Copyright © Louis Schmier

Date: Thu 10/26/2006 3:10 AM
Random Thought: Chaos Theory Of Education

Each day, in any given semester, I read anywhere from 120 to 160 daily first-year student journal entries. This morning I read 123. Like most days' entries, some are silly; some are poignant; some are filled with "too much information." Some are short one liners; some are shorter one worders; some are paragraph and pages long; some are superficial; some are reflective; some are deeply personal; some are voices crying out for help. Each entry, each day, reveals clues to the humanity of each student. And, you cannot believe what students are hopped onto, what pressures they are subjected to, what struggles they struggle with, what worries eat at them, what matters weight on them, what demands are demanded of them, what distractions work on them: roommates, friends, jobs, pregnancies, self-discipline needs, sickness, betrayal, fatigue, alarm clocks, parents, grandparents, cars, self-confidence issues, court appearances, sleep, self-esteem issues, boyfriends, time-management, confusion, divorce, discouragement, depression, children, girlfriends, partying, sex, alcohol, sexual preference, Facebook, working out, concerts, holidays, weddings, pets, sorority, fraternity, computer crashes, finances, food, grades, gender issues, drugs, accidents, disease, death, tests, papers, parking, femininity, boredom, masculinity, excitement, homesickness, weather, aloneness, loneliness, crushes, love lost, love gained, distance relationships, being "single," physical abuse, verbal abuse, tanning, prejudice, getting together, nails, breaking up, studying, weight, professors, coaches, GPAs, athletics, majors, hair, career futures, and a host of other slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. And whether an entry makes me smile, laugh, cry, cringe, or shake my head in bewilderment, I must honor each of them, for each is very real to each student and has an impact on each student's classroom performance and academic achievement.

This morning, all this reminded me of a joke. A sixty year old man came upon a wax sealed bottle half buried in the sand while walking the beach. Well, you would expect, he picked it up and opened it. Out flew a genie. In gratitude, the freed genie told the man he could have one wish granted. The man thought and thought. He thought of his sixty year old wife to whom he had been married forty years. "I want a wife thirty years younger than me." "Your wish is my command," answered the genie. And, in a puff of smoke, the sixty year old man became ninety.

"That's not what I meant," stuttered the now fragile man. "Ah," warned the genie, "be careful what you wish for."

Thinking of all that's revealed in the student journals, it's a warning to be heeded in academia as well when it comes to being student-oriented. To be truly learning-centered, to be sincerely student-oriented, to reach the student as a person, to be concerned about each of them as a human being, to see the nobility and sacredness in each of them sounds so neat and simple, doesn't it. It seems to make such an academic sound so virtuous. It seems to makes a practitioner of teaching-centerness and teacher-orientedness, someone who strives only to transmit information sound so immoral. It's that shift of paradigm that supposedly began when Robert Barr and John Tagg called for a shift in higher education from an "instruction paradigm" to a "learning paradigm" in a 1995 issue of CHANGE. This shift, they said, challenged the fairly passive long-standing lecture-discussion format where faculty talk and most students listen that is contrary to all that we have learned about learning in the recent decades. They said that the "learning paradigm" ends the lecture's privileged position. In its place, we should honor whatever approaches serve best to prompt learning of particular knowledge by particular students." Makes sense, doesn't it. Sounds so easy to do. But, is it? Is it as clean and simple as it sounds?

Be careful what you wish for. It is not clean and simple, much less easy. So, here are my "messy" and challenging questions: What are the particular students' particular needs? How do you get to know each particular student and of her or his needs? How do you address each of them? Are they merely intellectual? Are they only academic? Are they personal? Are they emotional? Are they all of the above? How do you separate student needs from student wants? How do you help a student change her or his habits? How do you help yourself change your own habits? How do you forge the essential shared vision between teacher and student? Where are the agreed upon essential first principles of teaching, learning, and education in general? What should students be learning? What should be the aim of purpose driven teaching and learning? What should students do with their learning? That is, where is Peter Senge's visionary "why" of everything we feel, think, and do so? What's the route of M. Scott Peck's less traveled road? Without answers to these questions, you'll have a hard time turning from your teaching to their learning, for the way you picture yourself has a powerful effect on the reality of the classroom. And, you can picture it, each student, as well as yourself any way you choose

Be careful what you wish for. If you want to change the world of your classroom, start with yourself. Too often many proponents of learning-centeredness ignore the ramifications of this paradigm shift. They really don't deal with the need for an alteration of our own attitudes, intentions, expectations, and acceptances. They don't really address the requirement to change their thinking and feeling. Changing the paradigm isn't enough. You've got to change your thinking. You have to retouch the mental pictures you have of yourself and each student. You've got to think of yourself and each of them not in terms of the problems such a shift creates, but you have to identify yourself with the promising possibilities. Remember the warning attributed to Einstein: "The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them."

Be careful what you wish for. The shift to a student-centeredness, then, has to be more than a mere change in syllabus wording. It's more than a shift from "my" course to "our" or to "their" course. It's more than a mere Little Jack Horner utterance of "I care about students and their learning" and leaves it at that. It's more than a first day "ice breaker" exercise that is allowed to freeze over during the following days and weeks. It's even more than mere replacement of one grand sounding scheme with another. What most academics on either side of the issue have ignored is that one crucial word in that seminal article. That word is "particular." It's that word which makes the paradigm shift challenging to say the least. Maybe "daunting" is a better term.

Be careful what you wish for. What then is the governing principle of student-oriented teaching and learning? It's not covering the material efficiently. It's not assessment of learning outcomes. It's effectiveness of whatever are your vision and the lasting stickiness of the learning on a particular student. Let's take it one critical step forward. It's the effectiveness not of "student learning," but of learning by a "particular" student. "Particular." That's the crucial word. Particular: unique, each and every, separate and distinct from others, unique, uncommon and unusual, the exception, unique, a small part separate from the whole, different--unique....unique....unique....UNIQUE. That is, when we talk about learning-centered, we are talking about a sacred, noble, individual, unique "one" we call a student. In real life, this person is inconsiderate not to fit into a cubbyhole. This unique, one-of-a-kind person defies categorization, stereotyping, statistics, and grand schemes. It is that one student who is always the variation on the theme. It is that one student who is always the exception to the rule. It is that one student who is always the square peg in a round hole. It is that one student who is not like the rest of them. It is that one student who is always that statistical deviation. It is that one student who is always unique. It is that one student who guarantees diversity in every classroom. And, a classroom is nothing more than a gathering of those "one student." Particular.... particular.... particular... PARTICULAR.

Be careful what you wish for. It's my theory of education that when we talk of student-oriented or learning-centered, the classroom corral comes down and the herd scatters. The spotlight moves from one particular professor in the classroom to a gathering of separate, unique, noble, sacred "particulars" in the classroom. Tidy becomes messy, simple becomes complex, easy becomes challenging, order becomes disorderly, stasis becomes movement, a snap shot becomes a film, constant becomes constant change, calm becomes uproar, quick becomes time-consuming, effortless becomes incessant exertion. Each student becomes a particular person, gets a face, acquires a name, has a story, receives a personality, is noticed, is valued, is believed in, is accepted with unconditional faith, hope, and love. Each student becomes a priceless piece of the future about whose future we can no longer be so cavalier. So, if we are to be learning-centered and student-oriented, we must be concerned not merely with "students," but with each and every one of those variations and exceptions; we must focus on that one, invaluable, unique student; we must remember that word, particular.

Be careful what you wish for. It's my "chaos theory" of education. You know what teaching and learning, true teaching and learning, in a learning paradigm demonstrate? You how best to describe teaching and learning in this paradigm? Organized chaos! Depending from what angle you're coming, there is in effective and sticky teaching an acceptance of an orderly disorderliness or a disordered orderliness. That is, a law of chaos. The classroom is a gathering of unique, sacred, particular, individual, particular "ones." Each person comes into that classroom through different doors, having walked different roads, with different experiences, with different expectations, with different personal habits, with different learning habits, with different talents and abilities, with different potentials, with different outlooks, with different diversions, carrying different amounts and types of baggage. And, somehow the diverse messiness and disruptive difference and disorderly distinctiveness has to be harnessed, absorbed, utilized within the context of a threat to expected control and order in order for the productive purpose of learning to occur for each and every student--for each and every student. And yes, it is so often like an exasperating attempt to herd a proverbial bunch of cats.

Be careful what you wish for. Nothing about learning-centered or student-oriented is efficient, easy, convenient, neat, comfortable, or simple. Certainly, nowhere near as so in the throw it out there "instruction paradigm." But, as you say, it is so human. So, it is my position that teaching and learning ought to be treated, not as some pedagogical ideal and not as some panacea of method and technique and technology, and not even in scenic paradigm, but as human biography, as the ability or powers or emotions or attitude of a particular individual whom we call a teacher in a particular situation we call a classroom with a diversity of other particular individuals we call students. It ought to acknowledge the humanity of all and recognize human weakness and strengths in all. It ought to recognize an idealistic vision, the grand paradigm, with a realistic working out of things, a testing of wills, a diversity of habit and experience and expectation. There is something far more sobering than idealistic about this acknowledgement. It gives the castles in the sky an earthy foundation.

With all this said and done, wish for it. Wish for it, for it holds untold and unimaginable and innumerable and magical possibilities.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
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