Teaching and Learning the Unfamiliar

by Marvin Lazerson and Ursula Wagener

For years we have thought of ourselves and been considered outstanding teachers. Mimicking the times, our pedagogic styles have changed, from virtuoso lecturers to Socratic questioners who help students find their own voices as they examine higher education history and policies. But for all our self-assurance, we have been questioning the certainties of our teaching, a spillover from our current research into the politics of learning and the impact on learning of the new technologies.

The immediate background to these musings are two quite dissimilar essays: James J. O'Donnell's marvelous discourse, Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace (Harvard University Press, 1998) and Carol Trosset's troubling "Obstacles to Open Discussion and Critical Thinking" (Change, Sept./Oct. 1998).

Professor of classical studies and vice provost for information systems and computing here at Penn, O'Donnell writes on how the manifestations of knowledge and dramatic changes in communication--papyrus, printing, modern technologies--have historically reinforced existing ideas, while revolutionizing them. His understanding of learning reflects this view. As a teacher, he wants students to be comfortable with recognizable frames of reference as a basis for exploring the unfamiliar. This exploration is critical, for it is the destabilizing and the unsettling, seeing "the otherness of even the familiar" which provokes genuine learning.

Here is an approach to teaching which accords with our own. To engage our students, we believe, one must frame issues in ways that are familiar to them, at the same time destabilizing that familiarity by leading them into the unfamiliar. The most interesting questions we ask are the ones for which the students and we do not already have the answers.

Simple enough, but then along comes one of those minor studies, based on interviews with undergraduates at Grinnell College, whose findings, like the most recent medical study, should be treated cautiously, yet are too disturbing to ignore. Carol Trosset, director of institutional research at Grinnell, discovered that students primarily viewed discussion as the occasion to convince others of their views. They did not want to discuss difficult issues, particularly ones where they had not formed an opinion. They strove for consensus, tended to believe that the only legitimate knowledge was personal experience, and did not want their views challenged.

Trosset's data are troubling especially since this view of discussion as primarily a means to convince others may be widely shared. Our own teaching begins with helping students integrate varied strands of information and with aiding students to find their own voices. Class conversations often build toward consensus rather than disagreement. Our pedagogical strategy thus almost always starts with the familiar, engaging students in discussions within frames of reference with which they are comfortable. Our coaching, prodding, questioning, and challenging assumes that we can move them from the familiar to the unfamiliar, helping students to encounter the alien, what they did not know, in ways that will revise what they do know. But if our students have a very different understanding of the purposes of classroom discussion, if they believe that the conversations are simply to reinforce their opinions and win others over to their views, then perhaps we have been talking past each other.

What to do about this is an intriguing puzzle. Given that our students regularly nominate us for outstanding teaching awards, the easy answer may be, do nothing at all. Why try to fix something that is not broken? Our students' views have cultural roots; the ethos of our times is that no evidence is weightier than strongly held opinions and personal experience. Leaving the puzzle alone, however, is unappealing, for it cheats our students and ourselves in deeply unethical ways. Moving into the unknown is at the heart of what we do as scholars and it is central to our values as teachers.

To make the alien familiar requires meeting two preconditions. The first is creating a classroom climate of trust and safety. Students should feel secure enough to take risks and to go over the edge into the unknown. In our own teaching we try to model the uncertainty of creating new knowledge and to aid students in going down uncertain paths. The key is helping them understand that they do not have to get it right, that on unfamiliar paths they will make wrong turns and run into cul-de-sacs which force them to cycle back to where they started.

Repeatedly going down unfamiliar paths, however, requires a second precondition, an emotional investment in learning. Passion is perhaps the least understood and least appreciated aspect of learning, but without it, our students will not risk the uncertain journey. By simultaneously caring about the subject matter and about the ways students learn, we reveal the emotional commitments that drive us as teachers and scholars. Only in this way can we stimulate a deep desire in our students to come with us. Our task as teachers, then, is to make the pedagogical moment safe enough and passionate enough so our students will accept the uncertainty of the unfamiliar.

This is the second essay in the 1998-99 Talk About Teaching series, now in its fifth year as a joint project of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

Dr. Wagener is Adjunct Associate Professor of Higher Education and a consultant on higher education. Dr. Lazerson is Carruth Family Professor in the Graduate School of Education where he served as dean from 1987 to 1994. He was also Interim Provost of the University in 1993-94.

Almanac, Vol. 45, No. 12, November 17, 1998