Saturday, September 06, 2014

Does Every Discipline Have a Worldview-Changing Idea?

The college is up for re-accreditation.  In addition to showing that we are doing the usual things well, we are also supposed to come up with a big idea of something new to try - a Quality Enhancement Plan. We have decided that this big idea should be to improve critical thinking, and/or creative thinking - somehow.  I am on the committee charged with coming up with a good idea of how, exactly, to do this, so I have been pondering the problem.

One of the hardest things to teach in sociology is to get students to move from thinking about society in terms of individuals, to thinking about society in terms of groups.  I start many classes with Marx in part to plant this seed. The actors in Marx' account of society are not individual workers and individual owners, but whole classes of workers and owners.  Similarly, when we talk about the patterns of gender relations, it is hard to keep students from immediately translating that into how a man and a woman interact - usually meaning the student him- or herself. Likewise, seeing social structures is a qualitatively different idea than seeing how one person habitually acts in relation to another.  We expend a great deal of creativity in trying to get students to think critically about social structures and social groups.

In other words, it is a persistent problem in teaching sociology to transform a student's perspective from the individual imagination to the sociological imagination.  Once you get it, you see the world differently.  The sociological imagination is a vital tool in critical thinking about society.

So here is the beginning of an idea: suppose every discipline has a fundamental shift in thinking that it is trying to teach - a new lens for seeing the world that it is trying to fit students with.  If so, then the college as a whole might fruitfully work together on the shared or meta-issues in teaching these disparate worldview-changing ideas.  We would be working creatively and critically as a faculty, and helping students to see the world creatively and critically with these new lenses of several kinds.  That would be a Quality Enhancement Plan worthy of a liberal arts college.

So the question is, does every discipline have a core idea that is hard to get students to see, but once achieved, fundamentally changes the way they think?

3 comments:

Dennis Evans said...

I am a bit of a time traveler, in that I am a student of history, and it seems to be that you are talking about something that was very well understood, once upon a time. For one thing, there is the old idea of a "liberal education". If you looked at the classical (Hellenistic) period you would find the seminal definitions of the purpose of each discipline. These perceived purposes carried through the Middle Ages and, with some changes in the Renaissance, were familiar to educators in the 18th and 19th centuries.

gruntled said...

Is this equally true of modern disciplines?

Jared said...

During my liberal arts education, I was a teaching assistant in the Computer Science department. A large part of my duties was providing "lab hours" - times during which I was available in the labs to provide help.

My professor and I met weekly to review the kinds of hurdles students were regularly encountering. He used the feedback to shape the instructional sessions, and helped me think through strategies for helping students who were having trouble in the labs. I had been working in instructional technology for the local school district for 3 or 4 years, so my experience - while not vast - was not completely missing. (As an aside: it was amazing to be treated as a peer by my own professor: each of us contributing thoughts and ideas, shaping each other's pedagogy...)

Anyhow...

...in Computer Science, there are several of these "core ideas," often encountered in different sequences...

...the ability to think about a problem at many different levels of abstraction, "gluing" them together as you climb an abstraction tree...

...the ability to dissect a problem from reality (that's not actually a discrete problem) in discrete terms, so that it can be solved by a computer...

...the ability to dissect a problem from reality in abstract "object" terms...

I could keep going...the list gets long.

Each of these "paradigm shifts" changes your world when you first encounter them. Prior to "making the jump," problems whose solutions seemed like "magic" previously suddenly made perfect sense.

My professor and I often asked the questions, "How do you teach that thing which is intuitive to yourself? How do you help a student gain the ability to build those intuitions themselves?"