Know Don’t Know

Someone is bound to criticise this post for proceeding from an assumption of time as a spatial trajectory, e.g. “you are here,” which comprises a second-person present tense conjugation (“are”) and an adverb (“here”) that measures its principal description from a “present location.

As mentioned in the post below, the KDK model was a handy tool for high school English – something to smirk at, to quote this blog’s front page – and not some philosophical masterstroke or an imposition of supreme will. Even if it were, it wouldn’t matter – the truth is, for all the hits this blog gets, Google Analytics probably just tallies them on coffee break. At least, that’s what I would do, full disclosure.

For the record, I do consider an alternative perspective of time here and here.

One more go at critiquing the bid to “eliminate your bias.”

… got the T-shirt to prove it

First, though, because context is everything, a brief lowdown on the KDK Matrix and its forerunner, the ‘Johari Window’…

I. The Original Johari Window

Like mine, maybe your first introduction to this simple yet dynamic 2×2 matrix was back in its heyday: the late-90s conference heuristic, offered by some clever presenter to facilitate self- and group-awareness.

The Johari Window is named for the two psychologists, Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham, who devised it in 1955. Luft and Ingham’s original objective was “to examine our behaviour in relation to others” (p. 10) as it derived from a presumed “commitment to a philosophy of interpersonal consultation” (p. 20). Their work built in part upon that of social psychologist, Kurt Lewin, whose preceding development of field theory detailed the study of individual behaviour in social contexts.

The Johari Window
Image Credit w:User:Simon Shek –, Public Domain,

Of course, people have since derived other versions… a Nohari Window, to compare specifically negative traits, and a more abstract study of (principally parenting) relationships that falls under the banner of Meta-Emotion.

And I adapted the Johari Window, too, by revising and rearranging its four defining conditions for a heuristic to suit the coursework I taught in my classroom: the Know-Don’t Know Matrix.

II. The Know-Don’t Know Matrix

First of all… no, it’s not real life. It’s a diagram. So, no, it doesn’t exactly reflect the living and learning it attempts to describe – no analogy could, not exactly. Then, lucky for us, analogies are as instructive for what they can’t offer as what they can: of this one, as any, make what you will.

The descriptions below are hardly exhaustive, much less definitive. They’re simply the way students and I came to understand our adaptation while applying it together during coursework. But I have made one substantive update here to our earlier model, maybe because I’m a wee bit older now, myself: I’ve added reverse-arrows that point back from education, experience, and the present moment (“you are here”) to represent reflection, memory, and the concept at issue, bias.

The quadrants are numbered as we read… across from left to right, then down:

– QI: KK (Things that We Know We Know)
– QII: KDK (Things that We Know We Don’t Know)
– QIII: DKK (Things that We Don’t Know We Know)
– QIV: DKDK (Things that We Don’t Know We Don’t Know)

Each description details that quadrant unto itself and only mentions the other three as necessary, so for a concerted understanding of the entire model, you’re better off reading all four and gradually piecing them together. I recall one student loosely imagining the dynamic movement of the 2D arrows as “living” and the whole model of lines and words as “life” – and really, what better example do you need of making what you will from an instructive analogy.

As with us back in the classroom, the aim here is to get people thinking. So if something stands out as particularly egregious or in need of considered revision, please let me know.

Quadrant I: Things that We Know We Know

Without getting philosophical, we might label QI as Awareness or Knowledge. Whatever we call it, let’s consider QI as representing everyday life and living, where we spend our waking hours.

As we travel life’s tangents, we might think of ourselves as encroaching ever further into Quadrants II and III, and thereby Quadrant IV. How intentionally we pursue education into QII or endure the arrival of QIII’s experience will vary. In fact, though, our general cultural ambition is, and has been, to encroach as much as possible before we die. Another way to put it is that we’re trying to make QI as large as possible throughout our lives.

Meanwhile, in proceeding from birth (“you are born”) to this present moment (“you are here”), throughout that totality of life lived so far, each of us can claim that we have come from somewhere in the past and, further, that we stand somewhere – someplace – at the present moment. Any ‘present moment’ we might call our setting, and whether that’s the English class version of setting as time and place or the Cuisinart version of setting as Lo-Med-Hi, either way, let’s consider it our bias, attributable to our past. Sometimes, this look back from the present moment is called an education or experience, but in keeping with an intended dynamism, I’m describing education and experience as our looking ahead, countered by the looking back of reflection and memory.

What propels us down each tangent differs: education – or so-called ‘book smarts’ – is an intentional effort that takes place over the passage of time, usually (though not entirely) as some kind of formal schooling. These days, the broader objective of education is sometimes utilitarian or, more popular recently, pragmatic. Whatever the basis, though, the aim of education is commonly (though not exclusively) some kind of applicable objective, such as in answer to the question, “What do you do?”

As for experience – so-called ‘street smarts’ – of course, we all make plans most days, things to do. But with the passing of time, experience just seems to arrive on the doorstep, sometimes regardless of intention or even in spite of our best efforts! Conspiring with that cheerful reality are the joys of ageing, and in this more passive way, maybe experience is better understood from a teleological perspective, as having not objectives but outcomes, which are not necessarily intentional. You can grasp this ambiguity from our cultural bumper stickers, like the optimistic “Wheel of Fortune,” the weary “Been There, Done That,” and the fatalist “It Is What It Is.”

We’re often encouraged, living day-to-day, to be content in the present, to live in the moment. For me, as long as we balance some grasp on looking back with a desire for looking ahead, this seems like pretty sound advice.

Quadrant II: Things that We Know We Don’t Know

We might label QII as Curiosity or Room to Grow or even Motivation. Anyway, let’s consider it representing the objectives we have while seeking to learn something as yet unlearned.

Labelling QII as Unawareness or Ignorance might seem straightforward. But these words are misleading for being passive, for suggesting that what’s unknown is off the radar screen, and this is not what QII represents. QII represents things that we’re well aware we know nothing about – I know nothing about rocket science or, for that matter, brain surgery. As such, QII advancement is the result of intention and effort, and QII outcomes are the consequence of education, whether formal schooling or something more casual. In fact, Unawareness or Ignorance might better suit QIII although neither QII nor QIII is a true opposite to QI.

One inescapable demand of QII is the passage of time. On the model, this is suggested by the dashed arrow that points back from “education” to indicate the ad nauseam reflection that students are asked to do, whether they want to or not. One obviously cannot reflect until the focus is in the past.

Quadrant III: Things that We Don’t Know We Know

A suitable label for QIII might be Latency or Potential, representing an open-minded attitude that’s willing to discover things. QIII can incite potent ambition, like that sixth sense when something just clicks and ideas just start to flow.

Yet not everyone’s so predisposed, particularly if we’ve been dragged into something kicking and screaming – meanwhile, what are things that we don’t know we know if not Unawareness or Ignorance, or maybe Indifference. However, besides these QIII can incite discomfort and anxiety. I suppose this is only natural since we’re not always so able or willing to face what we encounter, and fair enough that QIII can be as much a rude awakening as a pleasant surprise. If crystal balls ever went on sale, probably everybody would get one.

The bottom line for QIII, I suppose, is simply to grow from having logged an experience at all as compared to realising some worthwhile take-away. What this means for QIII, as with QII, is an acknowledgement of the passing of time. This is represented on the model by the dashed arrow, pointing back from “memory,” which doubles as the arrival of the rest of the world into our life, whether we wanted it there or not.

Quadrant IV: Things that We Don’t Know We Don’t Know

The best label for QIV is probably Oblivious, and let’s consider it representing, well, everything. Someone’s bound to raise objection: “… but how could we even know?” – right, well, need I say more? Let’s grant more positive recognition of QIV to those humble Socratics who willingly offer their admission that “the more I learn, the less I know.”

On the model, all the arrows and lines are drawn to separate what is known and finite in QI from the infinite void that comprises QIV. As someone might shine a light towards the darkness – or even right into it – even so, QIV (which actually includes QII and QIII) is not a place we can dwell until we get there, at which time we’re probably better off saying we’ve enlarged QI.

Toeing this edge of things that we don’t know we don’t know fuels the curiosity of QII and impels the anxiety of QIII. Yet as we only live next to QIV, here in QI, we risk drifting or dwelling beyond that liminal space before ever getting there. Elsewhere, I’ve called this the Fantasyland of Should, and I’ve found it’s a popular place among young people, probably because the forward-arrow is so long. But dwelling in QIV doesn’t have to be so judgmental; it can also be the Dreamland of Wish, where it makes no difference who you are.

Whatever to call it, though… beyond leaving us feeling motivated or potent, wistful or uneasy, QIV may simply leave us feeling flat-out disordered and lost, displacing anything we’d otherwise experience in that precise moment, the longer we stay there. In the same way, looking back instead of forward, QIV can entice us away from reflecting upon learning or recalling experiences so much that we end up dwelling in the past, which again distracts us from the present moment, the longer we linger there.

In fairness to many generations across many cultures… as distinct from fantasies and dreams, QIV is the Spirit-filled Land of Faith, perhaps even more certain as a setting than here-and-now QI. But whatever QIV means to anyone, one indisputable fact remains – without getting philosophical – about where we exist at the confluence of time-and-place, of self + education + experience. That spot on the model labelled ‘you are here’, where all four quadrants connect: that is this very moment, right now, every time and place it happens.

III. So What?all that We Know

With the model’s components now at least a little clearer, let’s consider why any of this matters, such as how it might be of any use. Recall my aim is to critique the ill-conceived nonsense about “eliminating your bias.”

To keep things simple, I focus principally on QI and QIV, the latter of which subsumes QII and QIII.

As we live, we travel a tangent between life experience and formal education, such that we’re forever encroaching further and deeper into boundless QIV, Things that We Don’t Know We Don’t Know (DKDK). Because DKDK is infinite, the further we go, the more that infinity affirms itself to us – the aforementioned Socratic paradox: ‘The more I learn, the more I don’t know’. As noted, this can be an intimidating confrontation. Or it can be a confidence booster because, yes, we can definitely expand our own knowledge when there’s an unlimited amount of knowledge to tap. By the way, unless you agree with the previous sentence, the question I’m about to pose will make no sense, so here they are together:

We can definitely expand our own knowledge when there’s an unlimited amount of knowledge to tap, yet what expanse of knowledge even makes sense to conceive, much less aspire toward, if our finite capacity is measured against an infinite one?

At first, this may seem like no distinction, but bear with it. For starters, here I am calling our capacities finite, at least by connotation if not precisely by definition. I think we’re better off to presume our capacities finite than to assume with imprudence their limitlessness – it’s too late not to spill milk when the glass is overflowing.

So this frames the problem I have with the perspective that claims, ‘Our bias is our limitation’. From this perspective, we have infinite capacity if – somehow – we just overcome our limits, eliminate our bias. But for the ambitious sojourner, who traverses ever further, ever deeper along DKDK’s infinite tangent, where the only promise ahead is to imagine and make things up in that oblivion of darkness… how frequently their gaze must be looking backward upon itself as the reference point for anything tangible, back upon their pesky limiting bias, from which their travel is meant to detach. I just can’t help feeling this backs-turned approach risks going wayward for being misguided, if not also asking for trouble.

Along the way, sure, constant reminders keep our sojourner aware of what’s ‘behind’ them, i.e. of what’s literally ahead of them along the tangent into DKDK – if only they’d turn from their bias to see forward a little more, and see… what? apart from the void of the vast unknown. With this perspective, ‘Our bias is our limitation’, our sojourner aspires not to move their boundary stones but to eliminate them and, so doing, to satiate some never-to-be-filled-to-the-brim ‘potential’? of theirs – like I said, capacity no longer seems the right word, but surely no one believes themselves to be infinite. Only hubris could back this up. How about we give an ‘A’ for effort… but even then, I’m pretty sure an ‘A’ for effort was nothing Daedalus ever considered while watching Icarus drown.

Someone says, “This perspective is admirable for encouraging learning and growth and improvement!” And limitless potential says, “You can be anything you want to be!” and so forth blah blah etc, and then, just to underscore your inadequacy, self-righteousness says, “Don’t tell me you’re honestly into stomping children’s dreams – don’t be that guy.”

Yet looking backward for tangibility, even if this can be anything more than a self-regarding perspective, even so looking back always at least sustains a self-regarding perspective: how am I doing? what’s my bias now? where am I this moment? Granted, looking back can and will also look ahead, but not with the certainty that accompanies looking back. In that imbalance, favouring what’s behind in spite of aspiring to progress that leaves it all behind, in that contradiction I see avoidable and therefore foolish error.

Indeed, how could someone decide to eliminate or overcome their own bias, especially as it grows with ‘limitless potential’, unless by some continual effort at the very same time to be assessing it… in order to eliminate it? …every time they add to it. There’s freedom in this? Indeed, there is no negative freedom, i.e. ‘freedom from’ bias. There’s only more bias. It literally seems futile, and kind of stupid, to be undoing all the work at the same time you’re doing it. At that ’90s conference, the presenter might have said we’re landing the plane while flying it.

There is no negative ‘freedom from’ bias. There’s only more bias, and it seems kind of stupid to be undoing all the work at the same time you’re doing it.

I prefer another perspective, ‘Our limitation is our bias’, which is more than just witless gainsaying. From this perspective, our sojourner directs their gaze not back the way they came but forward along the same tangent they travel. While looking forward, up, down, to the left, to the right, and sure, sometimes backwards too… as they do all this, they’re aware (QI KK) of their widening capabilities, understood inversely as reduced personal limitations. Maybe let’s call this growth. And maybe you’re now spotting a nuanced aspect of relativity at play here.

With the passing of time, traversing ever further, ever deeper into DKDK, our sojourner’s capabilities do grow. Why I prefer the second perspective is the nuance that neither ‘growth’ nor its corollary, ‘shrinking’, have any meaning when their measure is infinite. What makes the second perspective worthy is not that it encourages learning and growth and improvement for their own sake, i.e. let’s become a bigger, better, somehow less-biased self: this ambition describes the first perspective, ‘Our bias is our limitation’. No, why I prefer the second perspective, ‘Our limitation is our bias’, is because it encourages a willingness to learn and grow and improve for the sake of all that can be learned, i.e. let’s go explore something bigger than and other than ‘self’. For looking forward, not backward, outward, not inward, the second perspective has a motive of curiosity: inquisitive, a little adventurous, a little sceptical – like Socratic humility, open to whatever comes along.

Such an attitude has neither to eliminate nor preclude the bias it has developed since starting out. Along the journey, such an attitude might fairly take up a decision to grasp something encountered as entirely and valuably new. In fact, such an attitude might even hang onto its original bias in order to understand and appreciate and measure anything new as real growth. And if this compares to the first perspective for bias being a tangible measure, it contrasts with the first perspective for bias being an intentional value. What the second perspective offers is a far more appealing alternative: a positive freedom, the ‘freedom to’ be and become ourselves. To let go, to get out from under shelter, to risk a little vulnerability, and in growing a little bigger than before, to still appreciate ‘self’ along the way. Not just self, but ‘self’, which is another nuance the first perspective can’t claim.

When our time and attention are spent looking back upon ourselves, we risk missing out on what we encounter. When we embrace our bias as our limitation, our time and attention are spent looking forward, and ‘self’ can be conceived and appreciated rather than aggrandized. When we embrace our bias, and actively include it on our tangents, we don’t merely allow ourselves a chance to broaden horizons, we enable ourselves to transect them.

Crossed Purposes

Featured Photo Credit: Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash

Click here to read Mixed Metaphors

If learning is a kind of renovation, does that make teaching hard hats, tool belts, and construction sites?

A teacher is a person in your neighbourhood although, no, this isn’t him.
Image Credit: PNGItem

No… for me, construction is definitely the wrong metaphor for teaching. That’s probably a good thing because renovations always end up being way more work than anyone planned, and anyway, I’ve got a whole roster of students to teach.

My own notion of teaching is about persuading people. And by persuasion, I mean presenting a sincere offer.

And what, you ask, makes a sincere offer?

No, not him either.

Humility, for starters, and simplicity… I found this meaningful, so I thought I’d share it because maybe you will too. Of course, the wellspring here is trust: the learner trusts the teacher, just like a teacher needs the learner’s trust if they’re to hold sincere attention. In education yet really in any circumstance, trust is the crux of relationships.

One way to imagine relationships is two-way traffic, which animates the familiar “two-way street.” The dynamics of transit – cars and pedestrians, movement and flow through intersections and traffic lights – it’s hardly a flawless metaphor for communication, but it gets the point across.

Photo Credit: Barcelona on Unsplash

And again, what flows beneath is trust. At a pedestrian-controlled stoplight, awaiting the signal, we eventually step off the curb, relying on drivers to halt their vehicles rather than driving through and running us down. Even naming these ‘pedestrian-controlled’ stoplights is an embellishment – a deferral, perhaps, to those really favoured in the equation. But surely a pedestrian who steps off the curb commits an act of faith by abrogating whatever control they had over their safety, first, to the signal’s proper functioning, second, to the driver’s respect for signals, and third, to the driver’s responsible operation of their vehicle. For that brief moment, a pedestrian entrusts their well-being to the driver’s motives and capabilities.

Great disciplinarian, or persuasive sophist? Surely no green light is just a friendly smile
Photo Credit: Eliobed Suarez on Unsplash

Revise that sentence a bit, and pedestrians might be students with their teacher in a classroom. And if the image is neither here nor there to learning-as-renovation and constructivism, it’s still all about trust because what’s really being put to the test by the student in that sentence are the motives and capabilities of the teacher in that classroom. Somewhere along the way, a teacher fosters in a student the inclination to like or dislike, heed or dismiss, trust or mistrust.

“… fosters the inclination” – I had to sit for a minute to come up with that one because I would have otherwise just said “persuade.” We can use the same word, but it can mean different things: the distinction I made about persuasion being a sincere offer… a teacher persuades, i.e. presents a sincere offer, each day, each class, each lesson. Then over time, as this happens again and again, that teacher persuades, i.e. fosters an inclination, in the student, which essentially becomes the essence of their ongoing relationship. Of course, two-way traffic is heading the other direction, too, as students foster inclinations in their teachers – there’s a post for another day because this one’s about teaching-as-persuasion.

In another classroom on another day, some teacher may have reason to teach less persuasively, not by sincere offer but by direct imperative, or whatever. Let this be since who’s so high-minded as to think they’ve figured things out for people in another classroom, and who’s so adamant as to levy their judgment upon the rest? Where’s your badge, traffic cop?

Giving the green-light, or the benediction?
Image Credit: wpclipart

And hey, I readily accede to ‘time and place’ – we all have our judgment. But as compared to telling and ordering and explaining and demanding, I’ve generally taken to communicating persuasively in my teaching because I’ve found, long-term, it helps to establish and maintain trust.

Alright then, communicating persuasively… what exactly is that? Well, for instance, I try to speak conscientiously, using a more precise vocabulary…

  • offer… instead of delivering a lesson, I offer a lesson
  • respond… as compared to answers, I offer and ask for responses
  • address… rather than solve a problem, I address an issue

Yeah, these seem kind of fluffy, but then again I usually keep all this to myself. A few more examples…

  • study rather than learn
  • meaningful as compared to effective
  • a quest instead of a journey
  • “I wonder” instead of “I think

If it all seems contrived and pretty pedantic – yes, well, it is definitely contrived. Over many years of life and teaching, I’ve begun to appreciate how the language we use not only reflects our thoughts but renovates them. If it follows from this that growth takes time and patience, then so must teaching take its time and be patient. Because sure, a word used once, today, will hardly make a difference beyond alienating yourself as a punctilious twit. But how about once today, this moment in time, every time? On the road to becoming who we are, how becoming is a prolonged conscientious use of language?

…process… [product] …process…
…time… [careful usage] …patience
becoming… who we are …becoming

Is it ever too late to start? That might better be stated, “It’s never too late to try” because it follows that “it’s never too late to change.”

– sorry, I know, this was about teaching-as-persuasion. Didn’t mean to get existential. Don’t get me wrong, I like learning and applying philosophy to my teaching. But when I’m busy in a classroom, with all those students renovating themselves, I’m in the driver’s seat, and my own tool belt is in the backseat, and I think reaching back for it is probably distracted driving… well, it’s hardly perfect trying to map out mixed metaphors with a word processor.

One last thing… I try to phrase things positively – so, for example, rather than “Don’t do this,” which is negative, I’d say, “Avoid doing this.” Again, it seems pedantic to a fault, but strictly solely for me, it amounts to discipline, practising and setting a frame-of-mind, and I don’t usually make a show of it.

Or actually, I have made a show of it, but in a context, ‘time and place’, because yes, I agree… it’s just so much tedious pedantry when asked of others. But it’s not like I’m out correcting people everywhere I go… no, that I reserved for students, on the basis of (a) trust and (b) See (a). I even warned them each September that I was setting out to brainwash them, but benevolently, and fairly, too, since here I was letting them know in advance. Plus, by encouraging them to agree or disagree, come what may, we’d both at least have something new to think about. Dare I say a few may actually have come to understand the point by June although, to what extent or meaning, I can only leave with them to decide.

The same goes for this here… I encourage each and every one to take it or leave it as you have and as you will. If teaching is about persuasion, then that’s about trust, and we’re probably right to understand education – that is, teaching plus learning – as a collaboration: as you do your part and not mine, the same goes for me, and then let’s see where that gets us.

Click here to read Common Ground

Mixed Metaphors

Featured Image Credit: “Humpty Dumpty from Through the Looking Glass, by John Tenniel, 1871” in the Public Domain:

Our collective world comprises interactive individuals, and upon this belief lies the basis for accepting constructivist accounts of knowledge and knowing. That our knowledge is “personally constructed, socially mediated, and inherently situated” (Clarke, 1998, p. 48) does not preclude an external reality – not for me, anyway!

My own ontological perspective seems more post-positivist: what we interpret doesnt preclude a reality that exists ‘when nobody is looking’.

Were prone to making what might better be called falsifiable statements than statements of “truth,” in such a way that our descriptions merely symbolise what we think weve interpreted. For me, bias is a fact and, as we account for it, not necessarily pejorative. We value and strive to keep an open mind precisely because we do not have an empty mind but, rather, a finite mind.

If you’re curious to learn more, Avenier and Thomas (2015) make a fascinating distinction between the epistemic assumption of pragmatic constructivism, in which inquirer and inquired are inseparably intertwined, and Guba and Lincoln’s (1989) more commonly known constructivist perspective.

For years now, I’ve wondered whether learning is a metaphorical renovation. It’s no perfect comparison – no metaphor could be – but I like renovation for suggesting that something original remains, upon which we build, and rebuild.

… plenty of work ahead, though isn’t that kind of the point?
Photo Credit: Stefan Lehner on Unsplash

As it happens, renovation suits a perspective on learning called constructivism, which regards learning as an active process by which a person integrates new experiences with what they already know. This distinction between known and new knowledge has been an avenue for critiquing constructivism’s overwhelming predominance, as has the general notion that active learners mean passive teachers, as has the nuance of what ‘active’ even means – thinking about stuff or doing stuff. Other nuances distinguish something learned from something experienced, or something internal – uniquely derived – from something external that is accepted – belatedly – as consensus.

All of this implicates haves and have-nots: access to knowledge and experience, to schools and teachers. And all of this raises more profound questions, such as whether someone’s constructed knowledge interprets a shared cultural understanding or sets their own personally valid reality. If you’d told me all of this a few years ago, my metaphor would have just said thanks and carried on none the wiser. And I suspect that’s still the case for some people, at least for those who don’t read past third paragraphs.

In case you weren’t aware… constructivism is often paired in opposition to what are called ‘traditional’ perspectives of learning – typically though not only K12 perspectives – evidently as a response to teaching deemed too instructive and knowledge deemed too intrinsic. Deemed by whom exactly? Well, given constructivism’s widespread observance nowadays, that question may have fallen away from any one’s assessment to everyone’s assent. Take me, for instance, the renovationist – surely I’m embracing the current outlook, right, even just out of convenience, if not expediency? Anyway, what self-respecting teacher even breathes traditional approaches anymore, like constructivism’s lowly precursor, cognitive development, or education’s arch-nemesis, behaviourism? Surely for teachers constructivism is simply unquestionable common sense.

For me anyway, not sure for you, this pairing of perspectives is presented in a way that suggests an oddly false dichotomy, as if the sole alternative to the progress and change of singular constructivism is the oblivious rote bundled up in ‘traditional’ approaches: either the one or the other(s). Some teachers I know might rather say the one now is the other, the student-centred model of constructivism being no less standardized than the didactic teacher-driven system it supplants. Facing this either-or stipulation, some teachers I know might also detect no small antipathy for the traditional bundle, as if every teaching moment throughout the limitless bygone era preceding ‘today’ could only have been nothing but defective. It’s a miracle we’re even here to tell the tale– er, I mean ‘narrative’. And if all these absolutes lay it on a bit thick, then I guess we agree that stark dichotomy makes for great fallacy.

OK, for good reason, I’m usually not too explicit, but just this once, let’s go:

Every person has a backstory that no one else can know completely, which means people’s lives are more complex than first glance suggests, which means an assumption made is an irresponsible leap to conclusions.

Every teacher has a unique perspective on learning because you’re not me just like I’m not you. And just like me, you apply your perspective in a classroom, at a school, with students you know better than I do.

If we’re able to grant each other a unique perspective and backstory, as any good constructivist ought to be doing, then how do we explain antipathy toward anything? The one appropriate response for a teacher would seem to be patient understanding.

Anyone in education today who’s been noticing fewer and fewer teachers learning to teach any differently, any one from another, may also have noticed that it’s all constructivism all the time, a clean sweep. Teachers today, like students of old, receive Freire-ian bank deposits to “Teach ‘this’ way – are you teaching ‘this’ way?” At the same time, these same teachers are told to “eliminate their bias,” at which point… I guess? may every unique perspective shine, as… creative? as they want to be, helping students become – wait for it – self-regulated critical thinkers. It’s irony on toast.

Back in the day, before my self-declared renovationism, teacher educators took strides to inculcate in me and my cohort a constructivist perspective on learning. It probably helped me that I teach humanities and social sciences rather than natural sciences or math although I’m pretty sure I have a post-positivist streak somewhere inside me. In any case, I’m also willing to accept [ your perspective here ] because whatever a student and teacher decide between them to suit their circumstances… just who am I to say? The most I’d offer is my two cents, and respect their place to decide responsibly for themselves.

Does hatching an idea mean thinking outside the box? Photo Credit: cottonbro on Pexels

… which, by the way, is why I avoid being explicit: I’m not out to ‘explain’ anything, plus honestly, the cryptic stuff can be fun.

As a teacher, I’ll offer, propose, opine, draw attention to particulars. Where appropriate, I’ll be a skill instructor, which is actually a principal focus across my subject areas. Skill practice can suit more direct teaching – demonstration, progression, feedback – yet even then I like questions that draw student awareness towards refining their own performance. Elsewhere, I’ve put it this way: help people make thinking a habit because we test and refine ideas by discussion and reflection, which are the purview of thinking. Thinking is the labour that helps set at least some part of an idea’s value, and good thinking is informed by knowledge, practised with discipline, and weighed by healthy scepticism. So my teaching tries to help students to learn two things: (i) that they can think, and (ii) that their own thinking is a step toward their own decision-making.

Good thinking is informed by knowledge, practised with discipline, and weighed by healthy scepticism.

… which is why, to me, the humanities and social science renovationist, all this makes ‘explain’ a four-letter word.

Explanation is deficit-based, elevating the one who knows and diminishing the one who needs. At its core, this is neither shared inquiry nor the inherent practice of thinking but an untenable decoupling of one from the other. When the aim is thinking, explanation engenders no humility on the part of either person but ego and dependency on the part of both, enabling the one’s listening to the other’s telling. All this underscores ‘student-centred constructivism’ by virtue of the trust and rapport to be found, or at least to be founded, at the core of a meaningful student-teacher relationship.

Like I said to open, well and good to label my renovation metaphor as constructivism, if it helps someone characterise my teacher’s perspective on learning. As for me, setting aside overt social philosophy and acknowledging real concern over power and authority, the one –ism I can readily associate with the kind of learning I try to stir up is egalitarianism (… still working on the metaphor). As learning necessarily means teaching, even if it’s the same person doing both, we ought to ask from the constructivist perspective on learning what we think about its associated teaching.

That thing I’ve been noticing the past how-many-years about fewer teachers learning to teach any differently, one to another… maybe it’s intentional, and constructivism was only meant for K12 learning. Maybe telling candidates ‘how to teach’ somehow better suits their learning how to teach, especially in a brief, intensely packed 11-month program. I’ve literally watched instructors tell candidates, “Not like ‘this’. Like ‘this’. Teach like ‘this’.” Still, for me, not sure for you, telling isn’t teaching, telling is telling. And teaching is teaching, and as each will have its place according to circumstance, if they meant the same thing, we’d use the same word. So if the candidate who will someday perform my surgery or land my flight needs to be told something, then somebody better damn well tell them.

To professing constructivists worldwide, but really, to anyone staking a claim: proudly wearing the t-shirt promotes the brand label. If constructivism was intended strictly for K12 learning, not candidate learning… that’s something to clarify, and soon. And not just one way or the other but both ways because, until then, one outcome of telling people how to teach will continue to be the negation of opportunity for them to learn on their own terms in their own time in their own contexts.

Metaphorically speaking, of course… what here is the learning, and what is the teaching? Photo Credit: Stefan Lehner on Unsplash

To be fair, I’ve also been noticing nearly as often how-many-candidates with similar expectation, to be taught how to teach. It’s a passive perspective on learning that – no surprise – is unable to speak for itself, except maybe a little frustration: “Why do you always answer our questions with a question? Why is the answer to everything ‘It depends’?” So here’s maybe another indication of people’s past experiences with teaching that takes somewhat less account of learning.

Wow, and all this from a renovationist… you won’t likely hear from anyone else that constructivism isn’t part of the landscape, a huge part – even “hegemonic,” although also “absurd” – and growing. In fact, that’s been something else to make me wonder… whether twenty years hence, enough time will have passed for an espoused perspective on learning to actually inform our teaching. By the time they’re old enough to be teacher candidates, today’s K12 students may have finally brought with them the changes we like to tell each other we’re making on their behalf.

Click here to read Crossed Purposes

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