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" …his students can stumble upon a MannerOfThinking
which might enable them to save themselves,
if only they'll stick with the pursuit."

To my mind, the greatest sin lies in telling people what they should do. Especially if I'm convinced that I really do know better. First of all, adults, even children, seem nearly immune to any sort of good advice and potentially hostile toward any intended to be good for them. We seem to want to discover and know for ourselves and when we don't, we really probably should. Much of what matters can't be transmitted as advice, no matter how good it might otherwise be. Still, many of us were early on convinced that we might usefully tap another's knowledge and somehow make it our own, either as passive witnesses like in school or as active inquisitors like in a court of law. How we come to know baffles most all of us sometimes.

Much of what we seem to know hardly qualifies as knowledge, anyway.
The majority of it's tacit, more tied to muscle memory than anything tangibly accessible. We gain a feel for a subject and find that once we acquire that feel, we navigate around it much better than we could when we were merely pursuing knowledge about it. How does one gain that feel? My friend David teaches physics at a community college. He convenes unconventional classes where the students have to do more than learn about physics, the usual extent of community college curriculum, but to think like a physicist; that is, to learn how to parse their experience of the world as a physicist might. He teaches a particular MannerOfThinking.

He notices when a student enters the class seeking validation for how smart they already are or how much they already know, they struggle more. Both conditions might be necessary to succeed in the class, but neither, not even both together, hardly qualify as sufficient. To succeed, a student must learn how to think through assigned problems as a physicist might, not to merely ape back tricks and techniques physicists might well use. Their homework focuses upon discovering more general patterns by solving specific problems, ones which at first glance might not seem to fit into any general pattern. His students tend to study together in small groups, trading insights among themselves, figuring out for themselves together. The results, when successful, garner great appreciation from the students. When they do not succeed, when individual students fail to make the leap from rote memory to manner of thinking, they can feel devastating. More than one student, dropping out of the class before semester end, has asked David why he didn't save them. He tried, by assigning apparently impossible homework and plenty of it. He tried, by insisting that the answers would not be found in the back of the book and that the answers were less important than the MannerOfThinking searching for them imparts.

It's a figure/ground puzzle with subtle implications. Both the figure and the ground remain significant, but neither to the exclusion of the other. They work together to produce an outcome, which could not possibly have been the initial desired outcome. They could only know that once they'd seen and experienced it. His fellow instructors do not teach at this level, so students who successfully passed a predecessor course taught by another professor might struggle more when they enter his class. They cannot rest upon earlier certification, the fact that they passed a test, to guarantee success in his section. They have to surrender something to succeed.

What they have to surrender is a well-relied upon MannerOfThinking, one which doubtless served them well in their world before this class but which could only inhibit their eventual ability to succeed in physics. A deeper appreciation simply must emerge or they'll be struggling to find enough fingers to count on for the rest of their academic and perhaps professional careers. Their old reliable rules of thumb find their relevant range, which always turns out to have been a whole lot narrower than anyone (except, perhaps, David) expected. He gets a lot of tense feedback early in every semester, as new students struggle to retain their old reliables. Some say that they thought he was an idiot for the first six weeks before concluding nearer the end that he must be a genius.

Every time I speak with David, I recognize all the subjects (physics among them) for which I lack an essential MannerOfThinking. Conservatives of all stripes complain about eggheads, I suspect mostly because they can't even suspect that they, themselves, lack a certain MannerOfThinking necessary to appreciate the value eggheads contribute. No one becomes a fluent German speaker by mentally translating between English. At some point, the translating simply becomes moot, unnecessary, even an encumbrance, to fluency. So it might be with every subject. We begin with a naive notion of what that particular mastery might entail, never suspecting that our initial notion might well prove to become the greatest barrier to mastery.

How all this assimilation occurs remains a deep mystery to most everyone designing curricula, though some insist that it more fluidly emerges in play. Yes, there are right and wrong answers, but perhaps more importantly, there are useful and less useful ways to think about finding an answer, however right or wrong it might be. This meta-perspective seems superfluous until it doesn't. Once it doesn't, the MannerOfThinking starts kicking in. I appreciate David for his tenacity. He holds a handful of principles that few in his profession seem to appreciate, much less possess. He can't save any of them with his damned principles, but he's nonetheless confident that most of his students can stumble upon a MannerOfThinking which might enable them to save themselves, if only they'll stick with the pursuit.

©2018 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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