Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Pedagogy and Controversy

Over at the Times, Stanley Fish has an interesting post up looking at a couple of views from the right and left on political correctness in the classroom.

The pedagogical issue of how a teacher presents ideas, whether as a part of the curriculum or not, is profound. And it does not begin in college. It begins in Kindergarten! (In any space where the teacher is teaching, really). The teacher is in a position of authority, and sets the tone, structure, content and direction of the instruction. And while Kindergarteners will likely not be discussing the notion of Democracy as a relative construct in post-colonial countries, they are still in the powerful grip of the teacher and all his subjective notions about the world.

As a high school science teacher, I was sensitive to this dynamic on a daily basis. Many students had religious and cultural perspectives that were entirely unscientific. But it would have been inappropriate for me to tell them that their perspectives were wrong, as their beliefs were part of a larger construct that was about more than merely facts - that would have been an abuse of my authority. I could, however give them the evidence - which was always overwhelming - and then let them decide for themselves.

But what then of issues where it isn't a matter of evidence, and is instead a matter entirely predicated upon cultural assumptions? There is no evidence for whether it is wrong or right to abort a fetus. Nor is there any that life begins at conception. But there is evidence of the dangers posed to some mothers due to complications. There is evidence of when a fetus begins to feel pain. Unless specifically studying the abortion issue, there isn't time in the classroom to fully explore it. However, as is often the case, controversial issues will come up, and should not be shied away from.

Teachers are facilitators of models. A students comes to class with a set of perspectives on the world, making up a model of reality. This model will be based upon core assumptions that form its supporting structure. The teacher's role is to enrich that model by presenting new information, but always explicitly based on a clear framework of assumptions. As new information is incorporated with the old, the student's models are then reconfigured accordingly, always starting at the base, and then building upwards. Some things may ultimately be be tossed out, while others more deeply carved.

In my science classroom, I always taught the evolution controversy starting with first principles. When any objection to evolution was raised (and it invariably was), I began with a definition of science as based on evidence, and then proceeded from there. I would state that religious objections to evolution are not based in evidence, and thus unanswerable by science. By starting with first assumptions, I created a model that the student could then get their hands around and authoritatively compare and contrast with their preconceived own.

If a student is feeling excluded in a classroom, it is because the teacher is not presenting their ideas in a way that is understandable and recognizable to the student; an attempt has not been successfully made to present that student with a model they can identify and legitimately contrast with their own. Of course, some gaps will just be too wide to fully address in one lecture, or even one course. But hopefully the student will come away with a deeper understanding of both their own, and the teacher's perspective.

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