"One side of what? The other side of what?" thought Alice to herself.
"Of the mushroom," said the Caterpillar, just as if she had asked it
aloud; and in another moment it was out of sight."
—"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," Chapter Five, Lewis Carroll, 1865

 

The Radio Dial

Classroom teachers are impatient with theories—at least theories about teaching. It is easy to understand. They're doing it. They don't have time for abstract ideas. They need practical solutions. For several years I taught university classes in the summer and at night, high school during the traditional school year. Looking over the long, dry reading list for a Learning Theory graduate class I hadn't taught before, I sighed. It's reputation among students—inconsequential, irrelevant, irritating. It was required for their degree, which made them even grumpier. I needed a new approach. Forget the lecture on the origin of knowledge. What to do?

***

Reverse engineering. Today it's applied to technology. In August 2012, the web news site Network World's lead story reported "Pirated Mobile Android and Apple Apps Getting Hacked, Cracked, and Smacked." Fully 92% of the top hundred apps had been hacked in various ways. Between hacking, reverse engineering, and copying, mostly by China, the cost in lost revenue is estimated at $20 billion a year. Big problem.

But reverse engineering can make things better. In the Industrial Age it meant taking something apart to see how it works in order to enhance it. To look at structure, function, operation. I decided I would structure the theory class around their classrooms. A project of deconstruction, analysis, evaluation of everything from style to content—all done by them. Based on the theorists we discussed, how could they explain their successes and failures? What needed change? Why did some things work, while others crashed?

I began with two questions for the back of their large yellow course registration cards: One, write something you have learned to do. Two, define learning.  

We talked about their answers, then tried to organize them. What did they have in common? Were there gaps in the framework we created?

The room filled with laughter, listening, discussion. It wasn't a conventional start. But it was a start.  Graduate students vary widely in age, in background, in experience. Seeing what they had in common reminded us we were in the same story. The human story. A story we all wanted to improve.

One term I saved their registration cards. They reported:

I HAVE LEARNED

To tie a tie.
To walk.
To understand other people's perspectives.
To ride a bicycle.
To figure out the standard deviation for a set of scores.
To drive a car.
To set rock climbing protection.
To find the small things that make me happy.
To draw a camel.
To play music.
To accept help from others.
To have a positive outlook on life.
To print like this.
To climb back up again.

***

The term flew by. On final exam night  I returned the yellow cards.

The directions:

Based on your work this term respond to the following:

"Nature is like a radio band with infinite stations; the reality you are now experiencing
is only one station on the band, completely convincing as long as you stay tuned to it,
but masking the other choices that lie on either side." —Deepok Chopra.

Read your early definition of learning. What would you say now? Incorporate in your
answer both the radio metaphor and your original definition.

The first line of your essay: "Classrooms hold the residue of theories once widely
embraced but now supplanted. Using the radio metaphor, the culture was once tuned
to otherworldly pursuits about what is worth knowing, followed by an earth-centered
view of reality, and more recently a man-centered perspective."

"Taking things apart doesn't guarantee you can put them together again the same way," a student observed as he read.

"Do you want to?" I said.

***

A good high school math teacher is a particular gift. There aren't many. In the boys high school where I spent fifteen years there was one man, competent in his content area, but a disaster managing students. Without the second the first doesn't matter. One spring I spent several days watching a student in my class fiddling with a small mirror.

I wondered what he was doing. I walked over to him during an activity session.

"What's up?" he said.

"I was thinking the same thing. What's with the mirror?"

A red flush crept his neck. He said, "I didn't think you'd noticed."

"I noticed. So, what's up?"

Gesturing out the window he said, "Look. I can catch the sun and reflect it into the classroom in the next building. It's driving the teacher crazy." He beamed as though this was a big accomplishment.

I got the mirror. He got to apologize to the math teacher, the unfortunate target of the unwanted light show. Later, the teacher said, "I don't understand it. You teach some classes one way and some another. It's inconsistent. I teach everything the same way. I'm consistent. I don't see why I have problems."

I was sympathetic. All teachers struggle. Most of the time I felt every class was a game of pick up sticks—one slip and the whole pile would collapse. We had the same conversation many times. He felt the problem was the students. That was true, but he was part the solution. I never convinced him.

My colleague knew a great deal about math. He knew less about how students learn. I kept a radio in my classroom. I wondered if I should explain why I had it. It was to remind me. The radio needed adjusting depending on the air pressure and time of day. Otherwise it drifted into static that drowned the signal. Just like teaching.

***

One of my favorite professors often said, "Reality is a collective hunch. Science is a way to define reality based on objectivity. It's allowed us to be among the worst adapted creatures and still survive. We began with simple tools, and ended with the invention of theories. The better the theories, the more adaptable we are."

"Alice in Wonderland" is a story of change and adaptation. After her conversation with the Caterpillar, she continues to search for that beautiful garden. She comes upon an open place with a house in it about four feet high.

" 'Whoever lives there,' thought Alice, 'it'll never do to come upon them this size: why, I
should frighten them out of their wits!' So she began nibbling at the right hand bit
again, and did not venture to go near the house until she had brought herself down
to nine inches high."

***

At the end of the graduate course a student gave me a small orange sign. "Cookie cutter solutions are great if you’re a cookie."

That's true. But students aren't cookies and single instructional approaches rarely work. The caterpillar wasn't Alice's only teacher. Theory wasn't mine. But it helped.

Sometimes, though, the radio was most powerful when it was turned off. As Emerson said, "I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching."

I concocted a special assignment for my wayward student. "Write a paper on light refraction and its applications in architecture. Five pages. Due in five days. If it’s not turned in on time it will become ten pages. Use the writing skills you obviously have mastered since you have time to do science experiments with mirrors in English class."

"I was just having fun," he whined. "You can’t make me write an essay about THAT. I don’t have time. I have practice."

I stared at him. Silent.

At last he snatched the directions and stormed out. He turned in a good paper. Early. It was the last I saw of mirrors, from him or anyone else.

Radio bands and spaces. A theory about behavior and consequences. Lights reflected across classrooms for adults and teenagers.

Deepok Chopra—physician and spiritual writer. B.F. Skinner—psychologist and author.

Thank you both.

- from Following Alice: A Life in Teaching