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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

the humiliation method of learning

I've been thinking about what Pete and Liza said about learning physics since our meeting last Thursday.  They described it as the "humiliation method." They recounted the common occurrence of teaching freshmen physics: in every class, they experience a few "arrogant" individuals who believe they know physics when then in fact don't. The only way to "break" these students of this mindset is through "public humiliation," which Pete says is done in a playful manner. Pete asserts that this must be done in order to correct their misconceptions.

I keep thinking about this process. It occurs to me as violent. In fact, it is disturbing to me because it normalizes "humiliation" as part of the educational culture.
If I remember right, Pete talked about the necessity of getting used to publicly exposing one's "wrongness," in order to learn what is right. When I heard that, my first thought is, "No wonder so many women don't like physics.  I would hate that." This really occurs to me as a way of creating and maintaining a hierarchy through a kind of "alpha dog" method.

In teaching freshmen engineering students, I also regularly encounter the often male student who seems to be fixated on his own "rightness." The profile of "the arrogant student" is that he is bent on ensuring all others, particularly the female instructor, are made "less than" by his public display of superior understanding.  I try to avoid humiliation at all costs, even though, the force of someone's arrogance usually produces in me an equal and opposite reactive force...I normally choose to gently reveal a different viewpoint, rather than coming at their "wrongness" directly with my "rightness." Maybe this really is a pointless and ineffective way of addressing it.

Not being a male myself, I really do wonder if it is better to do as Pete and Liza fight fire with fire. But this doesn't really make sense to me. I keep thinking of Humberto Maturana's statement, "Insisting that others adopt your point of view is a demand for obedience." Can the habit of a student to think "I know what is right." be corrected by someone else who is displaying that very same attitude?  Maybe this is the only way to break arrogance, I don't really know.

I have seen myself in periods of arrogance. For me, what has dissolved my inflated sense of importance has been another's loving inquiry into my unexamined beliefs. Somehow the gentleness enables me to loosen my mental grip on my "rightness" so that I can see possibilities outside of the one I am holding onto.

I keep thinking of the notion of right and wrong. What I know about physics and almost all of reductionist science is that it almost never "works" as we have depicted it. We regularly ask students to do "canned," experiments in the lab that should have predictable outcomes, yet the results are almost never identical to what we have predicted. We then find increasingly elaborate explanations as to why it "doesn't work." The most versatile is "human error." What amuses me is that "human error" is the most accurate...not applied to the doing of the experiment, but applied to the assumption that our theories correctly describe reality. My experience is that reductionist science is only accurate when we eliminate all the things that the science doesn't account for ---when you eliminate all the conditions that exist in real life.

I'm reminded that our scientific views of "reality" have changed over time. That is, when a scientific model more accurately describes an observable phenomenon, we discard the old in favor of the new. Another way of saying this is that all our models are incorrect ("wrong").  It seems to me our unexamined habit of viewing them as "laws," rather than self-constructed models is what is hindering our ability to learn, and particularly it is hindering our ability to accept learn from one another.

1 comment:

  1. The above that I infer is attributed to me is something that I do not recognize as anything I practice, have described in a meeting, or even encounter in the classroom.