Open-ended Inquiry in Science Education (and Education in General?)

Science Education

Open-ended inquiry in practice:

Developing laboratory experiences

Paul Grobstein and Wil Franklin have been collaborating for a number of years on the development of laboratory experiences for college introductory biology courses and working with teachers to develop experiences for precollege education. Here we bring together materials reflecting those experiences. We encourage others to contribute their own experiences and thoughts using the on-line forum below.

A starting point

Science is a way of making sense of the world and the place of humans in it by making observations, generating candidate explanations of those observations, testing the explanations by further observations, and repeating over and over again. In this sense, it is firmly anchored in an unending empirical process that loops repeatedly between observations and interpretations. The loop itself in turn cycles between inductive and deductive steps. Regularities in patterns of observations suggest possible general principles (the inductive step) which in turn are used to generate predictions about observations as yet unmade (the deductive step). The process of generating and testing predictions yields both new ways of making sense of the world and one's place in it and new questions about both. In this important sense, science is not about finding "truth" but instead is a process of continuing inquiry driven equally by curiosity, skepticism, and imagination.

Implications for eduation in general

The underpinnings of science have implications not only for science education but for thinking about learning in general. They suggest that what is of primary importance is to encourage and help students to develop their skills and sophistication in inquiry as a ongoing process, rather than primarily to teach them either particular content or particular skills. This is particularly true in an age when content is widely accessible and particular skills quickly go out of date. The need is not to implant particular material or perspectives in students but rather to help them develop the capacities to evaluate information and to construct for themselves meaningful ways of organizing information.

This is not at all to say that content is irrelevant to the educational process. Content is the fuel for the engine of inquiry, and cannot therefore be ignored. But conveying content is not the primary point of the educational process and so content should be chosen to facilitate the development of inquiry skills rather than starting with content and then trying to present it in a way that also develops inquiry skills.

As for students creating meaning for themselves, it is not solely a function of individual inclination but involves an essential social dimension as well. Interactions with others are important contributors both to creating and to evaluating ways of organizing information. What is being challenged here is not the value of shared knowledge and ways of making sense of information but rather the notion that one should start with shared knowledge and ways of making sense of information. Instead one should allow these commonalities to emerge and evolve in ways that involve the ongoing development of individual understandings.

Open-ended inquiry depends fundamentally on a continuing engagement of individuals with a process whose outcome is not fully determined in advance. It is only through such an engagement that students will acquire enhanced abilities to acquire, evaluate, and find ways to make sense of information themselves.

Implications for open-ended inquiry exercises

  • Start with materials that students are interested in, and about which they have both thoughts and questions.
  • Prepare scaffolding and guideline appropriate for the sophistication of the students level. More scaffolding for younger students, less or none for older students.
  • Encourage students to recognize and share their current understandings of these sorts of materials, and to notice differences in understandings.
  • Encourage students to make new observations that are surprising to at least some of them.
  • Encourage students to figure out why they are surprised (ie what understanding they had that wouldn't have let them to expect the observation they have made), and what new understandings (stories) would account for previous understandings as well as the new observations.
  • Encourage students to make explicit to themselves and others their new understandings and the reasons for them, and to recognize and reflect on differences among them.
  • Enourage students to conceive new observations that have the potential to again alter their understandings/stories.
  • Repeat



Alice Lesnick's picture

Thanks for your reply,

Thanks for your reply, David, and for re-locating these conversations, Paul. I agree that it's vital to student engagement for curricular challenge to be specific enough; it can't be so lofty as to leave everyone without a place to stand/start/hold on and without a sense of where to go next. People can also fashion for themselves such hand-holds, imaginative conditions to sustain and inform their (and even others') engagement, but some need more scaffolding to achieve this than others. Clarifying (and structuring) this as a responsibility of students as well as teachers in an inquiry-oriented classroom is a worthy goal.

Paul Grobstein's picture

multiple voices, in one place?

Rich conversation. I hope y'all won't object to a poor scientist reappearing in it? I do indeed think, as per David's last, that a touchstone of "medium range inferences" is an essential element of good education, both in the sciences and in the humanities. I also think its worth talking a bit more about whether students "need to feel they have to grasp one thing before they can grasp multiple things." Maybe Babel is not only a cultural norm/desideratum but also more an individual one than we sometimes expect/acknowledge?

Delighted to follow David's suggestion that we center this continuing conversation here at Serendip. Let me further suggest that the conversation is rich enough so that it deserves it own location. I've created one at Education: Between Two Cultures. The hope is that this will not only make it easier to find one another but also facilitate other interested people joining the conversation. See you there.

Alice Lesnick's picture

Greetings. I'm interested

Greetings. I'm interested in the distinction David makes between “first-hand observation of objects” and “culturally embedded object or phenomena.” For me, it's important to question this distinction because it depends on a line I find more or less blurry and because I believe that the difficulty students face in engaging curiously with material they encounter has less to do with the nature of the material than with the context of the encounter.

As it happens, I studied 18th century British literature in college (at Yale in the early 1980's) because I was excited by the idea that people thought novels could be dangerous. I loved learning about the historical and critical context of the texts I read but I don’t think I was completely helpless without it, even at first, to find in the words, voices, or narratives something to wonder about, even if it were to wonder what the fuss was. It would have been inhibiting (in fact, it was) to think that only certain questions could count as relevant, that many of mine were naïve and at best preliminary, and that the only responsibility before me was to learn to ask correct ones. While I respect the goal of helping students refine their critical vocabularies, I see this as one legitimate goal among many. My sense is that students are likelier to approach reading with abundant curiosity when the pedagogical purposes inviting it are also abundant and include goals such as changing and being changed by reading and writing in and beyond (and criss-crossing) the academy. (I've been reading Howard's _Learning privilege: Lessons of power and identity in affluent schooling (Routledge, 2008); he argues that curricular openness to multiple perspectives, stories, and cultural frameworks is a useful strategy for interrupting privilege. Of course, it wouldn't make sense to assume that this justifies pedagogical free-for-all, or that it does away with any legitimate purpose for disciplinary knowledge -- merely that it makes for that cow a larger field.)

As to naturally observable phemonena, we know that we can't ever finally disentangle them from our stories of them. The activities of observation and representation engage prior knowledge, imagination, feeling and occasion new knowledge, imagination, and feeling. The things themselves are changing as are our perceptions. That sciences drawing on empirical observation discipline these complexities in various ways does not do away with them. Observation is culturally situated and mediated by language, and by my field, education. At the same time, life exceeds whatever we have, or have learned, to say about it; observation can exceed known, owned frameworks, as well.

My sense is that all or any of this might be more or less interesting to students depending on the imagined permeability of their encounter with it. In this, I am guided by Davis, Sumara, and Luce-Kapler (2000)in a book on contemporary theories of curriculum, _Engaging Minds_. The authors advocate for complex learning theories, through which, “rather than casting thought as a phenomenon that is about the world, thinking is recognized to be part of the universe. . . . [T}he universe is understood to change when a thought changes, because that thought is not merely in the universe or about the universe . . . Rather, learning is coming to be understood as a participation in the world, a co-evolution of knower and known that transforms both” (pp. 63-4).

David Mazella's picture

literary works as artifacts vs. literature as text?

Hi Alice,

Of course, when I teach my students something about 18c lit, I try to incorporate their first-hand observations of their initial encounters into class discussion, for all the reasons of engagement you cite. I always tell them (echoing Empson, I think), "your response is a critical fact," and telling them not to neglect their gut feelings about certain characters and situations. And I don't think that refining vocabularies actually involves telling them that "certain questions" are irrelevant. I'm delighted to hear that they have any opinion or question aboutthe material. So this goal of elaboration is not about silencing views, but teaching them how to recognize patterns in what is otherwise a very, very alienating set of texts.

The regularities involve the responses that they regularly exhibit in their responses to historical materials (why doesn't Pamela just run away from Mr. B?). The ideologies of present-day Houston are all on display when male and female students of various ages and classes read about a young woman who is being "harassed." My classes regularly split into pro- and anti-Pamela camps when they discuss her reactions, and they argue vehemently about P's choices.

The regularities also involve 18c ideologies of class, gender, etc., which my students also find baffling: they read Roy Porter's social history in my novel class, and find out that the English men and women so described were often violent, drunken, and impolite (a clear comment on their assumptions about Englishness in the present). They find patrician and pleb attitudes toward public executions repulsive, and they are fascinated by the open hostility to certain forms of religiosity by aristocratic or would-be aristocratic writers like Fielding or Behn. And to many of my (married or unmarried) female students, the mores of Jane Austen's characters are as remote as those of Catherine of Aragon. So I have no illusions about the universality of these plots or the societies they sprang from.

I really have no argument with your notions of openness and multiple perspectives in the classroom, but I think we keep returning to Willingham's lesson of medium range inferences and its implications for student boredom. (See my exchange with Paul). Students need to feel that they are grasping one thing before they can grasp multiple things. This is why storytelling is so important, because it sets up hierarchies and priorities that are easily intelligible to even the beginning student.


David Mazella's picture

the babelfish

Well, if you're going to quote scripture, then I'll just have to quote The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

The Babel fish is small, yellow and leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy received not from its own carrier but from those around it . . . . The practical upshot of all this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language . . . . Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation . . . .

My only point being that we have no reason to assume that shared understandings (i.e. the babel fish's fictional translation mechanism) will eliminate conflict or disagreement. But I don't see myself as upholding the moral of the Genesis parable about disagreement or shared language, so this is not a problem for me.

My other point would be that when I said at MLA that students "surrender their own frameworks for understanding," my assumption then and now was that this "surrender" was also part of a class-wide process of reconstruction of their understandings of the class's reading materials, in order for them to attain a new and more sophisticated level of understanding.

So not only is this revision-process a collective one that students are actively participating in, as I've stressed earlier, but it's also predicated on the independent inquiry that they must do individually via research while revisiting the material and their previous understandings. (this is probably clearer in my talk than in my panel summary online)

So, yes, newer understandings must displace older ones. The initial statement "Derrida is hard" has to be displaced by questions about why Derrida writes the way he does, what meanings his philosophical style might have in the context of modernist literature, continental philosophy, etc., and so on. The only thing that gets the student to the point of discussing a difficult author is a patient series of exchanges with other students, with the text itself and its glosses, with the additional readings and contexts, and of course with the teacher. Students have to be able to recapitulate certain kinds of material accurately (dates of publication) and to be able to make sense of Derrida at a sentence by sentence level, to feel confident enough to read him in a more comprehensive or detailed way. And so the "surrender" I'm talking about is more than offset by the gain that the students (note plural) take away from the collective experience they've participated in.

But this does demand their active participation and engagement, even with the most difficult texts. To ensure this, I break down the text to very small sections, and make small groups of students (previously formed research teams) responsible for this or that chunk of text or portion of the argument. I try as much as possible to throw the responsibility of explication onto them, and lecture as little as possible.

Finally, I think historicization absolutely does lead us to reflect upon the present political significance of certain texts, but not in ways that are immediately apparent to my beginning students. This is one of the reasons why Foucault and texts like Nietzsche, Genealogy and History or What is Enlightenment? can be so powerful, even in an undergraduate classroom. Texts like these do, however, need to be taught for students to recognize how this kind of reading works. And students need to learn about the historical antecedents about their own attitudes and problems, and how to locate themselves in relation to a complex and non-determinist past.


Anne Dalke's picture

"Context is boundless"

"Cultural studies has reinvigorated the literary category of 'context.'"

"Meaning is context-bound....context is boundless; there is no determining in advance what might count as relevant" (Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction)

David-- I've gotten your book, and hope to get to it soon.

In the interim...

I've found your adding a historical dimension to our conversation very helpful, especially your focusing on "the epistemic break that occurs around the time of the seventeenth-century discovery of scientific method," and your suggesting that "this shift created a new, anti-rhetorical paradigm of transparent communication."

I was trained in 19th century American literary studies, and continue--through many changes--to teach the big books that first enticed me into the field--Moby-Dick, Leaves of Grass, The Scarlet Letter, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Emerson's Essays...none of these assume the transparency of language, and I think my whole career has presumed its opacity, its always "standing-in-for" that which eludes us, its insistently reminding us of that elusiveness.

What I've learned, from hanging out with the scientists @ Bryn Mawr over the past five or six years, is (what seems to me) their much more naive presumption about how language (should!) work: calling a spade a spade, thinking a rose is a rose is a rose...

But it is also (curiously?) the case that it is in conversations with these scientists--especially in the Working Group on Emergence--that I came to understand the degree to which every story falls short, needing to be extended and exceeded by its interpretation. we make "meaning" as we try to bridge the gap between what we know and what we do not understand, between past and present, between present and future: how our stories are the explanations we "make up" to explain how we got from A to B, how we might have gotten to B from A.

The task here is neither discovering the past or dictating the future, but rather making use of the past to create something for the future. Following the logic of emergence, students need not worry when confronted with a poem they don't "understand," since their task is not to "get it right," but rather to contribute to this process of exploration.

Strikingly--and I think this may be the spot where we "rub" against one another?--the process is facilitated by the inexactness with which we hear one another's accounts. Recognizing the productivity of our inability to hear exactly what one another says constitutes a fundamental revision of one of our primary myths about what is needed to facilitate human interaction.

In the Genesis story of the building of the Tower of Babel,

the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language...and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do....let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.

In the Biblical version, the people are powerless to act without a common language, and the building of the tower ceases. But emergence offers a contemporary counter-story and alternative explanation: lacking a common language, people have a means of discovering things they didn't know. Their gap in understanding is itself productive of new meaning. Paul wrote about this in Two Cultures:

In a class session devoted to analysis of some poems...the conversation turned to the question of differences between "languages". If indeed there were highly unambiguous "languages" (mathematics, as well as, for example, computer programming languages), how come ordinary "language" was invariably highly "ambiguous" in interpretation (so much so that poetry was a legitimate art form and "literary criticism" a legitimate profession, with a method not dissimilar from "science")? What emerged from the discussion was the idea that ordinary language is not "supposed" to be unambiguous, because its primary function is not in fact to transmit from sender to receiver a particular, fully defined "story". Ordinary language is instead "designed" (by biological and cultural evolution) to perform a more sophisticated, bidirectional communication function. A story is told by the sender not to simply transmit the story but also, and equally importantly, to elicit information from/about the receiver, to find out what is otherwise unknowable by the sender: what ideas/thoughts/perspectives the receiver has about the general subject of the story. An unambiguous transmission/story calls for nothing from the receiver other than what the transmitter already knows; an ambiguous transmission/story links teller/transmitter and audience/receiver in a conversation (and, ideally, in a dialectic from which new things emerge)

As I see it, the use-value of literary criticism, of the literature it interprets, and of language more generally, emerges in these transitional moments or interstitial places where negotiation is necessary--and where (therefore) meanings need to be constructed. We see this in the evolution of new words, new literary forms, new literary interpretations, and in re-making the meaning of old ones of each of these.

Each time a new story is told, at each of these levels, it identifies--in ways that are unpredictable beforehand--other tales not yet articulated. New stories get generated in an emergent process, as interactions in the environment leave traces (in literature) that are continuously picked up (in literary theory) and re-combined in new configurations. Literary analysis makes new stories out of the stories we have preserved; the most useful of those are continuously generative of that which surprises.

Okay--given that that's where I'm coming from...

particularly striking to me, in your report on the MLA session on cultural studies pedagogy, was the notion that what you are after is getting students to "surrender their own frameworks for understanding." I certainly want students to suspend their own frameworks and try to enter others, but my goals have everything to do with making something new in history, not with going back and settling there: I'm much more interested in moving from familiar to unfamiliar, not in "reproducing" what we've been told, but rather to make something NEW.

I understand the need for constructing frameworks that enable discussion to take place among students different in capacity and preparation; and join in your attempts to get them to extend their insights thereby...Once you made it clear that "shared understanding" is a "rhetorical platform that student may use to develop their own insights," rather than a final destination, I realized that we are not only literally but pedagogically on the same page.

And yet...

If the "emphasis on historicization... leads us away from the question of present political significance," why are we looking back instead of forward? What is your idea about what education should/might be doing?

David Mazella's picture

the generation of new, shared understandings in inquiry?

Hi Anne,

As I was looking over my last response, I realized that your question contained one assumption that I thought still needed to be unpacked:

OTOH, "shared understandings are...the goal of storytelling or rhetoric."
OTOH, "the goal is... moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar,
so that new criticism and refinement...
can be generated."

If I understand you correctly, you feel that these two goals contradict one another. But I am not sure why, as long as we assume a collective process in which students play an active role in setting the agenda and generating the frameworks and insights of discussion.

I suspect that I should have made it clearer that I do not regard any "shared understanding" as the final destination of a course or a lecture, but as a collectively-generated rhetorical platform that students may use to develop and extend indefinitely their own insights, as part of the looping activity that Paul described in his initial post. In my view, this notion of "shared understanding" as framework for discussion (what kinds of explanations might we entertain for discussing Swift's misogyny?) channels and directs both agreement and disagreement.

And knowing how to defend one's own views, how to relate one's position to others, how to agree intelligently and to disagree in a productive manner are all parts of the tacit knowledge that students need to learn in order to function in a college classroom. And I suppose that I always value well-articulated disagreements in the classroom over passive assent.



PS: If you're interested, I can share with you a draft of an MLA presentation on cultural studies pedagogy that I did with other members of the Long 18th last winter. See

David Mazella's picture

disciplines and disagreement in the classroom?


Maybe if I give you some touchstones, that will help you follow some of the leaps I've made in the course of our discussion.

There's a theoretical dimension to this, which you can pursue most economically by looking at my discussions of Foucault's "genealogy" and de Certeau's notion of "use" in my book. De Certeau's entire discussion of rhetorical tactics vs. philosophical strategy helped to organize my thinking about modern and ancient cynics. Seeing rhetoric as a medium for verbal action rather than verbal noodling or useless contemplation became central for my view of cynicism, as well as my view of the classroom.

The historical dimension, for my purposes anyway, comes from the epistemic break that occurs around the time of the seventeenth-century discovery of scientific method (cf. Bacon, Hobbes, etc.), the denial of rhetoric as the master-science of persuasion, and the emergence of the disciplines out of the fragments of a once-unified domain of rhetoric. Bender and Wellbery's essay on "rhetoricality" claims that this shift created a new, anti-rhetorical paradigm of transparent communication for Enlightenment readers and writers. This kind of understanding of the Enlightenment and its paradigms of communication has long been part of our understanding of the historical emergence of print culture. So I am very interested in the historical relations between rhetoric and disciplinarity.

Finally, as someone who teaches in an institution with an extremely wide range of students, with very diverse backgrounds and capabilities, my biggest concern is about constructing the kinds of frameworks of understanding that will enable some kind of discussion to take place. When I teach my Swift and Literary Studies course, for example, I am not worried about creating agreement about a particular interpretation of Swift, but want to show them the various kinds of arguments, issues, and disagreements that have arisen around Swift since the time of Gulliver's Travels's publication. (this is a gateway course for majors) They must use the materials of the class to construct their own arguments for the final research paper on Swift, but they must also find their own materials for that essay. So there's focus on a single text, but I try to push them to develop their own arguments using the kinds of literary theory and secondary criticism most suitable for their point.

So a semester's worth of discussion of "satire" would be one shared context for understanding GT (often misogynist and aggressive; concealed authorship; involves sex and poop jokes; etc.), but I'm not trying to get them to repeat my paltry insights, I'm trying to get them extend their own and others' insights one step (maybe several steps) further.

I think the process of mutually refining our critical vocabularies is a collective one, and its collective nature gives students the confidence to receive and give useful criticism to one another. But my students need to learn how to bridge the distance between their respective positions. They need to learn how to articulate their differences from each other, as well as from the "standard" authorities (who are always plural and in disagreement with one another) if they are going to feel that they participated in a successful class that advanced their understanding. That's how I measure my success or failure.

Does that make sense?


David Mazella's picture

rhetoric, story-telling, and interdisciplinarity

Hi Anne,

I put some of this into earlier posts to you and Paul that seem to have been eaten by the Serendip comment boxes, but here goes.

My position on rhetoric and interdisciplinarity falls along the lines of the "rhetoric of inquiry" group that published in The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences (ed. Nelson, Megill, McCloskey) (Wisconsin, 1987). I've blogged about this here, at

I'll also say that I don't feel that shared understandings are the precondition of storytelling or rhetoric, but the goal.

We offer stories in the classroom or the public sphere for the same reason we practice rhetoric, to produce a shared understanding that enables collective action or at least a "productive" discussion that feels like a collective advancement of our knowledge.

Though these shared understandings may be nothing more than shared frameworks or orientations, and though they may well be tacit, they are essential for students to feel that they are speaking to one another and advancing their own and each others' knowledge. And being able to recognize the conventions, warrants, and vocabulary specific to a particular kind of discussion is one of the crucial ways that students learn how to participate in that discussion, and feel that they are able to add their own understanding to that collective enterprise.

But students often need to have the tacit conventions of a particular body of knowledge (say, literary theory) explained and elaborated to them before they can recognize them as conventional and therefore available for their own independent use and elaboration.

As for metaphor, edgy or otherwise, I'd say that education is absolutely dependent on what Schon once called "generative metaphors," and that once again the goal is a provisional process of accommodation of knowledge to one's audience and its existing knowledge, moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar, so that new insights can be generated. The rubbing together of disciplinary vocabularies helps in this process, but this does assume that there are important differences between the disciplines, and that these differences allow mutual criticism and refinement of each others' insights (e.g., the feminist critique of science, Foucault on penology, etc.). Interdisciplinarity is in my view a rhetorical perspective that cannot stand apart from the disciplines to critique them, but allows one discipline to critique and refine the insights of the other.

Finally, I spent a lot of time in my Cynic book talking about these issues in relation to Diogenes and his transformations in Western culture, but that's for another discussion.



x-posted on Long 18th

Anne Dalke's picture


So now I'm confused.
OTOH, "shared understandings are...the goal of storytelling or rhetoric."
OTOH, "the goal is... moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar,
so that new criticism and refinement...
can be generated."

I'm confused about how "disciplined" you want your classroom conversations to be, how much aimed @ consensus, how much room you are willing to allow for differences, how much you are looking for convergence....

From my perspective, the point of gathering different folks together in the classroom is to keep unsettling any collective agreement, to keep our differences in play, rather than to arrive @ a shared understanding...

So I want to understand better what you are aiming towards
(and how you get there).


I've just requested your cynicism book through interlibrary loan, so soon we can have that conversation, too/add that layer to this one....

[x-posted @ The Long Eighteenth]

David Mazella's picture

storytelling and conventions?

[x-posted on the Long 18th]

Anne, I agree with you that one of the many problems Professor X has with his teaching is his tendency to create defensive, self-serving narratives about his students and their abilities. These narratives allow him to ignore the deficiencies in his efforts to communicate, or rationalize his continued failures. So yes, storytelling, like any other form of representation, carries its own dangers of distortion. Nonetheless, I am not sure how we are supposed to get on without storytelling, especially in literature classrooms.

You argue that Professor X's problem lies in his desire to apply inappropriate disciplinary norms to his defenseless students, but I probably have a different view of norms, institutions, disciplines, and conventions than you do.

In my view, these formations may very well be contingent, but that does not mean that they just disappear when we recognize them as such. This, at any rate, is how I read Foucault's "genealogy," and I think it accounts for his attitudes toward science and normalization.

The connection between disciplinarity and Cynicism/cynicism is something I hadn't really considered, but I think it may be true insofar as both are inextricably tied up with linguistic convention. Again, I think that moralizing linguistic convention, like moralizing representation or storytelling, is probably less than helpful for analyzing the problems it creates, since lots of examples good and bad can be proffered on both sides of the argument, and I think that any rhetorical model of communication, let alone persuasion, would have to include some version of conventional language and shared "understandings." And this is what we're after in the classroom, right?


Anne Dalke's picture

From Moralizing to Metaphorizing

I agree, David--

though we all might try harder to do without the defensive, moralizing, self-serving sort of stories Professor X promulgates--that recognizing the contingency and constructness of stories doesn't make them "go away," that indeed we can't do without 'em (see the piece on the "privileged status of story" in American Educator 2004, which argues that, since people prefer structures that lead 'em into inferences, stories are easier to comprehend than other forms of text).

But I'd also say that there's still an open question about your notion that all stories depend on "shared understandings." How much do we really know about what it is we know? How dependent are our stories on a shared format that gives us an idea of what to expect? Just how much insider talk, how many shared assumptions, how much language must we have in common, in order to communicate with one another? How dependent are successful stories on causal connections and structures that make 'em easy to remember? How dependent on a shared sense of meaning for the events described?

I've found myself, for instance, over time, moving away from teaching senior-level seminars (the sort of courses that presume a shared vocabulary and shared basis of understanding), in favor of interdisciplinary first-year and mid-range courses in which students who are majoring in bio and and comp sci and english and gender studies and philosophy and psych can rub their very different disciplinary assumptions up against one another, in the hope of coming up with something new....

Speaking of generative "rubbing-against": have you noticed that your great questions about storytelling as a kind of shared convention have provoked some local conversation here @ Bryn Mawr about the intersections between teaching in the humanities and the sciences? One piece in particular that has prodded discussion, and which I find particularly apt for this conversation between you and me, is about metaphors for composing authors. Briefly, it argues that it is metaphor's lack of directness which it makes it so effective for students (=all of us), because it allows us to express attitudes we would/could not express in direct dicourse:

"metaphors work when (and because) they are incorrect, untrue, inaccurate, and subjective...precisely because they are wrong...'there is always the hope that this secret apprehension...which...I do not even know that I know...has a chance of being validated by what you said'" (my emphasis).

The author of this essay suggests that metaphor is a necessary feature of discourse when we try to cope with a new concept, and only becomes optional when we achieve mastery. If--as I think--we never actually master any thing, then metaphors are never optional, always useful, because always dependent on inexact, incomplete analogy. In this view, communication becomes less about shared conventions, more about making connections across difference. As see also Theorizing Interdisciplinarity and Why Words Arise--and Wherefore.

So: what place does the edgy metaphor fill in your own notions of rhetoric and conventional language?

[also x-posted on The Long Eighteenth]

Anne Dalke's picture

The Narrative Fallacy

From inquiry and historical research in the literature classroom:

Thanks, Dave, for noticing my review of Taleb’s The Black Swan, and thanks for using it as a stepping-off-point to further exploration/ meditation about what-it-is-and-how-it-is that we might teach. Linking together your & Paul’s agreement about the need to keep in play the “unending loop between observations and interpretations,” with the lament of Professor X, who teaches so ineffectively, so destructively, @ a “college of last resort” nudges me to “loop” back again to Taleb, who warns us so strongly to beware the dangers of the storytelling impulse.

Taleb pushes his readers very hard to re-think the tendency of our storytelling brains to over-value presumptions about cause and effect, to misjudge our capacity to predict the future based on the past. The keynote of his book is what he calls “the narrative fallacy”: how, in this so-unpredictable world, we fool ourselves w/ stories that cater to our Platonic thirst for distinct patterns.

I think I’m tasting that Platonicity, when I hear you describe the “unseen yet undeniable historical pressure upon our understanding” that can so easily kill off our students’ engagement, or say that “teaching literary history…depends on all sorts of specialist understandings,” or acknowledge that “graduate education, faculty hires, curricula” are all explicitly organized on “the basis of a foundational content.” In Taleb’s terms, I’d hazard the claim that that historical pressure, those specialist understandings, and those organizational structures are all “narrative fallacies,” our attempt to fix-and-make “foundational” what is emergent, contingent and random.

Taleb’s book is also full of advice about how to do something different–not to contain, but rather to take advantage of and benefit from the unpredictable nature of the world: “focus makes you a sucker; it translates into prediction problems”; learn to “avoid ‘tunneling’” (”the neglect of sources of uncertainty outside the plan itself”); “train yourself to spot the difference between the sensational and the empirical”; and remember that “we are not natural skeptics,” that “not believing” requires an “expenditure of mental effort.”

I see that you’ve got a book out on skepticism gone awry, that The Making of Modern Cynicism traces the ascetic’s evolution into misanthropy. That also seems a process analogous to the disciplining of the academy, from useful focusing into crabby gatekeeping. I’d say that the bad teaching of Professor X is overdetermined by the gatekeeping habits of the academy overall; his insistence that cops and health care workers learn to “Write about Literature” (and his insistence on failing them when they can’t fit the conventional conventions to do so) seems only a particularly egregious example of what we all do when we try to discipline our students into habits of our disciplines.

You asked “how far this predisciplinary notion of ‘observation’ really gets us when we think about teaching literary history, which depends on all sorts of specialist understandings of terms like genre.” I tried out one answer to that question just this past semester, in a new course on “Emerging Genres” that tried to hook the kids on thinking generically by focusing a portion of the course on the emergence of the new genre of blogs, with which they had had far more experience than I; then I interwove that with contemporary emergence theory, contemporary genre theory, and some hefty examples of the nineteenth-century American novel. I tried to begin and end, in other words, with the students’ own observations about and experiences of the world, inbetween leading them into and out others with which they were less familiar….to “discipline” their pre-disciplinary encounters with the world of genre, and also help ‘em see how they are helping to revise it as they write (rather than trying to make ‘em fit into the mold.). For one particularly nice comment on the process, see The Practice of Blogging: A Personal and Academic Perspective.

Back to you….

David Mazella's picture

how would this work for historical or literary studies?

This is really interesting from my perspective as a teacher of 18th century British literature, but I also wonder how well this model would work in a class devoted to subject matter that is largely un-empirical and representational, like, say historical studies of literature, art, philosophy, etc. There are artifacts one can study, but still much of the research is retrospective and reconstructive, and students aren't already interested in it the way they might be for contemporary writing. My students, for example, might not know much about novels, let alone novels from my period. So how does one bring students to the point where they might have a question? So I love the approach, but I'm wondering how it works for fields that rely less on first-hand observation of objects, and more on the work of understanding a culturally embedded object or phenomena?

Paul Grobstein's picture

teaching inquiry: science/humanities similarities?

Many thanks for this inquiry, and related posted thoughts. It has already led to some serious conversation, as per comments likely to appear shortly in Science Education: Some New Directions? In the meanwhile, some quick thoughts of my own ...

There are, I think, two related but distinct questions here that are worth pulling apart a bit. One is the issue of science versus humanities, the "empirical" versus the "representational", the contemporary versus the historical. My suspicion is that there is exactly much less difference here than we frequently suspect based on our disciplinary training. I'm inclined to think of science as story telling and story revising (see also What IS Science?), ie that the historical and representational are more important to science education (and science itself) than is often recognized. Conversely, I'm inclined to think of the humanities as having much more of an empirical foundation than one think. Making observations and telling and revising stories about them seem to me a common feature of both science and the humanities, if one accepts that "observations" may be made either on things that are not made by humans or things that are (or both). See Science as Story Telling and Story Revising: A Discussion of Its Relevance to History and Story Telling in (At Least) Three Dimensions: An Exploration of Teaching Reading, Writing, and Beyond for more along these lines. It requires a bit of a mind stretch for many scientists to see/teach the historical and representation aspects of science and probably a somewhat different mind shift for many humanists to see the empirical aspects of the humanities but I think the similar overall pattern can indeed be productively used in teaching in both realms.

The other issue is "how does one bring students to the point where they might have a question"? Here too it seems to me there is much more commonality between science and the humanities than we often think. Let me assure you it is not at all only 18th century literary scholars who have to wrestle with the question you pose. Many teachers of biology, chemistry, physics, and so on do so as well. And frequently deal with it (as do many humanists?) by saying something along the lines of "learn this" and you'll get to (or see that there are) really interesting questions.

I'm myself inclined in the case of science to a different approach. After all, science originates in questions that everyone has and is familiar with (who am I? where did I come from? how to I relate to the world? what can I do to contribute? and the like). These aren't of course "answerable" questions, but they are ones that everybody can ask, that everybody has tentative answers to, and that one can become more sophisticated at both asking and answering by becoming more familiar with science.

My guess, of course, is that one can do exactly the same trick with the humanities. All it takes is, again, a little mind stretch to recall the "big questions" that got one interested in the first place in whatever subject one is teaching about, a willingness to start there (where the students are), and the courage to allow students to see, as is in fact the case, that one is an "authority" not in the sense of having answers but only in the sense of having more experiences with/thought more about some area of exploration than they have.

Curious of course to hear to what extent these thoughts continue to seem relevant to teaching 18th century literature and in what ways your own thoughts/experiences can help shape my teaching of science.

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