Perfectionism

Most semesters I’ll have at least a couple of students who are torturing themselves with perfectionism. Sometimes it’s so bad and they get so completely in their own way that they can’t do any work at all. I am well aware that there are some neurological and psychological dimensions to this, but as a sociological response it’s interesting as well.

In my specific experience perfectionism manifests as flailing around standards and expectations. These are the students who beg me to tell them what I want, to give them a checkbox algorithm for success. Turing me up, they say. “I want you to become responsible for an area of investigation and figure out some things about it” does not compute in the language of standards and expectations they are using.

What’s happening is that they’re waiting for someone else to define the domain and the task in a way that makes perfection possible. They’re waiting for this because over and over again, this is what they have in fact gotten. Perfection makes complete sense as a standard when perfection is achievable. In the familiar model, this looks like a test with a hundred questions on it. Although it’s difficult to answer a hundred questions correctly, it certainly can be done and often is. Perfection is a harsh but reasonable standard under these circumstances.

All through our lives engineered linearizations like tests and classes and disciplines and jobs compress and control the situations we’re in, so no one has to answer more than a hundred questions at once. But these tours de force come with some severe consequences. The world is not actually divided up into hundred question domains. There are millions of questions, and they’re irreducibly interrelated. Answering them with some level of understanding requires openness to unstructured learning, and pulling in information and strategies from across multiple domains. Perfection is not possible and therefore not a reasonable standard. We’re pulling together what we can and trying to do better. Although a division of labor and/or the emergent wisdom of markets can simulate that to some degree, such arrangements leave each actor desperately ignorant about how anything actually works.

I may be wrong, but I don’t think you can scaffold the transition from a hundred question mindset to a million question mindset. It’s not a matter of scaling up an existing cognitive routine. The existing cognitive routine is in the way, which is where the flailing comes from once it starts to fail. So I think you have to insistently make it impossible to scale the task down to a hundred questions and let the magnitude of that failure work its magic. At least that’s what I do, and it works often enough that the occasional tragic virtuoso of perfectionism looks like a sad but acceptable price to pay.

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That’s a wrap

I just told a section of introductory World History they were going to make me cry, and let them out a half hour early.

Their second paper is due next week, so this week was for workshopping. My focus was on the analysis rubric: people, events, ideas, structures, dynamics. I had run through this several times over the course of the semester, not expecting them to learn it yet but just to get it familiar. (They don’t learn things until they need them for something. I’ve observed this over and over – we waste so much time teaching out of sequence with tasks! But I learned it first from Dyke the Elder years ago remarking that he’d had Calculus three different times but only learned it the third, because he needed it then for something else he was doing. Feynman says this in his famous lectures on physics, as well.)

Tuesday I asked the students to pull out their devices and look up structure and dynamics. Because the pump was primed, they found the ‘right’ definitions right away. We talked for a second about how these concepts could be helpful in organizing and making sense of the mass of information they’ve accumulated in their research. Then I pulled up one of their draft introductory paragraphs and we walked through it together, finding the people, events, ideas, structures, and dynamics it mentioned or implied. I diagrammed this all simply on the whiteboard as we went, and filled it up easily. I got the sense that this process really opened their eyes to how much was involved in even the simplest analyses.

Today we pulled up another paragraph, and with very little prompting they did the same exercise with it. The topic was Nazi propaganda, and the author had already figured out that their project was more about redirection than persuasion. By the end, we were talking about feed-in and feedback dynamics among citizens, the army, and the party. It was way cool.

I asked the whole group what they were learning for their own work from the discussion of their classmates’. One said it was seeing its research in a whole new light, as a way to figure things out rather than just amass and spout information. Another said it was now seeing a whole series of connections between its research and the rest of the class. A third chimed in that it was like we were writing a textbook together.

I asked if they wanted to workshop another paragraph and they said no, we’re ready. Which I thought was a good place to stop for the day.

A good problem to have

With an election approaching and heated rhetoric swirling in all my social and media feeds, I organized all of my classes this semester around the theme of Godwin’s Law. So that means it’s all Nazis, all the time for me this semester. Which can be wearing. But here’s an email I just got:

Greetings Dr. D,

I am having some trouble with my second paper and thought I’d reach out to you in an effort to sort out my thoughts.  Honestly I’m not even sure exactly what I’m going to be writing about, which I’m sure is 90% of the problem ::insert nervous faced emoji here::.  I know that I want this paper to talk about Hindenburg and others like him fearing Communism so much that Hitler was the “lesser of two evils.”  Those people did not want to lose their power or their property.  It was about their status and social position.  I want to talk about how that is just as important, if not more so, in contributing to Hitler’s rise to power.   I also know they thought they could use Hitler to their advantage, but I’m not quite sure what that advantage was.  Anyway, a lot of what I’ve read talks about these on the surface things, like the Treaty of Versailles, as the reason Hitler came to power (basically all the stuff I wrote in my last paper).  And although those things absolutely contributed, I think there were other things happening “backstage” that got the ball rolling, like the aforementioned power struggle.

Well there’s a good problem to have. I told this student to read back what it just wrote, trust what it had figured out, and go for it. Then, since this is a semester-long research project and I’m gradually nudging them past the people / intentions / events layer of analysis, I suggested that

Going forward, you’re absolutely getting into a complex systems kind of analysis. So the next layer after you get the intentions and trajectories of the various actors sorted is to see how those were emerging from and evolving interactively within the larger settings, at various scales.

I do not expect that to be fully self-explanatory in itself, but this and quite a few other students are getting to where they can collate a remark like this with a lot of other things I’ve showed them and we’ve talked about and practiced in class to scaffold up. Which is way cool.

After years of comprehensive education, these students came in pretty uniformly convinced “Hitler was a bad man” was fully explanatory. (From this starting point, “Hitler had some good ideas but” counts as critical thinking.) Three months of critical discussion, ignorance mapping, recursive primary and secondary research, paper drafting and workshopping, lather rinse repeating later, the puzzles have gotten quite a bit more worthy of human intelligence.

“An ongoing myriad of structures”

For the past few years Dyke the Elder and I have been more or less working on a paper about teaching complexity. We haven’t found a home for it yet, and in the meantime I’ve been gathering data in the form of student journal entries from the class demonstration and discussion of a Calder-style mobile.

Here’s one of those I just read. This is a student who engaged immediately and continuously with the class, and so was well-primed for the epiphany it describes by the time of this discussion, just before and after midterm break. I think there are signs here beyond textual assertion that a transformation is occurring. In fact, I think it’s visible even in the diction and vocabulary shift in this entry. This student is clearly pretty rough around the edges, but in the end it pulled together a semester’s research on the hystory of hysteria into a cogent, well-informed, and perceptively analyzed final paper.

Today in class we discussed variables and how they affect our situation. For example, when your driving do you have a control on all of the variables around you? The answer is no. you don’t know if there’s a drunk driver heading your way, or the person in front of you is texting and about to stop short at the light, you don’t know if someone is going to run the light and t-bone you….but you don’t consider these variables. So each situation is an even[t] with various structures within it much like driving. At this moment came the epiphany that there are an ongoing myriad of structures occurring within any given situation of our lives. The mobile represents the connections between the variables and structures that make up the events of life.

Fun?

Here at MU we’ve got a pretty generous student worker policy. Each of us can have one or more student workers if we can produce an explanation of how they’d come in handy. Their compensation is part of the financial aid package.

I’ve had several over the years. Their official title is “Igor,” pronounced eye-gore like the Marty Feldman character in “Young Frankenstein.” They’ve done various things for me, from rearranging my bookshelves by color to peer reviewing all my World History papers to bringing me up to speed on digital resources.

This semester’s Igor is an Albanian guy, which is fun because Gramsci (he tells me we’re spelling it wrong) was Albanian-Italian, and also because when my family lived in Italy in the 70’s we mythologized Albania (then a closed society) as a mysterious land of crazy geniuses. Which has, in fact, pretty much fit the few Albanians I’ve known.

OK, so on to the ‘fun’. Igor has been sitting in on one of my World History sections, to get a feel and make suggestions about how to improve the learning experience for students. He’s prepped me with a lot of great traditional teaching materials about 1914 (our topic at the moment). But it’s become clear that we’re not really on the same page about the project, which is no surprise and a learning opportunity for both of us.

I don’t want to be throwing traditional teaching materials at the students; I want to be guiding them in a process of figuring out how to find stuff for themselves. Igor has been impatient with the chaos of this process; he sees the students spinning their wheels and thinks we’re not really getting anywhere. But he’s very smart, and he pays attention, so he gets that I’m not going to be lecturing. What we need to do, he says, is package up the historical resources so they’re “fun” for the students.

Igor’s so far ahead of the game. It took me until grad school to figure this out. So much better than jamming the porridge down the students’ throats. Then it took me until I’d been teaching on my own for five or six years to become dissatisfied with it. It’s a trap. Yes, you win hearts and minds; you gain a positive relationship and a comradely process. Some learning does happen. But, once you go down the rathole of what students find fun, it’s almost impossible to get out. That fun sticks to what they already know and think like glue. Unless they happen to find learning fun, what they find fun and interesting is itself the cognitive / emotional limitation a higher education is meant to open out into new abilities, possibilities, and perspectives.

What I have to offer is not the laborious translation of history into their existing ludic frames. What I have to offer is whole new ways to have fun. The fun of understanding complex processes; of puzzling through ignorance to knowledge; of knowing what the hell you’re talking about. The fun of belonging in adult conversations, of being taken seriously for the quality of your insight and not just tolerated for the humanity of your personal opinion. The fun of a whole world bursting with interesting things, in which nothing isn’t interesting. Most of them don’t know this stuff is fun yet, because it’s not how education has ever worked for them. For some of them, the fun has been actively sucked out of learning. Trying to make learning fun in the ways they’re used to is not a solution to that problem.

Nowadays I try to make the process quirky and offbeat and informal in ways that are at least intriguing and non-threatening. But the fun doesn’t really start until they’ve hesitantly selected a topic and done some research and actually found something out. It’s then that the magic of education can slide in among the other pleasures of our lives.

World history in the tranches

My feeds have been flooded with anniversary stuff for the Great War (WWI, if you prefer) and I, in my usual catlike way when other people want me to pay attention to stuff for reasons I haven’t come around to myself, have been ignoring it. Also because I dislike the whole special occasion / anniversary approach to attention-getting, as if the reason things are worth attending to is because they happened some particular amount of time ago. And yes, I do feel that way about birthdays, including my own.

But also in my catlike way I eventually do come around when the thing actually is worth attending to. So I’ve decided, I think, to use the Great War and this burbling up of materials about it as an occasion to do something I’ve talked about before, which is to organize my World History classes around in-depth study of a year, in this case 1914. And since it’s an introductory class and meant to be a survey, I figured I’d add tranches at 1814, 1714, 1614, and 1514. The idea is to make sharp cuts into world history in relative depth, rather than the usual superficial textbook brushover. This is always my approach, but in the past I’ve made the tranches regionally and sociologically more than chronologically.

So I figured we’d start with 1914 and do sort of the standard survey together, using the course texts. Then branch out into group research projects around politics, society, economy, culture, and environment. The global scope is bound to be a confound, so we’ll have to talk about that and how to manage it, thinking in terms of regions and dynamics and, pragmatically, sources. They’ll be required to keep a process journal, and the first paper will grow out of it. Their job is to figure out 1914.

I reckon that can take us up through midterm. When we come back, they’ll divide into research teams for each of the other tranches, back to 1514. The second paper will relate to the first – somehow, based on where their knowledge and curiosity has gone. There’s something each one is figuring out at this point, another, even deeper tranche. The final paper puts the first two together and transforms them by developing the connection, whatever it is.

I want to use Haraway / Dumit’s ‘implosion’ technique John McCreery connected us to at Dead Voles. I especially want to do Dumit’s knowledge maps and ignorance maps. In my experience focusing too much on reflexive epistemology just confuses most students and shuts them down, but we can at least get at how knowledge is constructed actively and recursively. I also want to keep working on getting more of the ’roundtable’ experiences I’ve discussed before into the class. The first section sets up well for roundtabling the synchronic perspectives assembled (and not) by the war; the second, for exploring shifting (and not) perspectives over time. I think this part of the agenda pushes the implosion analysis toward perspectives as its most likely objects, but I’m going to be flexible about that if students’ curiosity is drawn to other kinds of objects.

This is pretty much the plan of the course; how it works out in particular will vary for the usual constitutive and interactive reasons. I’m at least a week out from doing the syllabus, though, so I’d welcome any thoughts or suggestions!

P.s. – In an earlier moment I was finally going to let my frustration with the “Hitler-was-a-uniquely-bad-man-who-hoodwinked-the-gullible-Germans-and-personally-killed-lots-of-Jews” papers I sometimes get, accelerated by hysterical public pronouncements by official persons that Obamacare is just like the Holocaust, direct the class into an in-depth examination of those hypotheses in all their historical inglory. I’ll just do that next time, unless someone talks me out of it or something better comes up.

Why do American teachers stink at learning how to teach?

Via the Facebook page of Making Thinking Visible (Project Zero, Visible Thinking) comes an interesting article from the NY Times, “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?”

It turns out a big chunk of the answer is, because American teachers stink at learning how to teach. This stinkage is illustrated by contrast to the Japanese, who ironically got jazzed about American innovations in teaching theory and practice during the ’80s, and implemented them at the same time they were going nowhere in the U.S. The article, which is adapted from Elizabeth Green’s forthcoming book Building a Better Teacher, argues that although the U.S. is a leader in conceptual innovation and extraordinary experimentation, we do a particularly bad job of general implementation because we fail to actually show teachers how to do the exciting new thing. This has happened over and over again. In contrast again, the Japanese made a commitment to the change and poured tremendous institutional and peer support into training up the educators. So in fact Green’s thesis is that it’s not that we stink at learning how to teach, but at teaching how to teach.

No doubt this is true, or at least it’s a perennial complaint. But there’s something a little odd about the argument. The consistent theme of each iteration of innovation is to take an experimental attitude to teaching, and to commit to an open-ended process of discovery. The Japanese teacher offered as model is Takeshi Matsuyama. “At the university-affiliated elementary school where Matsuyama taught, he turned his classroom into a kind of laboratory, concocting and trying out new teaching ideas.” The idea is to set up a discovery-oriented environment, then let students figure it out for themselves.

So, why does Green think teachers themselves need something other than this? I realize there are all sorts of strategies that ‘facilitate’ this process – I’ve developed many by doing, learned others by paying attention and reading and making connections. There’s much more for me to learn, and plenty I’ve forgotten that I shouldn’t have. I could tell all this to apprentices. But again, the point of the method is self-discovery through recursive experimentation and research and reflection. It’s really the opposite of ‘we need to show these people how to do this algorithm’, which is precisely the old model that we’re trying to get over. On this view, we don’t at all need to show teachers how to do this. We just need to set them to the task and let them sort it out.

Well in actual fact, that hasn’t worked. Instead, confusion reigns and the reform collapses back into old habits. Which, as Dave Mazella keeps saying, have the substantial merit of not working in familiar ways that define the norm, reinforced and perpetuated by what Green calls the “apprenticeship of observation.” And since it’s clearly the case that failure is endemically acceptable – normal, in fact – in the American education system, so things remain. Would teaching the teachers how to teach change that?

I’m not sure. It’s the disposition of discovery and risk that’s missing; that would seem to be built into our system, but it was in Japan too. And it would seem to be simple enough – it’s a one-page handout, a blog post – to convey the concept of moving from an “I, We, You” to a “You, Y’All, We” classroom framework. Try it, work with it. Here’s a problem: “Without the right training, most teachers do not understand math well enough to teach it the way [innovator Magdalene] Lampert does.” But Lampert’s method does not require the teacher to understand math, yet. It requires the teacher to understand the process of figuring math out, which, as the math-in-the-wild examples in the article show, is available to anyone who accepts the need to do so and puts their mind to it. Again, the idea that there’s some special training teachers need here seems off-base.

Green tells poignantly of teachers trying to do it right, but instead taking the new script and jamming the old one into it.

And how could she have known to do anything different? Her principal praised her efforts, holding them up as an example for others. Official math-reform training did not help, either. Sometimes trainers offered patently bad information — failing to clarify, for example, that even though teachers were to elicit wrong answers from students, they still needed, eventually, to get to correct ones.

How could she have known? Well, did her students figure something out or not? Did they start getting right answers or not? Why were their answers right or wrong? Really, she has to be told that eventually the point is to get to right answers? She’s looking for a recipe, rather than paying attention to what’s happening. It’s not hard to know if students are learning or not, if you pay attention and think a little.

What’s needed is curiosity and responsibility. When teachers have these, all is well, just as when students have them, all is well. The Japanese (and Finnish, and exotic flavor-of-the-month) example show that this can, to a degree, be generalized. I’m not sure what it would take to enable this in the American setting, but years of failed innovation suggest it’s not a one-variable problem.