Curiosity and Being Engaged

According to Connie Yowell, Director of Education at The Macarthur Foundation, “Part of what’s wrong with the educational system and why people talk about it as broken is because it’s fundamentally starting with the wrong questions.” In this short film by Nic Askew, Yowell argues that we need to shift our question in education away from “what are the outcomes?” and toward “is the kid engaged?”

ENGAGED from DML Research Hub on Vimeo.

This video is part of a series of videos by Nic Askew on “The Essence of Connected Learning.” Yowell argues that if we focus on the question, “is the kid engaged?” we are compelled to pay attention to that kid as a person, not just a student/test-taker. Then we can develop strategies for reaching the kid and getting them excited about being curious, learning, and developing a strong “need to know.”

Here’s one of my favorite points:

In the traditional school system, where we’re driving home facts and discrete knowledge, we don’t make room for curiosity. We don’t create enough opportunities for kids to take things apart anymore. To look inside. To see how they’re made. To put them back together again. We used to do it with our old chemistry sets. We used to just play and see what would happen and wonder about it. That engages the imagination and can trigger the imagination. As we get more and more serious about test scores and our kids future, we move further and further away from those little opportunities to constantly fail and to iterate. And we forget that those are also opportunities to iterate with one’s identity. And to play around and to mess around. And it’s so important to do that when you’re at the middle school age and your early in adolescence—even when you’re an adult. We’ve gotta have these opportunities to be curious about who we are in the world and about how the world works and to fail and not be embarrassed by it. And to come back to those failures and do things over and over again.

I love the idea of focusing on failure and being curious and linking both of these to imagination and understanding about the world. But, how do we make room for these? What would a classroom (or a workplace) that embraced (valued, encouraged, celebrated) failure look like? Is that something that the teacher should model?

I think that feminist and critical pedagogies, with their focus on engaged students who actively participate instead of passively receive (Freire) and who embrace their discomfort and unknowingness (Megan Boler) would add a lot to this conversation. Also, bell hooks and her emphasis on bringing the whole person (mind, body, spirit) into the classroom would be helpful. At one point in the video, Yowell argues that we can’t force students to learn facts; we need to find ways to inspire and incite their “need to know.” Using her son as an example, she describes how he doesn’t care about fractions at all in school. But, if he’s in the middle of a game, and he needs to know how to solve a fraction in order to move onto the next level, he demands that someone teach him. I really like this idea. Building off of Yowell’s conversation, I think it’s important to pay attention to what, beyond an outcome-based, test-driven model, prevents kids from being curious and “needing to know.” What other factors contribute to an unwillingness or resistance to knowing? Here I’m thinking of lots of different things—everything from lacking energy/desire to know because you’re hungry or too tired, to being wary of what knowing might do to us (see Luhmann for more on what knowledge does to us.) To me, these questions come out of a need to pay attention to power and privilege.

In posing these questions, I was curious about whether or not other videos in the series addressed these issues of dealing with barriers to developing a “need to know” in terms of power and privilege (which is what feminist pedagogy devotes a lot of energy to). While the other videos are great—I especially like Creative—and they make oblique references to opening up education to “everyone” and moving beyond the top 10%, discussions of sexism, classism, racism, or heterosexism don’t seem to be explicitly referenced. Why not? Is this lack of reference to feminist and critical pedagogies indicative of larger conversations at DMLCentral: Digital Media and Learning? I’ll have to look through more of their videos and check out their site to see…

what does it mean to engage, part two: even more questions

In part one of this series, I provided one framework for engaging with an author/idea/reading: appreciation, critique and construction. I have found this framework to be very useful for students, particularly because it is concrete and logical and because it requires that students spend time really thinking through what the author is attempting to argue before moving on to critique it (this is what grad students love to do first) and/or discuss why it is/isn’t relevant to their lives (this is what undergrad students love to do first). But, even as I find this framework to be useful, I can’t help but wonder, particularly from the perspective of someone who draws upon queer and feminist pedagogy, about the aspects of engagement that it might be leaving out. The three part framework of appreciating, critiquing and constructing seems too rational; it is based on the goal of knowing an idea/author’s argument and being able to effectively describe, critique and apply it. But, what if knowing isn’t the primary goal? Or if it is only one part of what I am trying to get my students to do when they engage? Or if it can sometimes come at the expense of other, important aspects of engaging (and developing a connection) with ideas?

In posing these questions, I am thinking about the frequent need to emphasize feeling/experiencing over knowing and unlearning (as in, breaking down bad habits, busting binaries, challenging assumptions, reworking master narratives) over learning. And I am thinking about the various passages from feminist and queer pedagogues that I posted in a recent entry. What sort of framework is needed for getting students to feel the effects of ideas (Kumashiro) or to experience the force of the questions posed by/in a reading (Freire) or to process how they are implicated in a theory (Luhmann) or even to commit to bringing their full (personal, intellectual, spiritual, embodied) selves into spaces of engagement (hooks in Teaching to Transgress)? What sort of strategies are necessary for encouraging students to unlearn their assumptions (about ideas, about how to read, and about even how to be/act in spaces of engagement)?

In many ways, these questions have inspired how I am shaping a class that I’m teaching this fall (and that I have taught four times already). In my next post, I want to talk more about how I’m emphasizing troubling/troublemaking–partly in the form of feminist curiosity–in my readings and assignments. For now, check out the course blog (still in progress) for it: feminist debates: fall 2011. I love my design for it, especially the header. It visually reflects how I’m trying to integrate our blog and twitter (via the course hashtag, #femd2011).

What does it mean to engage? part one

Quite frequently I require my students to “engage” with readings, authors, and concepts from class. I prefer this term over other options, like critically assess, analyze, critique, or even describe. But, what does it mean to engage? Last semester in my big class, one of the TAs had to devote about 30 minutes of her 50 minute discussion section to explaining the term “engage.” At first, when she told me that the students had required that she spend so much time discussing how to engage I was incredulous. Really? I wondered. How can students come to college and not know what engage means? However now, as I think through some of the readings that I’m using for my feminist pedagogy article, I’m reassessing my reaction. Maybe understanding what it means to engage is not as easy (or obvious) as I thought. Maybe I need to spend some time unpacking the term (ugh….I don’t really like using the term “unpack,” but it seems to fit here)? Maybe I also need to think through why students wouldn’t necessarily understand what it means to engage. Or what resistances they might have to engaging in the first place. In (hopefully) a series of posts, “What does it mean to engage?”, I want to spend some time and space engaging with the term “engage.”

So, again, what does it mean to engage? Maybe a good place to start is the dictionary; I’ll use the one on my computer dashboard. While not all of these fit, I do find that several of the definitions can help to clarify what I mean when I ask students to engage. To engage with an author or an idea or a conversation or a reading is to do more than just read or attempt to comprehend what someone believes or what they assert in an essay. To engage is to participate/become involved (def. 2.1) with those ideas, to establish meaningful connections with them (def 2.2) in ways that require thinking about not only what they mean but what they do and what they do to us. In other words, when I ask students to “engage with an essay,” I want them to do more than read the essay, I want them to really try to understand what the author is claiming and then think about how that claim affects how they see/experience/feel the world. To engage is also to critique a reading/idea/author, not by dismissing it immediately as wrong, but by working through it, exploring its limits and possibilities and by debating it (def 2.6). Perhaps the biggest key to engaging is to be an active, involved, serious participant in the process of learning/thinking/feeling about an idea/author/reading.

When I was in grad school, one of my professors provided me with a helpful framework for engaging with an author/text. I use this framework to think through my own writing and as I develop assignments for my classes. Here’s an example of how I used it in a class last fall. It involves three key elements: appreciation, critique and construction:

APPRECIATION involves figuring out what the author is saying and demonstrating a clear understanding of their argument and how they develop and defend it. Appreciation does not require that you agree with the reading. Instead, it requires that you clearly state the author’s argument. What is their main argument? What is the purpose of that argument? How do they defend it? This element of engagement is crucial; you can’t have a critical conversation about (or with) an author until you spend some time really thinking about what they are claiming.

CRITIQUE involves assessing what the author is saying. Critique should not involve a total rejection of dismissal of the reading. Instead, it could involve raising some critical or questions and/or exploring the benefits or limitations of the argument. An important thing to note here: critique does not mean trash (or reject or dismiss). Critique involves entering into a critical conversation or debate with the argument; it’s hard, if not impossible, to do that if you enter the conversation with the intractable position, “this author is absolutely wrong!”

CONSTRUCTION involves applying the concepts from the reading to your own thoughts, areas of interest and research or experiences. It could also involve applying the reading to the topics/discussions of our class. This element is especially important for engaging. Construction is about doing something with the author’s argument: applying it, translating it, re-working it to function in unexpected ways, taking it in new directions. 

But, this isn’t all that engagement is, especially engagement from a queering feminist perspective. To engage with ideas is to resist them: to refuse to merely accept them as the truth, to push back and talk back at them, to trouble and disrupt them. It is also to be generous with them: to be open to taking them seriously and to allowing them to disrupt your worldview. I have a lot more to write on engagement, especially in relation to both my own troublemaking pedagogy and bell hooks’ notion of engaged pedagogy. But that will have to wait for part two of this series.