This week I found Lang’s chapter on “Students as Learners” to be particularly troublesome. First, I want to note some positive aspects of his pedagogical approach. Because it is interdisciplinary and incorporates other scholars’ research and methodology, I think it functions as useful model for scholars in the humanities. Broadening our fields of study to consider other scholarship and arguments on topics that relate to our own expands for us the broader picture of what we aim to do. I also think conversing with other scholars outside of our own isolated discourse communities fosters our engagement with the broader goals and values of our universities.
With that said, I want to now address some flaws to Lang’s promotion of learning theory. He explains two models of learning, “assimilative” and “transformative.” When students appropriate the former model they fail to acquire new knowledge because they place such knowledge within existing mental schemas or knowledge structures. The later model indicates that students have broken down existing models with “correct” constructions of knowledge and information. We as teachers should possess basic awareness of scientific explanations of how humans learn, but we should also be wary about the ways in which we apply this research to more complex situations and contexts of student learning in the humanities. Thus, we need to make a distinction between students’ learning capacities and their learning choices. Sometimes, students’ refusal to learn is misunderstood as an inability to appropriate new knowledge. However, this might be indicative of an inner ethical dilemma that occurs when their worldview conflicts with the worldview(s) they are presented with in the classroom. Their choice actually functions as an instance of “transformative learning” because they possess not only a critical awareness of a new mental model but also the capacity to construct an argument in support of their existing/“traditional” understanding. Isn’t this then what the humanities is all about? That is to distance oneself from constructions of knowledge in order to become its critics and to analyze all of its assumptions and flaws. This presses me to ask then if our goal is to have students transition from assimilative learning to transformative learning, which fosters less a critical awareness of knowledge and more a systematic replacement of one schema with another, or if it’s to foster ethical communities engaged in the process of building constructive arguments in support of positions they choose to remain committed to?
Lang does say that learning theory needs to be applied within the context of our specific disciplines. Thus, with interdisciplinary research we have to take a little but we also have to give up a little. What was most disconcerting, however, was Lang’s suggestion that we as teachers “transform” students’ existing worldview and values. My goal as a teacher is not to change my students’ belief systems but to give them the tools to engage in constructive dialogue that allows them to open their minds to other points of views. I’m not sure that a democratic, pluralistic society is contingent upon individuals’ ability to remain uncommitted to a value system, as William Perry’s Theory of Intellectual Development suggests. I wouldn’t ask my students to change their family or religious views. I would, however, ask them to respect other students’ beliefs just as they would want others to respect their own.
There is that student, as Lang points out, that will want to support politically and socially contentious views. Should my students’ beliefs conflict with the beliefs and practices of larger educational institution or just society in general, I would urge them to engage in a careful process of negotiation that will allow them to remain productive in an environment that demands respect and patience for all kinds of arguments and worldviews. I would urge them to negotiate but not necessarily to transform or change.