Are we swimming against the tide?

I think it was in junior high that I first saw this illustration of inductive vs. deductive reasoning:

Deduction was associated with math and pristine abstraction:  Plato, Euclid.  Induction is messier and experimental:  Francis Bacon, Aristotle.

But in the same breath, people usually point out that we’re always doing both.  As a species, we figure stuff out and communicate it to each other by going up and down, back and forth.  We experiment, we theorize, we try again, and each direction supports the other.

In the last couple of days I’ve been reminded that higher ed makes a similar circuit, except that here the interaction may not be so constructive:

When left alone we learn experientially:  we try stuff out, notice whether it works, predict whether that means a different approach should or should not get a better result.  From specific cases up to general rules.

But when it’s time to share what we’ve learned with someone else – i.e., teach – we tend to go in the other order, syllogistically, even when the interaction is very informal:  “Try right-clicking.  Usually that works.”

Are these at odds?  Do our institutions swim against the tide of curiosity?

At one of the out of state conferences I attended last winter, another participant recalled his high school physics class.  For the first three days the teacher explained nothing at all, just declared open season on the lab equipment.  Students could touch it, pick it up, try whatever they wanted, and begin to guess what these objects might measure, or do.

Three days is a long time.  Students felt clueless at the beginning, uncomfortable and angry at the teacher for not doing his job.  But by working together, they eventually came up with a provisional theory for everything in the room.  On day four, finally, the textbooks came out.  The class spent the rest of the course finding out how close their guesses came.  (An aside:  hearing about this reminded me of a cardinal rule of screenwriting:  don’t give them the exposition until after you create the desire to know.)

All of us in this conference session liked that approach; I don’t know why, or why the speaker still remembered it a few decades later, but I suspect it’s related to that diagram, and the way this physics class exploited our built-in proclivities for curiosity and learning, instead of fighting the tide.

At the CSU Office of the Chancellor yesterday, a few of us hosted an expert in Prior Learning Assessment.  We’d done enough in PLA to know the challenges:  students, usually adults, come in with work experience that produced real learning, but not quite in the way we see it in our courses.  So we don’t know how to count it and too often just give up, telling them to enroll in something they mostly know.  Over lunch we settled on explaining it like this:  they’ve learned all the practical applications, but still need the theory.  And since theory always comes in the intro classes, what we can we really do?

That administrative failing suggests something bigger to me.  I wonder if both our traditional and returning students wouldn’t be better served by experiences that look just a little more like the upward bound arrow, a little more accommodating to the learning people may have begun on their own, and more like that physics class.


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