Replacing blame with generosity in classrooms, inquiry, and culture
Interesting conversation this morning growing out of, among other things, "The Design of Learning Environments," Chapter 6 of How People Learn, together with some college student comparisons of experiences in their own courses with observations of elementary school classes at a local K-6 Quaker school. The upshot was, for me at least, a clearer understanding of what one needs to do to create not only more effective learning environments in classrooms but more humane exchange environments generally.
The starting point is the presumption that the business of classrooms is to enhance inquiry skills, to help people become better at the ongoing and looping process of making sense of what is going on around them, questioning the sense they and others make, coming up with new "less wrong" understandings, and testing those new understandings in new contexts. The more people engage in this process, the better they get at it, and the better they get at it, the greater the skill, success, and satisfaction people find in shaping and reshaping their own lives, as well as in contributing to the sharping and reshaping of the lives of communities of which they are a part.
The inquiry process depends fundamentally on being willing to make explicit to oneself, and expose to others, one's current understandings in order to acquire and contribute the new observations that are necessary to reach new understandings. Both the making explicit, and the exposing to others, are inhibited in educational contexts whenever there is a presumption that the aim of the inquiry process is to reach a "right" answer. In such contexts, there is a fully understandable reluctance to make concrete existing understandings. One is at risk of being judged "wrong," by other people and/or by oneself. And "wrong" in this case is not the inevitable wrongness which in turn provides the ground work for new understanding. It is instead a definitive assessment of failure, a judgement that enhances a sense of risk that in turn discourages the inquiry process itself. The very concept of "failure" is, I would argue, inconsistent with a sophisticated understanding of inquiry and so should, in all its various guises, be rooted out of classroom environments, along with the concept of "right." Students need to feel comfortable being always "in process," always "wrong," and never "failing," always able to use wrongness as a stepping stone to new understandings.
It is not only students but also teachers who need to feel comfortable being "always in process." When a class goes less well than one might have hoped, there is in all of us a tendency to experience "failure," and, what is worse, to try and assign "blame:" the students were not well-prepared or the students weren't willing to work hard or ... ; alternatively, I myself am not good at teaching because of ... any of a variety of reasons. And the same, of course, holds for students taking a class that went less well than they had hoped: the teacher wasn't well-prepared or is a jerk or ...; alternatively, I'm not a science (or humanities or language or ...) type or I'm not smart or ... . Whether done by students or by teachers, and whether judging self or other, the inquiry process is interrupted by the effort to assign "blame." Students and teachers both need to be able to accept what is less successful than they imagine it might be without labeling it "failure," and to use the difference as a valuable stepping stone to new understandings. Just as I'd get rid of the concept of "right" in a classroom, so too would I get rid of the concept of "blame;: it not only ignores the subtleties of multi-dimensional and reciprocal causation but, even more importantly, it interrupts the inquiry process.
There are, for me, interesting and quite general resonances in all this. The central importance of "conflict" in the classroom, and how to create environments that make conflict productive has been very much on my mind since this summer (cf The brain and education: three loops and conflict resolution). The Evolving Systems core working group has been wrestling with the closely related problem of "againstness," the role it plays and might better play in intellectual activity generally (cf Againstnesses, external and internal). And there is, of course, the still wider problem of human social and political interactions and whether we treat difference as a problem or an opportunity (cf Diversity and deviance: a biological perspective, Must cultures disable?, As the numbness wanes, and A neurodiverse world). In all these contexts, my sense is that we all, as human beings, need to develop a more generous approach to each other, one in which we look at each other not in terms of deficiencies but rather in terms of possibilities. The issue here is not "fairness" or "niceness" but rather a commitment to continuing the shared process of inquiry that is life, with confidence in the process itself and in the varied and unpredictable roles each of us has to play in that process.
The conversation this grew out of involved Peter Brodfuehrer, Wil Franklin, Emily Lovejoy, Brie Stark, and Ruth Strickland. All contributed valuably to the conversation but none of them should be held responsible for my particular take on it. I'd be delighted if one or more of them, and anyone else interested, added their own thoughts in the on-line forum below.