Teaching: Jacques Ranciere and Sugata Mitra

A few months ago I was blown away by Sugata Mitra’s TED talk on child-driven education. Mitra’s thesis is that children can teach themselves. What they need is not teachers who know how to do what they are trying to learn, but materials, problems, one another (groups), and perhaps encouragement. Mitra put computers out and watched what children did with them. Groups of children would gather around the computer and teach themselves how to use them. Their “performance” teaching themselves ended up to be as good or better than those with teachers. What Mitra introduced in this talk that wasn’t in the previous TED Talk by him (also very good) is the “granny cloud”. These “grannies” just expressed enthusiasm and interest in what the students were doing, no evaluation, and it improved student learning immensely.

The other day I was at a friend’s house and saw a book by Jacques Ranciere called “The Ignorant Schoolmaster”. Ranciere tells the story of the 19th century version of Sugata Mitra, someone named Joseph Jacotot. Jacotot managed to teach a group of Flemish students to write a series of things in French, although he knew no Flemish and they knew no French (similar to Mitra at the end of the talk writing english questions on a blackboard with Italian students, who answered his questions reasonably quickly). Jacotot showed that you don’t need to know, to teach. What you need to do to teach is set a problem for a student so that the student must use their own intelligence to solve. There was no need for additional explanation of texts – the text was the explanation, there’s no need for a teacher to explain it. But current methods of teaching don’t serve learning or students, is Ranciere’s point – they serve the system, and the teachers. “Universal teaching”, in which students teach themselves, isn’t useful to the system, and won’t ever be adopted by it, because it has totally different objectives than the current system.

Another friend passed me a book by Carol Dweck called “Self Theories”, which contrasts an “incremental” theory of intelligence (that you can get smarter by working) versus an “entity” theory of intelligence (that you have a certain amount of a thing called intelligence and it won’t change). If you believe in the entity theory, your self-image will be fragile and you will avoid problems that might make you look or feel unintelligent – difficulty will elicit a “helpless response” from you. If you hold to the incremental theory, you will be persistent in the face of difficulty and show a “mastery-oriented” response to problems. Teachers and parents can generate “mastery-oriented”, “incremental” theories and responses by ensuring to never praise or punish “intelligence”, but always offer feedback on strategies. If a student is unsuccessful at a problem, offer another strategy. If a student is successful, praise the strategy and offer another challenge. If a student solves something easily, apologize for not offering a sufficient challenge and offer the next challenge. This is how to create mastery.

A long time ago someone (a writer), commenting on my lack of perfectionism in my writing, told me I wasn’t a writer, but a teacher who used writing. I’ve been thinking recently about what teaching (or, indeed, writing) is for. I have recently tried to introduce some of these ideas (problem-based, groups-based, open-ended problems, strategy-based feedback) in class, and I am finding that the pressure from the system – student anxiety about grades, the fact that the structural relationship is one where they are paying to be evaluated – works against these potentials. I might be tempted to conclude that real learning has to take place outside of class. The trouble is that what’s outside of class is more pressure – to work outside of school to pay for school and the student debt and the rent, to try to make arrangements and plans for a future that is so uncertain. It makes me think that the real problems of the world aren’t a lack of good answers, but the impossibility of implementing them. As in: we know how people learn, but we can’t create a situation where they can. We know how to solve the energy (or economic or climate or environmental or food or health) crisis, but we can’t do what it takes to make it happen.

Bruce Levine on Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic

I’m reading Bruce Levine’s “Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic”. The story of how I got the book is interesting. I was reading some psychology books a while back (Alfie Kohn, Alice Miller) and a reader of this blog suggested that no psychology reading list would be complete without Levine’s “Commonsense Rebellion”. I read it, and agreed totally. Then the other day I was reading Z Magazine and noticed a book review written by Bruce Levine, and at the bottom of that it mentioned “Surviving”. So, here I am, reading the book.

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Against psychiatry, psychotherapy, and for a commonsense rebellion…

So at the request of an anonymous commenter (thanks again!) in this blog, I went and read Bruce Levine’s “Commonsense Rebellion”. I saw, next to it on the shelf a book I’d picked up in 2000 but not really read, Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s “Against Therapy”. It is good to discuss them together.

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Gottman, conversations… meetings?

Probably my last entry in the psychology stream for a while, though there are a few more things on education I’d like to read. I was drawn to Suzette Haden Elgin‘s verbal self-defense because I like the idea that conversations between people can be analyzed and understood somehow, even bad ones, especially bad ones. John Gottman takes this type of analysis to another level. His starting point is analyzing conversations empirically, coding expressions of key emotions, measuring the numbers of times they come up, and comparing “good” interactions to bad ones, and analyzing couples and their marriages in terms of these interactions. Using this scientific approach, Gottman has created a model that can predict whether a couple will be together or apart, happy or unhappy, 4 years from now, based on a 30-minute conversation, with around 90% accuracy. So can the good interacters be emulated? Not really. They are the ones who show genuine affection, even when they disagree. And Gottman found that people can’t fake emotions. He could tell people to “show genuine affection”, but it just wouldn’t work. The Gottmans’ analysis (they work on theraputic interventions as a married couple) does have some theraputic implications – try to keep criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling out of the conversations (especially contempt). Try to start off “softly” (because conversations that start badly rarely get better). Accept influence from your partner. But the therapies they recommend to make these things happen are, I believe, a less solid footing than their descriptive analyses of conversations. They have perscriptions for trying to make partners like each other more, team-building and friend-building and getting-to-know-you type exercises. One critique I read suggested that there’s something implicit in their work that you can get married, and stay married, to pretty much anybody and if you can’t make it work, you should feel bad, it’s a set of skills. But how do you apply skills when you don’t want to, or apply skills to make yourself want something you don’t. So, I think there is interesting material in their descriptions, but their prescriptions are trickier.

I also read Daniel Goleman’s “Social Intelligence”. I didn’t get much out of “Emotional Intelligence”. It seemed to me to be providing a categorization of emotional “intelligences” and then not taking the categories very far. I’m all for defining concepts before using them, but defining concepts and then not using them is a different matter. In “Social Intelligence” Goleman does a bit more than present categories – he presents research about how we convey emotions to one another and pick them up from each other, and the physiological consequences of these. I found it interesting, and I wondered what manipulations advertising and propaganda have been subjecting us to based on these sorts of insights (actually I needn’t wonder, some of these are described in the book). He ends with some hints toward an ethical framework, and how it is not immoral to use emotional or social intelligence in the world, especially if it is in the interests of others, which if it’s authentic intelligence (that is aware of other’s emotions and one’s own) it usually is.

I end this trilogy with a report on “The Brain that Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge. This book is about “neuroplasticity”, how the brain physically changes in response to changes in the environment and what that can mean – recovery from all kinds of brain (and other) diseases, how the brain can compensate for such diseases or injuries by accessing other parts of itself, how we can retrain our brains to get over emotional or mental problems or disabilities. It’s all based on cases and active research that is ongoing, and it seems (to my untrained eye) like it’s solidly documented and presented. I was fascinated, though I did get the feeling throughout (and Doidge’s description of an unfortunate episode one of the researcher-protagonists of the book went through with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) that so much of this was learned by doing terrible things to monkeys. That kind of thing was a part of why I studied physics instead of biology, even though I found (and still find) the latter very interesting. Doidge’s chapter on internet porn and how it retrains the brain was insightful and interesting. I think it and a book by David Loftus called “Watching Sex” are useful elements in the discussion of how our society is becoming “pornified” and what the effects will be (“Pornified” is the title of another book, one I have yet to read). Other chapters on compulsions and on psychoanalysis and their effects on the brain and possible treatments for them were also very interesting.

Now, if you’ve gotten this far you might be hoping there are some political implications in all this? Something other than bland prescriptions that we should talk nice and be emotionally intelligent, perhaps in meetings? Well, kind of. I think that becoming aware of this dimension of life has been useful to me. In fact, I wish I had become aware of it earlier. I’m not sure if my approach of filtering the emotional and irrational aspects out of political analysis was a reaction to our culture’s tendency to dismiss political analysis, reflection, or action in psychological terms (as if finding a psychological explanation for something was sufficient to dismiss it, but leave that aside). But as I have become aware of it through a lot of these readings and explorations, I have realized that it has long been integrated with politics and used for political ends. Wilhelm Reich argued as much in his “Mass Psychology of Fascism”, which I’ve talked about here, I think. Using it for decent political ends requires a different approach, but I think people like Alfie Kohn, Alice Miller, and Suzette Elgin point to some of that approach (and others, like Coloroso, try to do so, in spite of their blind spots – see the previous blog entry for details).

The next few blogs will probably be a slow return to proper political analysis – unless I take another diversionary turn into the educational literature (I’ve been eyeing “The Myth of Ability” and “The End of Ignorance”, books by a Toronto mathematician).

Alfie Kohn and Rewards… and parecon

So, rather than getting into Alice Miller right away I decided to deal with Alfie Kohn today. I started with his book, “Punished by Rewards”, which discusses why rewards (grades, gold stars, salary bonuses or any other kind of bribes) are not good things – not in workplaces, not in families, and not in schools. Why? Five reasons, Alfie says:

1. Rewards are the flip side of punishment – we agree that we don’t like punishment, but rewards are just as controlling.

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Bullies, Bystanders, Barbara Coloroso… and blind spots

I’ve been reading a fair bit that isn’t directly relevant to current events or the kind of politics that I am usually involved in – namely, psychology and alternative education stuff. One important author I want to talk about a bit here is Alice Miller. Another is Alfie Kohn. I’ve done a few waves of this sort of reading. I find it really depends on the timing, how insightful or useful I find the stuff. Anyway I think Miller and Kohn both deserve more in-depth reviews. Today though I want to say a few quick words about Barbara Coloroso, who is an author on bullying. I was given her book, “Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide”. She discusses mostly the Nazi holocaust and the Rwandan genocide, some of the Armenian genocide, and analyzes it in terms of bully, bullied, and bystander. These categories have some explanatory power – bullying is based on contempt and lack of empathy, she says, and taken to its extreme, it is genocide. It’s a reasonable set of categories she applies, but I think Miller’s work on the psychology of genocidal leaders and societies goes much deeper and is much more insightful (again, more later).

What upset me about Coloroso’s book, though, is what you might guess from an American author writing about genocide. She talks about bullying, contempt, racism, bystanders, apathy, sexual violence, and how all these lead to genocide. She presents a list of genocides in the first few pages of her book. To her credit, the number one and two genocides are those of the Americas – North and South America. But not to her credit, America’s Vietnam and Iraq massacres of millions of people do not appear. No Congo. No East Timor. No Guatemala. And, even though the body counts are large enough to meet her criteria (she has genocides of 10,000 and 30,000 – by Australia and South Africa, both of which are responsible for much larger numbers of deaths than this), no Palestine. The problem with this is, of course, that in Coloroso’s own scheme, it makes her a bystander to the kind of genocidal bullying she critiques, and a bystander in the very conflicts where her voice, her profile, and her analysis could make such a very huge difference. What if someone did weave a story about genocides like Barbara does, and seamlessly include those that the US and its allies (Israel, for example, or even Canada with its only-recently-closed residential schools and ongoing dispossession) are responsible for? Would it not help people see these things more clearly? Or would Barbara simply be shut out, like everyone who tries to actually be consistent about matters of bullying or genocide? And yet, Barbara herself would teach us that not wanting to be shut out is not enough to excuse a bystander. Stephen Lewis, who I also respect a lot, but who also chooses his battles carefully, says about Coloroso that “Nothing escapes the unsparing force of her intellect, the gentle generosity of her soul, and her passion to shape a better world.”

Nothing, that is, except the US or Israel’s bullying and genocidal programs. Still, it is worthwhile material for those who can take it to its logical conclusions and apply it more consistently than Barbara does.

Remind me also to discuss James Ron’s “Frontiers and Ghettos”, recommended to me by Rahul.

Verbal Self-Defense 2

I wanted to say a few more things about Suzette Haden Elgin’s system for ‘verbal self-defense’. The central idea she presents is that we can use language to create an abusive environment, or we can use language to create a non-abusive environment. Where the ‘self-defense’ comes in is when you’re in a situation with someone who is being abusive – there are some ways to feed the abuse or escalate it, and other ways to basically deprive it of oxygen.

Elgin has made an overview handout here.

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Verbal Self-Defense

I think political debates are often important. I would do more debates if I had appropriate venues. I engage in debates even when they are unpleasant. But I often get the feeling that they are unnecessarily unpleasant. The unpleasantness, in other words, isn’t a function of the disagreements, or of the vehemence of the disagreements, or even, in some cases, of the vileness of the people involved. I have, after all, had reasonably smooth interactions with people I think are vile (and no, I’m not going to name names) and with people who I suspect had nothing but contempt for me.

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