Friday, August 18, 2017

Teaching the Conflicts
Charlottesville reminds us that it can be very difficult to help each other, much less our students, make sense of complex conflicts that have festered for years and involve overlapping and confusing intersections of deeper conflicts over power and identity and aspiration.

The Chronicle weighed in on this today, framing it within the currently fashionable phrasing of ‘how to foster civil dialogue in class.’ This is not my preferred way to frame this (and that choice matters) but I will operate within that movie for this blog to try to unpack the challenge here.

The article starts with a couple paragraphs that contain hot links that might be valuable, so let’s start with that.

“There’s no shortage of guidance available. Groups like Project Pericles, the Association of American Colleges & Universities, and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities' American Democracy Project have been working to help students engage in constructive conversations, especially during fraught times. 

Vanderbilt and Harvard Universities have offered tips on facilitating students during "hot moments." The Junto, a blog about early American history, has several recent entries about teaching amid political tensions. We've run similar articles on this topic in recent months, too. And just a few days ago, the Graduate Student Coalition for Liberation put together what it calls the Charlottesville syllabus, which contains links to resources on the history of the Ku Klux Klan in Virginia and of Charlottesville's Confederate monuments, among other topics.”

It is a good thing that there is no shortage of resources, because these are gnarly conflicts, as my friend Peter likes to call them. Gerald Graff has also done some thoughtful work on teaching the conflicts that should be included here (English professors often provide, in my view, some of the most impressive political analysis around).

Then the Chronicle wonders out loud if this is enough, mirroring the larger debate sparked by Charlottesville about the democratic necessity of being intolerant towards those who refuse to accept tolerance as a shared value. For the Chronicle this takes the form of—can civil debate and reasoned argumentation prevent conflicts like Charlottesville, resolve these, or reduce the harms associated with these?

Then the piece takes a turn I did not expect and like a lot,

‘Deeply ingrained ideas can be difficult to dislodge. A case in point: a cluster of seven classic “neuromyths” that a group of researchers studied, as described in Frontiers in Psychology. One such neuromyth is widely held in higher education: that people learn better when they “receive information in their preferred learning style” (there's actually little evidence to support this idea). 

While more than two-thirds of the general public fell prey to these myths, so did a majority of educators, and — surprisingly — nearly half (46 percent) of the people who had been exposed to neuroscience courses. The findings, the authors wrote, suggest that education and training in neuroscience can help reduce belief in neuromyths, but won’t eliminate it.’

I think it is important to pay attention to learning styles, so I have likely carried some of this myth into my teaching. For me, paying attention has been a reminder of the importance of providing multiple modes of delivery (mixing it up), combining frontal and flank attacks on preconceived notions (hard data and story circles), deploying different ways of presenting the same material because sometimes the way that works better for me does not resonate with someone else. (Okay, more than sometimes.)

Sadly, that is the end of the article, which appears to have been more like an extended advertisement for a new newsletter on teaching. I signed up for the newsletter.

We need to help each other become better at making sense of, and engaging productively in, the conflicts in our lives—from interpersonal to international. For educators the responsibility is deeper because our students come to us with this goal in mind.

This starts with modelling more productive approaches to conflict, in our lives and classrooms, in every conversation, in what we say and what we do. And modelling the humility and curiosity and open-mindedness that should be associated with the inevitable (and frequent) times we fail to model more productive approaches.

This includes constructing (classroom and beyond) conversations designed to ‘be real,’ that is, not designed to come to a predetermined conclusion in my notes, but to engage with others around an honest question, as a fellow learner, who is curious and, even though I have also thought about this before I want to hear what others think and learn from this, so I construct conversations, to the degree possible, that are not phony ‘exercises,’ but actual inquiries.

An actual inquiry requires that the newcomers (students) be empowered with tools and high expectations about how they will wrestle with paradoxes, challenge their own and other’s unexamined assumptions and notions seen as ‘just common sense’ that are inconsistent with the best available data.

Doing this nearly always requires discomfort and patience, careful word choices and active listening, pushing back for justifications and evidence, demonstrating the value of engaging seriously with evidence to the contrary…as well as with those who hold contrary views.

Very little of these characteristics were on display in Charlottesville or in the post-riot feeding frenzy where (usually good and smart people in the mass media drive) conversations seems more often constructed to confuse and divide and pander to the lowest among us (particularly when those have highly paid PR experts framing their sometimes ignorant positions for them).

As an educator, I watch this and feel both sad and a sense of failure: the distortion and confusion that characterizes this conversation is, in some way, an indictment of me and my colleagues. We have failed to help our students or each other better understand the world we live in. That seems clear to me. Public debate is filled with angrily asserted positions about how politics works (or sometimes does not work so well), conflict and conflict transformation, and much more that are deeply (and often intentionally) misinformed.

It is a common trope, when faced with truly daunting and gnarly conflicts, to retreat to ‘it is all about education.’ I agree but know that this sentiment usually emerges as an exit strategy for those who are exhausted by a complex and frustrating conflict, so I also disagree.

We need to thicken this to a call for all of us, particularly public and private sector leaders, to speak and act in ways that manifestly demonstrate the value teaching and learning—in the classroom and beyond, from and with each other, guided and constrained and energized by the best available data—quantitative, qualitative, experiential, and scholarly. We need a renewed commitment to the importance of inquiry and problem solving in the best traditions of American pragmatism. In that sense, it is all about education. Sign me up.

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