Lee’s Stories

Lee’s Stories

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posted on July 27, 2016 | Teaching and Learning
Thoughts for the Camosun Community

I submitted a version of this report to the Camosun College faculty
after giving two talks there in Fall 2006.

Thank you very much for welcoming me into your community for an evening and a morning last month. As I mentioned in my second talk, the energy, enthusiasm, and commitment you displayed were palpable. Because of you, both sessions inspired me and I feel honoured to have been included in such a joyful celebration of learning and teaching. Hopefully, my comments on interdisciplinary approaches to undergraduate education and on critical thinking, creativity, and related arts were useful to you.  Following are some reflections on those events, beginning with something about the nature of critical thinking.

I implied above, as in my talks, that critical thinking and creativity are closely allied. This claim lies at the heart of everything I said. To the extent that this is true, it follows that we must make a large, central space for creativity in our classrooms, and nurture it, if we intend our students to become critical thinkers.

In this light, our role as teachers is not so much to be the sage on the stage or even the guide on the side. Much more importantly, we must be cultural engineers. As teachers, we must foster, model, and celebrate the full embrace of ignorance. We must be tricksters who invent situations that invite, encourage, exercise, and celebrate nascent ability wherever we find it, and help our students learn to navigate those spaces. A simpler way of saying this is that we learn to think critically by thinking critically. Critical thought, as do thinkers, always traverses new ground. These principles apply as much to teachers as to their students, and they apply to all administrators.

In our sessions, participants raised two key questions in relation to my stories about interdisciplinary teaching and critical thinking.  They are closely related.

  • Could it be that the interdisciplinary approaches to teaching I discussed can work for research scientists hired for their research ability but not for community college teachers hired for their teaching?
  • Could it be that the approaches to critical thinking I discussed can work for university students with rich academic backgrounds and keen interest in content but not for community college students?

These are important questions, if only because they suggest something qualitative about interdisciplinarity and creativity that makes them the exclusive territory of special  students and teachers. Since I don’t at all believe this, I will respond to the questions more extensively and in a bit more depth than I did in the heat of the moment.

The professors
Unquestionably, personal, professional experience of doing science is invaluable in helping others learn to do it, just as experience of doing anything helps in teaching others. That is one basis for the claim that universities are good places to learn to be professionals.

But long immersion in the silos of our specialties can also make us narrow, inflexible, and resistant to anything that stretches us in unexpected directions. It can make us competitive with our peers, and with our students. And the esoteric nature of what we argue about in our silos, as well as how we argue it and who we argue it with, can make us disdainful of people who argue about other things or argue in other ways.

My stories were about what happened in one academic community when disciplines interacted freely with each other in undergraduate education, both directly and indirectly. Several benefits of learning were multiplied by the interaction, even as shortcomings emerged. The stories were about teaching science, and everything I told you about happened in a research university.

I hope I made it clear enough at the time, though, that many other kinds of academic communities, including community colleges, could generate similar kinds of stories. This is a belief, admittedly, but the ideas are being tested in other places and at all levels from elementary school through graduate school and they’ve worked everywhere so far. My knowledge of your institution is limited, of course, and except for a few transfer students who may have taken my classes at UBC, I don’t know your students at all.

But I have interacted relatively intimately with a strong sample of your faculty and with a few administrators. I understand the legendary stinginess of governments in funding community colleges. Some of you found fault with the quality of your students, and I don’t begrudge you the complaint.  I hear the same complaints everywhere, even in the best universities.  The bottom line for me is that I’ve seen or heard nothing yet at Camosun to convince me that you can’t do it and do it well.

On the contrary, I came away from my short time with you buoyed by a strong sense of possibility. Besides all that, how could you lose by taking on some of the challenges I offered you and talking with each other about what happens? None of it is easy, and much of the effort must be expended outside of classrooms. That means it takes time, and it also means that it takes money. My message to you is not that it is easy but that it is possible. I have no doubt that as a community, if you want these things badly enough, they will happen.

On balance, I think the qualities of openness, willingness to speak freely and honestly about knowledge and ignorance, and the kind of intelligence that my mother called smart (i.e. street smarts as opposed to intelligence), weigh more heavily in this kind of teaching than either raw intelligence or disciplinary expertise.

Creating new knowledge professionally through research does not necessarily foster breadth, openness, or integration.   But interdisciplinary teaching requires all three of them and a lot more. Successful interdisciplinary teaching, and indeed all teaching, requires continuing personal engagement with the content, as Parker Palmer argued beautifully in The Courage to Teach. That personal relationship with the material must remain alive and growing. And teachers, who are also therefore learners, must be willing to share the process of that engagement with their students. Beyond that, I don’t think level of expertise matters very much.

In the first few years of the Integrated Sciences Program at UBC, we discovered something important. Interdisciplinary courses taught by world experts in the content areas that defined them were not necessarily good courses. Most instructors were world experts in something, but their specialties usually occupied a minor or miniscule component of the content, if they figured at all.  Yet nearly all of the courses were successful.

Although my own interest in an Integrated Sciences course called The Sizes of Things was inspired by many years of studying tiny hummingbirds, I don’t remember talking at all about them in the course. This and related paradoxes led us to wonder about conditions in the classroom, especially in classroom culture, under which expertise might inhibit learning. We also wondered about different kinds of expertise and ways to use them, especially in combination, to encourage growth of knowledge and expertise in students. We’ve all witnessed expertise exercised insensitively, at the wrong level of detail, or with poor timing relative to the learning trajectories of students, and there are many other kinds of inhibition.

The deepest, most powerful key to the kind of teaching I encourage, I think, is not expertise itself but the passion to gain it. Interdisciplinary teaching is not rocket science, but it is challenging to the core, both intellectually and emotionally. Some challenges stem from the fact that it is difficult even for a keen team of co-conspirators to plan things in detail. No matter how well or in how much detail you plan, you will be surprised frequently if you do it right. This is the very nature of surprise, which can be thought of as the sudden rupturing of expectations.

As soon as you think you know what will happen, something else happens.  Literally before you know it you are exploring new territory. Teachable moments abound. Dealing with that kind of surprise is challenging to expert and neophyte teachers alike and it is challenging to students. Those challenges come with the territory of interdisciplinarity, and they are a big part of its promise.

The reason we can’t plan well in interdisciplinary teaching, though we need to be prepared, is that most of the surprises spring from knowledge that is rooted so deeply in our disciplinary and subdisciplinary cultures that we are unaware of it on home territory and it surfaces only in contrast to other cultures. Clearly, students must visit new territory to learn anything new, but in every case I have seen so far, interdisciplinary spaces have been new territory for professors too.  Again, this is an important part of the promise.

The most significant emotional challenges for us in teaching this way stem from the fact that it forces us out of our zones of comfort into murky areas where cultures, traditions, and bodies of knowledge overlap. New knowledge and new insights bubble up unexpectedly if they are allowed, encouraged, and cultivated. If the stakes are high enough, and they always are in this kind of
teaching, those situations frighten almost everyone, students and teachers alike, and they present administrators with challenges that must be met if programs are to succeed.

This kind of uncertainty is one of the defining circumstances for interdisciplinary teaching at its best. When they’re working, those scenarios feel a lot like the real world. For this reason, interdisciplinary teaching is not for the faint of heart. Nor is it for pretenders who would masquerade their knowledge as understanding or wisdom. Those people are exposed quickly in the crossfire of points of view, and everyone is exposed sooner or later.
Interdisciplinary teaching is for anyone well enough grounded in any field of study to appreciate its gaps, its history of growth, and something of its rules of engagement, and for anyone curious to know more. Above all, it is for people willing to profess their own ignorance and that of the disciplines they represent, even while celebrating both knowledge and understanding.

Interdisciplinary teaching is for learners.

The students
The stories I told at Camosun were about my own university students. I spoke in my personal language of storytelling, made vivid with the local colour of the situations in which the events occurred.  This included the backgrounds and attitudes of those particular people. Many, many similar stories could be told about other students in other kinds of situations. I have told enough of them myself to know that stories about learning to think critically in critical, often interdisciplinary situations, can be told about anyone and by anyone, no matter their ages or their levels of expertise.

Critical thinking is one of the things all humans are born to do. This should be no surprise, since it is a basic survival skill in the real world, unlike so much of what we teach and learn in schools. Humans have been practicing it for many millenia.

One such story, first published in the learning and teaching newsletter at the National University of Singapore, is about two ordinary high school students without noticeably special abilities who did some amazing creative science in a new teacher’s classroom. I said before that I believe interdisciplinary teaching of critical thinking will work for Camosun faculty, given the qualities that I observed in my short time with you. I have no doubt that Camosun students can learn to think critically in Camosun classrooms. It is a survival skill, as I said. So is working in groups.


The institutions
It is true that the Science One student body is highly select. We scrape up some of the best students from high schools all over the world, see whether they are interested in science not just as a way of getting grades but as something seriously interesting, ensure they can write clearly and powerfully about their own lives, and put them into a room with 7 dedicated PhDs for a year. The stories I told you come out of that.

Coordinated Sciences Program students are more normal. Statistically, they represent UBC science students in general. They are still UBC science students, but many of them would not survive in Science One. They don’t have the depth or extent of background in the sciences or beyond, they typically bring less intellectual rigour and less experience of critical thinking to their work at first, and most of them are not the self-described science keeners that populate Science One. But all indications are that the approaches I discussed work in both programs. They worked for me in teaching high school in the 1960s and from then until the beginning of Science One in 1993, and I see no reason to think that they would not work anywhere.

I understand that community college students tend to be older than their university colleagues on average, and more experienced at living in the real world. If that is true at Camosun, then your students should have two important advantages over university students. In my own teaching at UBC, older students almost always have an advantage at first.

  1. Older students have been exposed to a greater variety of ways of looking at the world than university students at the same level, and have learned to interact with people who hold different views.
  2. Experience makes older students smarter. Not more intelligent, but smarter in the street-smart sense.  They’ve learned to use their intelligence, unlike many of the 17 year olds we get at UBC. Going back to school, intentionally and expensively, is an important part of that.

Those same qualities predispose students to learning in the ways that I described. (They also make them less tolerant of traditional ways of teaching traditional material.) When students interact socially in their learning, the benefits of age and experience extend to younger and less experienced students and they all learn better.

Considering only those factors, it should be easier to teach critical thinking in community colleges than in universities. Of course, other factors should level the playing field somewhat, but I see no good reason to believe that these kinds of learning should be reserved for special groups of students.

Another kind of response
Another way of answering those questions about teachers and students is based on the metaphor of the Venn diagram, which is a set of overlapping circles representing different domains and their interaction. A Venn diagram of Science One would include four overlapping circles representing biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics. When working completely within any isolated discipline (in a Venn diagram with only one circle), it is difficult to know what is important and worth knowing about that discipline at any given moment. It is natural but incorrect to expect that adding more disciplines would only compound this difficulty and make it even harder. While adding new domains to a problem does increase the total complexity of the system, it also makes it easier, not harder, to identify critical information, and especially easier to appreciate and explore interactions. As if by magic, adding more ways of looking at a problem makes the problem smaller and more manageable.

This is not merely theory, but the self-reported experience of many students over the four decades of my teaching career. For one thing, the most important action in many complex systems is in areas of overlap of domains. This enormously reduces the set of potentially important information, because it tells us where to look. It speeds the search for information, increases the frequency of successful searches, and boosts self-confidence and willingness to risk even deeper engagement in future. Once set in motion, scenarios like this are self-reinforcing.

The great power of interdisciplinary environments is that information has meaning in more than one domain. That is what makes them important. They provide more connections and more hooks for memory and logic. All of these factors make the information more salient, more useful, easier to remember, and dramatically increase the likelihood that it will be useful when it is needed later.

Paradoxically, embracing the complexities of interdisciplinarity and interaction, embracing ignorance, and embracing the challenges of creativity and critical thinking in our teaching can make difficult material more accessible to more students. Also paradoxically, it can also make our teaching easier because the students do so much of their own learning.

In my experience and that of my colleagues, working within the complexity of a Venn diagram is more exciting and more fun than working in any isolated domain alone. It is less like school and more like the real world. It is engaging and consuming, and invites everyone into self-generated learning. We must keep our wits about us in multidisciplinary spaces, which offer more ways to fool ourselves. At the same time, rich spaces provide more ways to realize it when we fool ourselves, and that is another reason to keep our wits about us. Successfully navigating complex multidisciplinary terrain is a strong source of pride noticeable in multidisciplinary communities of many kinds.

I have no doubt that more capable students can navigate more complex spaces than less capable students, at least in the beginning. But that is not the point of public education. The point is that students learn to navigate more effectively than they did before or they would otherwise, given appropriate challenges and appropriate kinds of support. I believe that the approaches I discussed in my talks provide effective challenges and provide effective support for this kind of learning, at whatever level.

Edited May 2022

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