I came to William James about 10 years after I came to a libertarian understanding of politics and the world. Thus, I know that the work of James did not lead me to libertarianism and doubt that libertarianism affected my subsequent appreciation of the works of William James. But since I’ve been a libertarian in political outlook for about the last 20 years, and I consistently fin William James to be one of the most edifying philosophers, I sometimes wonder if the two are congruent with each other.
On its face, it seems like there wouldn’t be. Libertarianism is a political ideology that puts human liberty at its core, and the type of libertarianism I subscribe to believes that political/social arrangements achieve liberty best when there is minimal government and the rest is left to voluntary arrangements (by markets or other means). William James was a philosopher/psychologist with a wide range of concerns, none overtly political; he spawned a (variation on) a pragmatic theory of truth, crafted a theory of experience called radical empiricism, and wrote on other topics. But never, from what I can tell, politics.
But there are at least two ways I can see the works of William James being congruent and fitting quite nicely with a libertarian worldview. First, as wide-ranging as James’s work was, his philosophic projects always placed individuality at its core. (more…)
There are a few philosophers whose work I find myself rereading every year or so. John Stuart Mill is on that list. Friedrich Hayek is on that list. But William James, the American pragmatist, is at the very top of that list. More than any other philosopher, I think that William James really got and conveyed the complexities of life and human experience. At the heart of his pragmatic thought is the idea that humans struggle with tasks like ascertaining truth and navigating the external world without the ability to access the outside world independently of our subjective experience of it. We can imagine what the world is objectively like, and we can find out new things about that world, but we can never quite get beyond subjective experience.
Because that is roughly James’s starting point, James also puts a lot of weight on the idea that when we see the world, we are doing more than seeing the data – we are interpreting the data almost while we see it. When I see my office, I don’t just experience sense data, but interpret that data such that I see it as my office (an interpretation) with my computer (an interpretation), the chair I sit in while using the computer (an interpretation), etc. Interpretation and subjective experience is a part of the way reality is presented to me; I can’t see the world “as it is” because subjective experience is always part of, well, my experience.
What does this have to do with anything? Last night, I was reading a beautiful essay by William James called The Sentiment of Rationality. Here, he explores the emotional side of philosophy. Yes, we may accept a philosophy more or less because we think it explains what it seeks to explain well, but there seems an unavoidably emotional side to why we gravitate toward one philosophy over others. (more…)
Last week, two faculty observers came into the class in which I am employing Socratic circles. They were there to observe the Socratic process in a more detached way than I can (as I am so close to it in my class.) For those who don’t know, Socratic circles is a method of pedagogy where I divide my class of 30 into two groups of 15 (randomly), One group is the ‘inner circle” and discusses the reading for 20 minutes. The other group is the “outer circle” and has the primary role of listening to the inner circle’s discussion and then critique it, by pointing out good and bad things about the discussion (was there excessive interruption, points that should have been elaborated on, etc).
One problem I’ve been noticing (and the observers picked up on) is that the outer circle gets a bit repetitious. In contrast to the inner circle, whose discussion can take many forms depending on what participants want to bring up, the outer circle’s role is more repetitive: each discussion, they listen to the inner circle and make comments and suggestions about the discussion. I have really good students, so much of the time, there is little to critique and as the class has been quite good at incorporating outer circle feedback, as the inner circle discussions improve, the outer circle has less to say.
Last class, I decided to open up to my students about my feelings that the outer circle is growing redundant. They greed, as I suspected they would. So, in the spirit of Socratic discussion, we spent a good 10+ minutes discussing what to do about it. I first asked them to describe their experience in the outer circle, and as I thought, they suggested that the outer circle’s role was becoming less engaging over time.
What to do? Some students suggested that the presence of a “hot seat” would be good, a seat where outer circle members who really want to “cut into” the inner circle’s discussion and respond with a pressing point can do so. Others vetoed the idea because the thought was that (a) that would be unfair to the inner circle by taking time away from their 20 minutes, and (b) that the risk would be that too many outer circle members would want to interject (which at least tells me that the outer circle is engaged enough to want to interject).
Coincidentally, during one inner circle discussion that day, a few students brought up factual claims that they did not substantiate, and that came into the discussion about what to do with the outer circle. One student suggested that maybe one role the outer circle members could play (as they have laptops and cell phones) is to be “fact checkers”: when factual claims come up in the inner circle, the outer-circle members can look those up while the inner circle keeps talking.
We decided that one thing the outer circle could then do after the inner circle’s discussion is not only to critique the discussion, but bring up findings regarding factual claims made during the inner circle’s discussion. I didn’t say so at the time, but this imparts the message to members of both circles regarding the importance of researching and following up on factual claims.
Another student – thinking aloud to me after the class – brought up the vetoed idea of the hot seat. He suggested that when an outer circle member finds some factual info relevant to the inner circle’s discussion, maybe they could do that with the hot seat. So, if a student knows of a factual body of information that is relevant, or gets a particularly interesting finding in attempts to research claims by members of the inner circle, they could use the hot seat to bring that in for the good of the inner-circle’s discussion.
But how to limit the use of the hot seat so that interjections are concise and few. This student and I came up with a few things. First, we might limit the hot seat to 30 seconds. That would ensure that any interjection is concise. Second, we can be clear to mandate that the hot seat is for clarification and description, not opinion. If you have a factual point to bring in, great, but no opinion. That is for the inner circle. Lastly, students have to walk up to the hot seat and deliberately sit down in it. It sounds like a small point, but previously, we had discussed whether someone could raise their hand to be let into the hot seat. I believe – and the class agreed – that having to deliberately walk up to the hot seat would provide at least a little bit of pause before deciding to use it. In other words, it might ensure that only students who know they have something to add would undertake the effort to (and draw the attention that comes from) walking up to the hot seat (next toe me) and sit down.
So, the new rules for the outer circle are:
a. listen to and critique the inner circle’s dialogue
b. be ‘fact checkers’ for the inner circle, whenever factual claims are brought in
c. utilize the hot seat in the inner circle judiciously to interject strictly factual points that may contribute to the inner circle’s discussion.
We’ll try this next class and see what happens. But true to the Socratic approach, these rules were come up with by a discussion between myself and students. They must own as much of the process as possible, and that means that when problems or dilemmas arise, we try to solve them as a collective. And as usual, we will try this out and debrief about whether it added to the productivity of the process during our next class.
“Can I tell you something and have you promise not to get mad?” asked a student. This was after the Socratic inner circle got done their discussion and this student, a member of the outer circle, was critiquing the inner circle’s dialogue.
“Okay. Well, I think you interjected probably a bit too much in this dialogue.”
As the professor, I am always part of the inner circle’s Socratic dialogues. The discussion is mostly theirs, but from time to time, I like to come into it, moving drifting conversations back on track, tying things back to the reading, and sometimes asking new questions if I think the discussion is hitting a wall.
And she was right. I did interject too much. I even remember at one point inadvertently cutting off a student who was about to say something in response to another student.
This is, in some sense, how teachers are. When we are in more “traditional” classrooms and we ask a question to which an answer or raised hand doesn’t come immediately, awkwardness sets in. Even if 10 seconds go by, we often feel like we, as teachers, have a duty to fill the silence. (more…)
Recently, I wrote a blog post on the interest development theory of human motivation. This theory is particularly interesting, because it puts most of its stress on the role interest plays in creating and sustaining motivation. But it does not seem to be a well-known theory (especially compared to the much more popular self-determination theory). One possible reason for that may be that when teachers, coaches, and others learn about theories of motivation, there is a belief that one should focus on factors you (the teacher or coach) can affect, like how much autonomy you give students, or what kind of incentives you use. By contrast, many people believe that interest in fixed: you either have it or you don’t; since it can’t be created, people may fear that focusing on interest as a motivator means that you focus on something you can’t affect in students.
Proponents of interest development theory seem to want to change that. Some, like Hidi and Renninger, suggest that interest can actually be affected by teachers, and that it isn’t as simple as “students have it or they don’t.” They suggest the “have it or you don’t” misconceptions “owe their origin to vocational interest research that shows the stability of existing interests.” In other words, some studies show that if John is interested in pastel painting this year, it is almost certain that he retains an interest next year and does not suddenly “switch” his interest to jazz drumming. But, as they point out, these studies don’t track how interests were either created or discovered.
Another contributor to the “you have it or you don’t” idea is that many studies show that “both the affective and cognitive components of interest have biological roots.” When we think biology, we think “fixed.” But other studies show that “interest is the outcome of an interaction between a person and a particular content.” That means that the potential for interest may be in the person, but the development of interest is contextual and often depends on factors outside the person.
So can interest be created, or is it fixed? When one develops an interest, was that interest created or was it discovered? (more…)
In a course I teach on theories of learning and motivation (and how assessment relates to each), I have my students go over several theories of human motivation – from expectancy value theory to the currently popular self-determination theory. A recent discussion with a colleague who specializes in academic motivation, Dr. Jessica Chittum, who told me about a theory I’d never heard of before: interest development theory. It is a theory that, unlike others, puts the idea that interest is a determining factor of motivation seriously. Interestingly, its proponents also seem to suggest that interest is something malleable, rather than fixed – that interest can be created.
After further research, I decided I want to give my class some info on the theory. Only problem is that unlike some other seemingly more publicized/established theories of motivation, there doesn’t seem to exist a good accessible summary. So, I wrote one. I am no expert on theories of motivation, but hopefully, this will help people who are searching for some information on the interest development theory of motivation.
There are many theories about what motivates people and what motivation consists of. But few of those theories put the concept of interest at their center. That seems odd, because when we think about what motivates us, what it takes to motivate us will look different depending on our interest level in that thing. Motivating you to pay attention to your favorite hobby probably involves different techniques than motivating you to pay attention to a fantastically boring lecture. Why? Well, because when we have interest, it somehow makes doing a thing easier and more rewarding.
What is interest? The common dictionary definition is that interest is the state of wanting to focus on something, a sort of impulse to attend to something rather than another. And that is sort of how theorists – like psychologist William James – have described it:
Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind- without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos (Principles of Psychology).
There are two different conceptions of interest. Individual interest is a person’s enduring preference for certain topics, subject areas, or activities. Situational interest is a less enduring interest that is brought about by situational stimuli. (more…)
By now, I have had three class sessions run entirely in the format of Socratic Circles. I waited to write a journal entry until I had at least a few classes under my belt with this method, so that I could “get used’ to the method before writing about it in practice for the first time.
So far, so good! During the first session, I had my class watch two short excerpts of other groups (a high school science and college level philosophy group respectively) doing Socratic sessions, and we did a whole-class discussion where students analyzed what made these filmed sessions successful. Then we got into groups to try it ourselves. I have to confess that I was extremely nervous, largely because one just can’t tell in advance how Socratic pedagogy will go, depending as it does on the willingness and preparedness of the students. For our first reading, I tried to choose something (John Holt’s essay “Schools are Bad Places for Kids”) that had a fairly direct but potentially controversial argument. Each group discussed for 15 minutes (which is a bit shorter than the typical 20 minutes), mostly because I had no idea whether discussion would peter out quickly or not.
It certainly did not. I started off with a very broad question to get things rolling – “Is John Holt exaggerating when he says that schools are bad places for kids? Did his argument prove his rather extreme position?” – and it took only a few seconds for discussion to get going. And once it went, it really didn’t stop. Afterwards, I told another professor that I felt high (and I wasn’t exaggerating).
The second and third sessions with this group were a little trickier, because we literally read the hardest piece we’d read all year, a piece by a sociologist of education that is written for other academics. (I’ve wanted to find a more general-audience=-friendly version of his argument, but can”t.) I’d taught using this reading before, and figured that maybe it’d be easier for them to make sense of the article as a group. That seems to be what happened.
We broke the 40 or so page reading into two days at 20 or so pages each. The first day of discussion was a bit more awkward than the first, and that probably had to do with the difficulty of the text. The first day felt – and the students in the outer-circle concurred – like discussion meandered a bit, to things ostensibly related to the text, but not completely related (or where the connection was not made explicitly). I tried to guide things back when I could, and there were some students who did a good job of tying the text in. But I do confess that after this class session, I wondered whether students were really getting the heart of the author’s argument. Maybe I’d have to steer the discussion a bit more the next day, which I didn’t want to do, but decided to prepare for.
Well, it turns out that I didn’t have to after all. It didn’t take too long in the second day’s discussion for some students to stumble very directly onto the point of the article. In response to another student comment, a student said something like “Well, I think that’s the point of the article, that…” The only thing I did after that was, after a few more comments had passed, to let the students know that I think that was indeed the point of the article, after which conversation promptly picked up where it left off.
And when I think about the times I have taught with this article in other classes, where students mostly read individually and wrote some sort of response piece, I do believe that this group and the circumlocutive route they took toward the understanding of the article left them maybe with a stronger understanding of the article. In other words, one huge benefit of this Socratic approach seems to be that students read and develop an understanding individually, and then use others’ understandings (which they gain through conversation) to test, deepen, question, and sometimes reformulate their understanding of the text. I think it also allows students to see others struggling to understand (and coming to understand) the same text they are. It is fun to see them collaborating like this, and it seems fun for them too.
But it can’t be all roses, right? Well, there are a few things that I am struggling with and may need to work on. First, the outer circle – the group that watches the inner circle’s argument and critiques it – often struggles to fill the 10 minute space allotted for them after the inner circle’s performance. I need to find some ways for the outer circle not to become monotonous, and I must confess to not being entirely comfortable with the idea of an outer circle yet.
Second, while it may have been a good thing to break the difficult reading into two chunks for two days, some students told me that that may have had the bad consequence of leaving the second inner circle on day 2 with little to talk about that hadn’t already been brought up before. I think those students are probably right. All groups did well, but I could see that last of the four inner circles (over those two days) struggle to find things about the text they could delve into that hadn’t been done before.
Finally, I really am finding it hard not to interject “too much.” Especially when discussion – as it sometimes naturally does – get a bit off of the text, I have to really ask myself whether I should wait and see if it comes back on its own (and, it usually does) or to cut in and risk stifling things by pulling it back. I usually have opted for the former, and generally, it seems successful. But my teacherly instinct really still is to know where I want the discussion to go and pull it there. I think anyone who uses this method in class will have, and will have to fight, this urge.
Anyhow, so far so good and so fun.
The first class in which I will use Socratic seminars is coming up in a matter of hours. I am both excited and nervous about it. From what I’ve learned about Socratic seminar, though, it seems like that is natural, largely because when one allows the students to control the dialogue, the result is always going to be unpredictable. That means, of course, that I can’t really know in advance how well this is going to work, but the unpredictability is also quite exciting, and I think it will add a lot of freshness to the class.
Of course, I know it isn’t all left up to chance. Here are some things I have done and am doing to try and scaffold Socratic discussion for students. I am betting that only a few of the students have done classroom discussion this way; by a show of hands last class, only two had, and they don’t’ recall much about it (so it may have been early in their learning career). Therefore, there are things I am putting in place to try and support discussion during the critical first few weeks. (more…)
Yesterday and today, I taught my Fall semester classes for the first time. And in keeping with my desire to record my experience (for my reflection and your um, entertainment), here’s something these “first classes” have made me realize: I have a really tough time not centering my courses around me. This will take some work
Here’s some background. For the first day of my classes, I like to start right off with activity – no reading the syllabus at ’em. So, all three face-to-face courses (despite being different courses) followed the same format. They got into randomly assigned groups of six and took turns telling stories about their most memorable classroom experience. While one told a 3 minute story, the others would use post-it notes to write down one or two words the story made them think about. Once everyone had told their story and written post-its about the other stories, they worked in groups to organize the group’s words into categories (for one class, each class had to come up with two metaphors for what school is that they can use to organize their words. The other had to organize by whether the words fell into learning, motivation, or assessment.)
So, there is a lot of me resetting the online timer, walking around the room, and standing there. I’d interact with students and listen to stories being told, but mostly, the students ran the show. And I know that is how it should be. But here’s the thing: I noticed myself getting awfully fidgety during those three minute (and eight minute at the end) segments.
I think one reason I felt fidgety – like I should be DOING something – is that subconsciously, I have picked up the message about teaching and learning that most of us do: good teaching means the teacher is doing something at all times, and maybe ideally, is the central focus of what goes on in the classroom. But when your class period is designed in a way where students can move and do themselves – and where you don’t have to be the Sun in the room around whom student-planets must orbit – the teacher (well, at least me) will be left with the awkward feeling that at that moment, he should be doing more. (more…)