Conjectures, Dilemmas, Hospitality, Humility

I’m going to try to get started on some thoughts that have been weighing pretty heavily on me over the last couple of months. The four nouns in this post’s title are markers of the general direction. In fact, here’s the executive summary, a genre I’ve been getting more practice in of late:

The process of discovery thrives not only in establishing facts, but in lively, interest-provoking encounters with the conjectures and dilemmas that inform human inquiry.
Each academic discipline changes and reframes itself not only on the basis of new knowledge, but on the basis of those conjectures and dilemmas, themselves the result of a process of discovery not unlike that which uncovers, discovers, and constructs knowledge. Problem finding, every bit as important as problem solving, requires respect and eager openness toward conjectures and dilemmas above all, since here we find the thinker, the researcher, the experimenter, the practitioner most vulnerable, most tentative (i.e., most engaged in trying, in the essay of the thing). Our necessary practice of problem finding, of uncovering and sharing conjectures and dilemmas, thus requires a sense of hospitality toward real questions and toward those who advance them. While claims advanced as fact benefit from critique and challenge, the core of conjectures and dilemmas in our shared endeavors suggests that hospitality must also be present if we want to encourage inquiry. This hospitality also requires a certain humility, which is not self-abasement so much as a zestful yearning for problem-finding in community, a shared appetite for conjectures and dilemmas, not that action will not be taken–far from it–but so that neither argument nor action ossify into authoritarianism. (Authority and authoritarianism are two different things, I believe.)

I’ll start with Jerome Bruner, from whom I have learned so much over the last fifteen years, ever since the Roving Librarian brought home a book called The Culture of Education. I’ve returned recently to one of my favorite Bruner volumes, Toward A Theory Of Instruction, because of a lovely moment in Bret Victor’s notes on his “Future of Programming” talk. At the very end, Bret refers to his own reading of Bruner, and to Alan Kay’s advice:

Lastly, here’s some advice Alan Kay gave me (as I was going through a small personal crisis as a result of reading Jerome Bruner’s “Toward a Theory of Instruction”):

I think the trick with knowledge is to “acquire it, and forget all except the perfume” — because it is noisy and sometimes drowns out one’s own “brain voices”. The perfume part is important because it will help find the knowledge again to help get to the destinations the inner urges pick.

So following my nose and my inner urges, I returned to Bruner and found again these words:

For the question opens up the deep issues of what might be and why it isn’t…. It is such conjecture … that produces rational, self consciously problem-finding behavior so crucial to the growth of intellectual power…. I would say that while a body of knowledge is given life and direction by the conjectures and dilemmas that brought it into being and sustained its growth, pupils who are being taught often do not have a corresponding sense of conjecture and dilemma. The task of the curriculum maker and teacher is to provide exercises and occasions for its nurturing. If one only thinks of materials and content, one can all too easily overlook the problem…. The answer is the design of exercises in conjecture, in ways of inquiry, in problem finding. It is something that the good teacher does naturally at least some of the time. (From “A Retrospect On Making And Judgment,” in Toward A Theory Of Instruction).

This of course is the very opposite of what I call the bad Sunday School technique of education, in which the teacher poses an essentially rhetorical question and waits until the good student produces the foregone conclusion: “because he loves us.”

Reading Bruner’s words again, I am reminded of what feeds curiosity and interest, according to researchers: novelty (things that fall between categories), uncertainty, conflict, complexity. I note that “clarity” doesn’t make the cut. Of course clarity is important, but without conjectures and dilemmas, “clarity” can easily become “certainty,” interest will become compliance, and as surely as night follows day, students will do what the rubrics say to do, for that is what the teacher wants.

I think with particular unease of the moment at the recent AAC&U meeting in which a panelist, understandably frustrated by the thin quality of student reflections in one of his classes, spoke out forcefully on his plans to double down on the instructions and tell the students exactly what he meant by reflection. I believe he was sincere in his desire to improve their learning, but I worry that his plan of action will result in compliance of the most persuasive sort, the kind that allows everyone to say that the mission has been accomplished when exactly the opposite has happened.

For it seems to me that we are tempted to imagine reflection as a process of discovering and affirming lessons learned and problems solved, when anyone who has spent a moment in reflection will realize, I believe, that the depths of that practice awaken conjectures and dilemmas. (Reflection is neither capstone nor cornerstone.) Too much of school teaches learners to fear or mask conjectures and dilemmas. My students tell me they raise their hands when they have answers, not when they have questions.

I continue to think about hospitality as the great and charitable soil of conjectures and dilemmas. Those who entertain conjectures and dilemmas might also be called seekers.

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