Engagement: Part III. Cognition & Competencies

It seems like only yesterday that my preschool chums and I would romp on the playground, clasping hands and chanting nonsense rhymes in unison:

Mental disciplinarians,
Lamarckian spontan-generians,
Transfers! Transfers!
All fall down!

Only, not wanting to dirty our knees (as we were all of us–boys and girls–wearing short pants), not one of us fell down.

One day before physical hygiene training, as we were standing in line for our saltpeter supplements, the headmistress asked us about the rhyme she’d been hearing us chant every day. Had we learned it at home? What was the rhyme’s provenance? We thought she was having a laugh, but when she grew more insistent in her questioning, it became clear that (a) we had been saying something naughty, or (b) she really hadn’t heard that rhyme before.

A girl braver than I (as most girls are) told the headmistress the truth–namely, that no one had taught us the rhyme. It has just appeared in our heads, seemingly at the same moment.

The headmistress clearly had her doubts. She later demonstrated, using two cuts of beefsteak (one protected from any access by flies, the other open to access by flies), that things cannot simply be what she called “spontaneously generated.” The subsequent growth of maggots on the open-air cut of beefsteak and lack of maggots on the protected cut of beefsteak seemed to illustrate her point: The maggots were the result of eggs laid by flies; the lack of maggots was the result of the inability of flies to land on the protected beefsteak and lay eggs. This made sense with maggots and beefsteak.

But as one of my classmates (another brave girl) pointed out, what might appear to follow natural laws in the natural world could easily be disrupted in the social goings-on of human interactions, supposedly to include human learning. In fact, the girl asserted, her own Papa was tutoring her brother in Greek and Latin, in the hopes of turning the young man into a mathematical genius.

The headmistress was flummoxed, and it showed; her complexion began to match her titian hair as she explained to us that building intellectual capacity in one domain would not necessarily result in a transfer of intellectual capacity in another domain. She told us that the heresy being committed in the girl’s home was common among those called “mental disciplinarians.” We all laughed and laughed, hearing our headmistress use such a ridiculous term–one that we, in fact, had gathered and formed from the ether, as children sometimes do.

Now, of course, I know better. Although children are by no means “blank slates,” the names of historical personages and the chronology of specific events are not inherited; nor are they otherwise innate. Some things must be learned by experience or science rather than by instinct.

In knowing better, I have now the task of revisiting my learning objective for the survey course in US history I’ve been thinking about. If I want students to be able to recognize patterns, when those patterns are applicable to new circumstances, when those patterns are not applicable to new circumstances, and why, then simply having them write, confer, and revise their own history of the US (our Genealogy of the American Present) won’t necessarily equip students to meet my learning objective. It will be necessary for me to model the objective for students and have them practice at it before I can assess (a) my success in teaching it, and (b) their success in learning it.

With this in mind, an example would help. Since our hypothetical course is US History I, we can model and have students practice the objective with examples drawn entirely from the period before 1877. Then, when assessing, I could choose to use either another example from the same period or have students apply their new skill with novel information in a novel context–perhaps having them consider scenarios and make determinations about something that occurred after 1877, or even in a different geographical space. The key is to facilitate the development in students of skills or competencies or functionings or capabilities (depending on your favored paradigm) that the student will be able to apply in circumstances that were not explicitly taught. This is the essence of understanding, and it is my aim in all that I am asking the students to do in this imaginary course.

What might this look like?

To begin, I want to formulate a dilemma that doesn’t necessarily have just a right answer, but perhaps several possible right answers. It is primarily the thinking I want to assess; points may or may not be given in regard to following the steps of a taught strategy, and since the assessment is open-book, content knowledge will not account for many points vis-a-vis the reasoning evident in the response.

A possible example might be compromises. Some students will be addressing “Compromise” as a theme in early US history, and others will be addressing specific examples of compromises. We can model the evaluation of the circumstances in which several of these compromises were made, examine the compromise process (including debates, deliberations, deals, and so forth), and judge whether the compromise was a successful negotiation of interests, was as close to consensus as could be imagined, or simply “satisficed” for a time before all hell broke loose. Having devoted ample class time to this modeling and practice, we can then assess by providing whatever information students might need in order to recognize patterns, when those patterns are applicable to new circumstances, when those patterns are not applicable to new circumstances, and why. Having discussed compromises in class, it would be fair for us to provide background information about the Munich Conference (associated with “appeasement”), Truman’s “losing China” (also associated with “appeasement”), and a later circumstance, such as Castro’s takeover of Cuba. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, many in the US opined that allowing the presence of a Communist dictator in Cuba and maintaining diplomatic relations with Cuba amounted to “appeasement.” We would be asking our students to consider a body of evidence (provided by us) in determining whether the pattern justifies the use of this particular analogy (along with all its historical baggage) in the case of dealing with Castro’s Cuba.

We can expect highly partisan responses, and that’s not a problem as long as the thinking is there and the “facts” provided are used as evidence in support of the argument. We can expect some confusion, but the confused thoughts–as captured in the student’s response–should provide enough evidence for us to determine what the cause of the confusion is (which is, in itself, a victory of sorts). We can expect some responses that are clearly written with the purpose of “appeasing” the grader in mind, but that will be the case in any assessment where subjectivity is allowed.

Again, the idea is to provide the student with something that the student can use for future purposes in learning and in life in general (if one feels there’s a distinction). But prior to any such transfer, we must ensure that we have successfully provided the student what we hope to see transferred; because, unfortunately, we can’t count on it magically popping up in the students’ heads spontaneously, through osmosis, or through intense study of history-as-narrative. We have to teach it.

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