Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Language and the sense of self

In the book Choice Words, Peter Johnson describes how the words we use can lead our students down very different paths. In an early example, he lists three likely responses a teacher might give to a conflict in the classroom:
Each of these responses says something different about “what we are doing here,” “who we are,” “how we relate to one another in this kind of activity,” and how to relate to the object of study (p.6).
Each response might quiet the situation, but saying “get back to work or you’ll stay after” makes implicit that students are laboring at their task and work slavishly under threats from authoritarian control, while saying “Whoa. This is not like you. What’s up? What do we need to do here?” implies that students and teachers are collaborating, momentarily distracted from their progress by an aberration from otherwise respectful and admirable people.

Language is tricky

Johnson emphasizes that language “is not merely representational; it is also constitutive. It actually creates realities and invites identities”. How does this abstract thought apply in the classroom? I don't want to create the sense of simplicity and certainty where there is neither. I don't want to invite the student to be a technician who applies formulas without understanding. I want to invite them to be one who invents and judges tools of analysis.

Looking at even a simple physical experience and representing it according to physics is a complex activity, full of subtly, false starts, and roadblocks. Real scientists do this in collaboration with one another. They create simple representations of the world and try to use them. I think that inviting students into this collaboration and respecting their struggles and advances is the proper way to teach that.

It would be very easy to fall back to a standard pedagogic tack: “which equation do we need to use here?” This language positions the student as a technician at best, someone who knows without understanding, or does without inventing. However, saying “what model fits best here?” “Do you think it should be linear right now?” “What does your data say?” “How much do you trust that?” reinforces the collaborative and mentoring nature of being a teacher and positions the student as one who creates order out of a messy situation and judges its utility based on their understanding of the way science works.

What do we want out of the classroom?

If we wish to develop students and eventually citizens who understand how science builds trustable knowledge, I believe we need to rethink both the exercises we give them, the pedagogy, and the language that we use every day in class. Giving parsing and modeling exercises, explicitly teaching the separation of formal and formalization skills, and inviting students in as collaborators in messy problem solving, I believe, are good starts down this road.

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