What this blog is about

As part of our faculty development, each year members of Armstrong State University’s faculty join together in small groups to read a book and comment upon its contents. This year, two different groups at Armstrong State, one at our main campus in Savannah and one at our satellite campus in Hinesville, have selected to read James Paul Gee’s The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students Through Digital Learning. This blog will be our place to post our responses to the Gee’s ideas and arguments.

Scientists by another name…

Scientists don’t think the same way as your average person.

What does that mean? Well, it means that we’ve trained our minds to use a particular set of skills that many people don’t understand or actively avoid using. Many of the ideas and recommendations discussed by Gee are skills that scientists use on a regular basis – but he often doesn’t discuss them as such. [This post has been abridged by the author from “The Scientist.“]

One skill is the ability to objectively analyze information.

We don’t just nod approvingly, our minds latch onto bits and pieces of everything that comes our way. From behavioral patterns to mathematical models, we are surrounded by information that is often raw and complex. Information alone doesn’t do anything for us, it isn’t good, or bad, or helpful – it exists, with that existence having inherent value and potential. Scientists are the ones who use that potential, those who look for the reality of what is truly there instead of just skimming the surface.

First, there is the ability to dig deeper and deeper into the minute details. Often, this is described as a reductionist analysis of the world. Application of objective analysis in this way leads us to further understanding of precisely how things work and what they are.

Second, there is the ability to analyze patterns and interactions at the scale of whole systems. This often deals directly with the emergent properties of a system, rather than with the individual cogs in the machine. Application of objective analysis in this way results in a better comprehension of what happens and why it can happen again.

A second skill is the willingness to step back from our beliefs.

Scientists rely on evidence. We search for evidence, analyze our evidence in the form of data, build our models out of pieces of evidence, and sometimes change the world by finding evidence to support new ideas about the world. Yes, new ideas about the world. The importance of this skill is that every good scientist inherently understands that they are actively seeking to determine if they are wrong. We make the absolute best hypotheses possible, that logically could be right and are based on the most complete information at the time. And then we set out and dedicate ourselves to finding the truth.

Falsifiable hypotheses, experimental controls, and large sample sizes are all tools that we use to try to find the truth. And yet all of those tools are useless indeed if we ignore the result of their dedicated application. What happens when we are wrong? First, we determine just how much we can trust that answer. Did we collect reliable information? What might have gone wrong? This is also where statistics comes into play. Second, we accept it and determine the consequences. We know nothing – we seek everything. In reality, what this means is that we do change our minds sometimes (We thought the world was flat until evidence indicated otherwise, remember?). Additionally we end up accepting contradictions as an inherent part of reality.

Perhaps the evidence didn’t support my hypothesis because I don’t know enough to write the correct hypothesis yet.

“I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.” -Socrates

Why? What is it about these two skills that often sets scientists apart? Why does Gee recommend these skills?

One reason is that humans have a deep desire for the status that comes with being right. James Gee discusses our desire for social status and the need to support our “family” in his book The Anti-Education Era, and these are traits that do help us survive. We are inherently social animals, and being wrong can, quite frankly, sometimes have devastating consequences. Not only do we want to be right, we also want to be with others who are right because of the direct and indirect benefits we gain.

Consider this: “Do you want to rely on someone who says that they might be wrong?”

This is the kind of mental construct that exists to some degree in all social organisms, and it developed entirely outside of (and prior to) the construction of formal scientific methodology. It is a Darwinian safety mechanism that has been built over time because bad decisions have consequences – often death. The result is that most people tend to hesitate in following someone that has been wrong in the past.

Consider this: “Can you trust someone who refuses to admit that they could be wrong?”

Aye, there’s the rub. We are also aware of our own fallibility. Since we are capable of being wrong, there is always the possibility that we are at this moment, actually and truly wrong. This understanding of ourselves and others logically leads to skepticism that also benefits our survival, and someone who refuses to accept this possibility can (and should) seem insane and untrustworthy.

The Conundrum: A need to be skeptical of both those who state that they can be wrong, and of those who state that they cannot be wrong. 

Thus we see how trust in scientists is so easily lost, and how people can so easily be misled. We see why scientists rarely become celebrities, and why bad ideas that don’t kill you can spread like wildfire.

A second reason is the fear of the unknown, resulting in the construction of explanations independent of evidence. This is based in part on the concept of “mental comfort stories”discussed by Gee, as he illustrates how much our happiness and contentment about the state of our lives often relies on not challenging these comfort stories. Effectively, humans often reap benefits from ignoring evidence that contradicts their long-held beliefs.

Consider this: You (most likely) hold some beliefs for which you have no supporting evidence, besides tradition. Holding to those beliefs hasn’t killed you, and probably makes you happy and accepted by your community. 

So, what is wrong with this situation? You benefit from the mental comfort story (perhaps about god) and no one is harmed, right? Well, that is only true until you encounter a community that doesn’t hold those same beliefs. Then, those unsubstantiated claims might very well cause people in both groups to die, and will at least make people unhappy and unacceptable to the opposite community. Who is wrong? Is there any way to tell? No, because the ideas weren’t based on evidence in the first place – they were based on what comforted people, made them accepted and content with the world around them.

Consider this: You are shown evidence that contradicts your beliefs (perhaps about ethnicity/race), and you refuse to alter those long-held beliefs. Although you are happy that you’ve upheld your beliefs, the consequences can be major – losing your job, failing a class, being arrested because of your actions.

Well, you now have 2 good reasons to change this particular belief, but if you’re like most people, you won’t. The evidence indicates that your belief is wrong, and there are negative consequences to holding your belief. Perhaps you decide to split the difference – to not act on your belief in a way that causes problems such as being fired, but it will still make you unhappy. Or you decide to deal with the consequences so that you can remain happy and accepted by your chosen “family.”

The Conundrum: Some beliefs cannot always be conclusively shown to be right or wrong, and the resulting conflicts can be devastating. Other beliefs can be demonstrably wrong, and upholding them in the face of evidence can also be catastrophic.

What is the scientist’s solution (and Gee’s)? Use the skills of a scientist – objective analysis of reliable evidence & an open mind.

Evaluate your ideas with evidence whenever possible. Do not continue to hold beliefs that are conclusively false. Not only is this illogical, it will eventually have consequences for you and/or your society.

Build and use your mental comfort stories when there is no way to find the truth – but be open-minded. Other people with varying perspectives can hold ideas that are different from your own, and you should allow them that to retain right so long as it does not cause you harm. If it does, then you have the ability of any organism to make decisions that benefit your survival. You should feel free to try to convince them that you are right, but understand that typically neither of you has any evidence, and both ideas may be equally valid.

Author: Brigette Brinton

The Mentor and the Circuit (responding to chapter 1)

(Please note that since I’m quoting from the Kindle version of this book, which lacks page numbers, I’m not going to put locations for these quotes. They are all, however, from chapter 1 of the book).

In this entry, I want to consider Gee’s concept of what he calls the “circuit of reflective action,” a process that is composed (in Gee’s final version) of the following steps: ”

  1. initial mentorship to get us prepared to learn from experience in specific areas and domains;
  2. lots of prior experience;
  3. clear goals;
  4. something being “at stake” (mattering to us emotionally);
  5. the opportunity to act in a way that influences the world.”

Gee believes, as he states multiple times, that although this process doesn’t get at truth, it gets at “what works” (a very pragmatic argument) and is the hallmark of a good education process. In many ways, I find myself in agreement with Gee here, especially in the sense that the second point, “lots of prior experience” is obtained through social experience, which thus puts double pressure on the role of the mentor in the first point.  It’s that concept that I want to think about a little more here.

As Gee notes, for many students in experiencing schooling, this process doesn’t occur especially because the focus on “listening to and reading language” and not on “taking actions in the world that are relevant” to the learner and the learner’s social world, they end up in situations where they “can see no clear and compelling goal for learning and formal classrooms beyond grades and graduation.” Part of this, he notes (and echoes – without citation, which is an annoying aspect about Gee – Paulo Freire), is because the dominant paradigm of education remains about “banking” knowledge in the students’ minds rather than on providing a site of practice to give that knowledge context and meaning.

That leads me back, of course, to the importance here of the idea of mentorship. If we continue to envision the classroom as the site of several students and one teacher, then by default, the teacher is the one tasked to be the mentor. If we continue to think of the teacher as transmitter, as the person who places the bricks of knowledge in the ‘bank’ of the students’ minds, then we never become that mentor – we never become a person to be like, a bridge to past social experience that can help shape current knowledge. Without that, then we end up denying the potential emotional validity that mentorship engenders, which is key to the fourth point. When we want to be like someone, when we see a model worth emulating, at least in some part, we implicitly create something that is “at stake” because it matters to our sense of being.

But in an era where education is perpetually expected to do less with more, where education is mentally rendered only as “training for work” rather than in developing a person, and where the growth of online courses encourages the transmission model rather than the mentorship model, the importance of being a mentor is increasingly challenged. How does one be a mentor to a large form class of 100 students? How does one be a mentor if one has never worked in the field that a student desires to enter? How does one mentor a person who only completes online tests and submits required essays but never engages in conversation not involved with refining a grade?

I don’t have answers here, but I’m glad that this reading is provoking me to want to advocate for the importance of considering the role of mentorship in not only my own teaching but in any committee work I do at Armstrong.