- Teacher Background Knowledge
- Leveraging the Power of Doubt
- Channeling Doubt Productively
As mentioned last time, the common understanding that students are motivated by curiosity can be expressed in Pragmatic terms as representing the motivating power of doubt. By creating doubt in a student’s mind, doubt over their perception of how the world works, or doubt over their intuitions when faced with a confounding question or puzzle, students (like all humans) will go to almost any length to make that doubt go away.
The trouble is, there are many ways to eliminate doubt without learning anything. For example, you can simply fit the troubling conundrum into a pre-existing set of beliefs, the so-called a priori method of doubt-elimination that corresponds to problematic ways of thinking such as succumbing to conformation bias.
The most common way teachers help students resolve doubt is by providing an explanation that settles the matter. While a teacher providing the answer is one way for students to replace doubt with true beliefs, those beliefs might be shallow if the student did not have to put any work into forming them (other than listening to and internalizing what they were told by an authority figure).
An additional risk is that a student might dismiss or even reject a teacher’s explanation out of a need to rebel against authority. Like a prior and authority methods of belief formation, this method of doubt-elimination (called tenacity) is not motivated to getting to the truth but is rather driven by the need to reject authority in the name of independence.
In contrast to a priori, authority and tenacity methods of belief formation, scientific investigation is a way for students to discover an answer to a perplexing conundrum or challenging puzzle on their own, forming their own beliefs in the process. This does not mean students should be expected to discover Newton’s Laws or understand complex historical events without any guidance from a teacher, but that guidance should take the form of providing resources and direction, rather than all the answers.
This type of discovery-based learning is associated with John Dewey, heir to Peirce’s Pragmatic philosophy and one of the nation’s most famous educational thinkers. But Dewey is frequently misunderstood as advocating for a mode of learning that involves setting students loose on a problem and letting them swim (discover the truth) or sink (not solve the problem, or form beliefs based on error) without any guidance from the teacher.
But if you read Dewey’s writing on education (especially Democracy and Education or How We Think – where the concept of critical-thinking originated), you will realize that his beliefs regarding education were based on something other than letting a million flowers bloom and hoping for the best.
For example, Dewey’s work drew heavily from Darwinian evolution, yet his interpretation of Darwin did not tap the Romantic belief (originating before Darwin in the work of Rousseau) that children could retrace the evolutionary steps of the species – from savage to civilized man – through an educational process based on self-discovery of knowledge.
Rather, Dewey saw in Darwin’s work an explanation of how species change through constant interaction with other members of the species, with other species, and with the environment. Through these ongoing interactions (many of them random), creatures engage in activities, some of which get fixed into habits.
In certain cases, those habits are counterproductive or even destructive to the individual or to the society, such as hardened customs that allow for no change or growth. But habits such as tolerance, devotion to hard work, and belief in the benefits of a dynamic society are also formed through an evolutionary process of interaction leading to experience leading to habit.
As Dewey describes in Democracy and Education, the school is a highly artificial environment in which students are exposed to interactions and experiences society deems beneficial. This can involve learning specific subjects, but also being socialized into norms that allow the society to perpetuate itself.
Within this model, there is room for explicit instruction about great ideas from the past that young students cannot be expected to know or discover for themselves, as long as they are presented as part of a strategy that does not provide students all the answers with no work on their part, other than regurgitating what they have been told on a test.
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