Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Seed plot

One doesn't often find a record of how a seminar - a real seminar, not a lecture passive-aggressively elicited through socratic questioning - works, but I've happened on one. Abraham Luchins, a fellow professor, attended the seminars of Max Wertheimer, pioneering Gestalt psychologist and leader among the first refugee scholars of the University in Exile, from 1936 until Wertheimer's death in 1943, and reconstructed them from his verbatim notes decades later. I have to take his word for the accuracy of his notes, but what impresses and inspires was that he wrote down everything, from student interjections to what happened in discussions after class officially ended. And he recorded what wasn't said, too. Perhaps it takes a psychologist to notice the classroom dynamics in this way. Here's how he reconstructed the start of Wertheimer's seminar on problem solving and thinking.
Wertheimer soon gets them going - all the participant contributions are transcribed, too - but loses a number again when he pivots from the theoretical discussion about theory and experiment to two puzzles. Here's the first one. (Don't read on until you've tried to solve it.)
Did you figure it out? I confess I didn't, though I imagined her pushing the surface with her already kneaded dough around the tent pole with her hips. Awkward! Nobody in 1936 hazarded a response, either:
Ha! Well, I'm following his urging by passing it on to you. What say you?
But other students were more amenable, wondering, for instance, how children vs. adults would fare in such a predicament, or how results might vary if the story involved a different material than flour. Now we're talking! "These students, incidentally," Luchins observes tartly, "had not been undergraduate major in psychology." (Perhaps flour was important; Luchins frames his own account of what went on with the etymology of seminar as "seed plot." But the Mullah?)

Abraham S. Luchins and Edith H. Luchins, Wertheimer's Seminars Revisited:
Problem Solving and Thinking, vol. 1 (Albany, NY: Faculty Student Association,
State University of New York at Albany, Inc., 1970), 1, 9, 18, 19, iii

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