By Jane Fried, Ph.D.
Author Of Education, Fishbowls and Rabbit Holes
“Everybody else walked to school, but you carried your lunch.”
My father used to say that to my mom when he wanted a laugh, but we never really figured out why it was funny. Finally I began to see…walking to school and lunch carrying were two different activities that were only marginally related. It’s the old apples and oranges problem. In a similar vein, “Who do you think you are – or what do you really care about?” doesn’t seem to relate to “Explain the second law of thermodynamics,” or “What is the symbolism of the broken pickle dish in Ethan Frome?” (You might wonder why I remember the broken pickle dish, which I only learned about in one class in high school more than 60 years ago.) As it turns out, pickle dishes, physics and who you believe you are or would like to be are quite strongly related. If you don’t think that either of these has anything to do with who you are, you won’t learn about them, remember them or know why they matter. I happen to love pickles, and that class was the first one in which I ever learned about symbolism, which opened my world enormously.
Of Education, Fishbowls and Rabbit Holes is based on the premise that if you don’t care about what you’re supposed to learn, and that information doesn’t fit into your life narrative, you won’t learn it in any meaningful way. How many times have you, as an educator, been asked by students why they need to know something or when they will ever use it after the test is over? Unfortunately, in Western higher education we have inherited a foundational belief (a Fishbowl or frame of reference) that personal perspective interferes with learning and that emotions interfere with our ability to retain information objectively.
Recent research has demonstrated that these arguments are generally not accurate (Zull, 2002; 2006). Students learn because they care about the subject, care about passing the course, or care about some other relevant variable, like what time the course is offered or sitting next to the current object of their affections. Otherwise students are “disengaged,” and tend to fail. Zull frequently refers to “emotion molecules,” and asserts that they anchor all of our learning in the brain. Bottom line….We don’t learn if we don’t’ care.
We teach as if Descartes was absolutely correct, i.e. emotions interfere with thinking/learning. We have been trained to teach that way and most of us are convinced that people learn that way. What if we’ve been wrong? What if lecturing, or reading, isn’t half as effective as hearing why a teacher believes that the information is important or what the implications of this information have been for personal or social welfare?
And so dear reader (can you tell that I was an English major?) I ask you to consider the assumptions that shape the way you teach. Do you believe in objectivity, keeping your self out of the subject and transmitting information to students as factoids? Is it working? Do they care as much about your subject matter as you do? Or are they simply getting your course “out of the way” so that they can get into their major? Your answer to that question is key to engaging students and creating a more meaningful learning environment for you and them. Of Education, Fishbowls and Rabbit Holes will give you a lot to think about, some activities to practice with and some opportunities for reflection. If this book engages you, you have a good chance of improving your ability to engage your students.
Jane Fried, Ph.D. is a professor in the Department of Counselor Education and Family Therapy at Central Connecticut State University. She is the former coordinator of the Student Development in Higher Education master’s degree program. Dr. Fried is the author of Transformative Learning Through Engagement: Student Affairs Practice as Experiential Pedagogy and Shifting Paradigms in Student Affairs, as well as co-author of Understanding Diversity. She currently writes a blog, where her primary topics of concern are racism and transformative learning, and hosts diversity dialogues to support leaders in higher education who want to develop a deeper understanding of the ways that racism affects our society.
Zull, J. (2002) The Art of Changing the Brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus
Zull, J. (2006) Key Aspects of How the Brain Learns. New Dimensions for Adult and Continuing Education, 110, 3-10