade "placement" (and exams).  What I want to see, and try to facilitate, is "movement," not primarily because I want everyone to feel successful now but rather because the skill of moving, in any direction away from where one is, is what people need more of both for their own lives and to contribute meaningfully to the lives of others in the future.  For a related conversation along these lines, see modeling, story telling, and inquiry: trying to get to where?  


Paul Grobstein's picture

Tetris, education, cultures, and beyond ...

Like your Tetris image.  Yep, we can't blank the screen, begin in the same place.  And I agree that starting at the same place and ending at the same place are dissociable.  We could indeed, "knowingly and carefully" agree where to start and still aspire to get to different places.  In some ways, I'd like to think that's what we're actually doing in Bio 202 (re, for example, what is meant by "input" or "stimulus"). 

I want/need to think a little more about this.  While it may be less of a pain in the ass, it also puts less on the table to make new things out of and gives people less opportunity to explore their own abilities to create both meaning and culture.  For more along these lines, see Culture of Abilities.  Think of that as a product of this conversation?  Thanks for helping me continue to think through this set of issues.



egleichman's picture

By way of concession

I agree with much of what you say here, Paul, that for all of us to have the same starting point via common and precise definitions is both efficient and impossible, because of what you've outlined: not only "strong" students versus not, but also because of the varying backgrounds and experiences of the people in the discussion, something that inevitably -- for better or worse -- put us all at different levels.

One way I've thought about what you've said here is as a game of Tetris.*  If we want the most efficient "end" result possible, we all start with a blank screen and build, fitting pieces of information from you and each other together so that it all fits, makes sense.  But in a classroom setting, we come in with a our Tetris screens already somewhat arranged, and the new information we process has to fit with what we already have established in our perception of the world.  To demand that we erase all of that already-arranged material is against against the game rules.  And because we have different starting points, the new information is going to stack and fit differently into the realm of what we knew -- or thought we knew -- before.

I think I get that.

But I'm not sure I totally agree that to begin with the same starting point means the objective is to leave off at the same ending point.  In other words, to begin to answer your question: "But is that actually the objective?  To get us collectively to some future same place?"  I would say, no.  I don't think it's fair, as you've said, to expect everyone to leave the classroom with the same new ideas.  To begin in the same place does not mean we must end in the same place.  It is simply a way of saying: "There are many -- perhaps infinite -- definitions for what we are talking about today.  Let us focus on this one right now."  To limit ourselves in the onset with common definitions perhaps inhibits our learning because our backgrounds and previous experiences -- that which has helped build the knowledge with which we come to class -- have been ignored.  But to do so knowingly and carefully does, I think, advance our thinking more efficiently -- so long as we know that starting at the same place and ending up in the same "future place" are not inextricably linked. 

I see now the rationale behind your approach to defining (or not defining) terms.  It makes sense.  But you're right; it feels like a pain in the ass.

* This metaphor may be easier to grasp with a round of Tetris: