Monday, July 20, 2015

Priorkn, meet Subjmatkn

In the pedagogy seminar today we talked about a particular episode in a class A, our leader, observed a few years ago, and described and analyzed in her Presidential Address to the Association for the Study of Higher Education in 2012,"Staking a Claim on Learning: What You Should Know About Learning in Higher Education and Why." We get to watch as an Intro to Modern Philosophy course grapples with Cartesian doubt.

It's a very nice series of vignettes, as a student goes from Descartes "makes sense but it's just not working for me" through understanding it and even making an insightful connection with something she learned in physics class in high school, by way of the instructor's assuring her that Descartes "is with you" as she worried and struggled with the implications of radical uncertainty. Another student introduces "The Matrix" as an analog. Cool!

I was looking forward to discussing this, but wondered what else we'd be doing in today's 3-hour meeting. Well, we spent the whole time on it! The more we parsed what was said, imagining what was going on in the heads of that student and that instructor, discussed doubt in general and in the particular context of this class, the role popular culture examples can play in class, etc., etc. the more miraculous it all started to seem. A told us she'd had to listen to the recording of the class several time to discern all that was going on (not to mention multiple readings of Meditations on First Philosophy and watching "The Matrix"). These sorts of transformative interactions happen all the time in our classrooms but what happens in the "black box of the classroom" is missing from discussions about the value (in all senses) of a liberal arts education. It's one of A's major projects to find ways to convey the magic. And not just for skeptics. Those of us in the thick of it don't have the chance to replay and reflect like this either.

So what's the diagram on the whiteboard about? It's about the encounter of a student's "prior knowledge" with the "subject matter knowledge" of an instructor. The former includes much more than book learning: it refers to every part of a student's background and experience. For the student in question, a commuter who was probably also the first in her family to go to college, this is the knowledge of the world to which she returns every night - and a world into which she may well not be able to translate what she's learning (and vice versa).

For the instructor the knowledge in question isn't just disciplinary and teaching knowledge, but knowledge of curriculum - where the course is going, how it fits in with other courses, colleagues (with whom she may share a syllabus, and who may have told her what to do in it), etc. And in the background of that lies her own experience of the encounter of Descartes' radical doubt and who she was when she encountered it.

Anna Neumann, “Staking a Claim on Learning:
What We Should Know about Learning in Higher Education and Why,”
The Review of Higher Education 37/2 (Winter 2014): 249-267, 252

In the kinds of learning and teaching that make it all worth while, all these things are brought to bear. It's much richer and deeper than the idea that some piece of knowledge (Descartes) gets transferred from one head to another, or the generic descriptions of active learning creating a more educated workforce for the new information economy. True liberal education is about particular lives (=priorkn) encountering particular transformative content (=subjmatkn): "the power of a subject of study — well taught — to shape a learner’s mind" and enable her "to chart a fulfilling life." What a noble profession!

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