In 1985, two professors of physics published some research about the extent to which a physics class impacted students’ intuitive understanding of motion. Like most of us, the students had a more Aristotelian model–the one that seems to fit with common sense: e.g., heavy objects fall faster rate than lighter ones. The goal was to see how many students internalized the Newtonian model by the end of the semester: e.g., heavy and light objects fall at the same rate.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that many students retained the Aristotelian model after the course. The professors were surprised, however, that even A-students–those who had demonstrated competence on exams that tested ability to use and apply Newtonian concepts of motion–even these students still retained the Aristotelian model. Shockingly, the students would rationalize their belief in such models even when shown evidence to the contrary. It’s a truism that we education is more than transmission of knowledge. In fact, we often say that you don’t get it until you do it. Clearly this is not the case, though. Even skillful application of knowledge doesn’t demonstrate understanding sometimes.
This study shows how difficult it is for students to shift paradigms, but true students grow when those paradigms shift. What most teachers, myself sadly included, often forget is how radically disorienting, how almost-impossible it is for individuals to shift those paradigms. Humans are adaptation machines. Experience shows that human resilience (and the creativity bound therein) is almost boundless. Yet we routinely forget the pain, the embarrassment, the extreme self-doubt that is part of the learning process. We are also extremely fearful beings, afraid to test the limits of our fragility. We rationalize, equivocate, and often simply hide when confronted with new paradigms because we have reached a horizon point beyond which we cannot see our new selves.
I expect that if I understood this concept better, I would not ride the same roller coaster every semester. Every four months, I go through the same series of moods. I have been teaching for a number of years now, so I know to expect them:
1. Hopeful: I begin hopeful, hard-working, planning extensively, providing copious feedback.
2. Chastised: After several rounds of assignments, multiple attempts at correction, coaxing, I realize my expectations are too high and need to be tempered.
3. Failure: When students fail to meet my more reduced expectations, I begin to question the whole enterprise of teaching.
4. Despair: The dark night of my teacher’s soul. I lose sleep, wonder when my fraudulent stint as a teacher will be brought to its ignominious end.
5. Peace: I come to accept the reality of my students, my abilities, somehow accept the failures and successes alike.
Perhaps I’m addicted to the process, to the highs and lows; I need every break I get, but after the break–when I step back into the classroom–I am filled with hope again. At the end of every semester I promise to remember the lessons I have learned, but it’s clear that my own internal paradigms are not fully shifted to the reality of the task yet.
I wanted to feature essays by students–about poetry primarily, but perhaps other literature-related topics too–which surprised me in some way. It’s not that I am pointing to these students as budding literary scholars (we need scientists and historians who can read poetry!) or that I’m some star teacher who wants to show off the quality results of my teaching. Instead, I am featuring students whose writing showed them grappling with those new paradigms, whose work showed a kind of bravery in confronting the new self beyond the horizon point. I see a facility for understanding and writing about poetry in a way that I thought was admirable. There are sentences I wish I had written; ideas I wish I had articulated.
That’s when I feel most satisfied as a teacher: when I see a spark of something in a student that I admire. Not a mirror image of myself (Augustine said–roughly–that no parent is so stupid to send their child to school to learn what the teacher thinks), but that mutual flame of interest in something outside both teacher and student. In that sense, a great classroom environment is created when those flames combine and burn that much brighter.
I hope that other THEthe contributors who teach will also feel compelled to contribute to this series. But for now, this is my own (burnt) offering.