Journal Entry: Quote #1
“… adult learning should be about developing critical thinkers who examine assumptions and the world in which they live.” (Merriam, p.255)
The quote above appears in a chapter of the book devoted to unspoken and invisible elements of adult education, or education in general, for that matter: social change. This paradigm helps explain the objective of some students. Both international and domestic students often lead with the question, “Will this be on the test?” Their studies are focused on satisfying course requirements, rather than the satisfaction of mastering the materials. I don’t remember this being so prevalent when I was in school — of course, it was there, but there was more time for delving into material, and less emphasis on testing, testing, TESTING.
The change is largely driven by governments, who mandate curricula for administrators, who in turn demand teaching outcomes. Over the years, it has led to the apathy of our country; despite massive political shortcomings in Ottawa, the electorate in Canada is, as a whole, rather docile and apathetic. Ditto Victoria and BC. This quote suggests that to truly exercise democracy — broken down as “empowerment, transformation, and emancipation” here (ibid.) — it is the teachers who must encourage their students to think not just outside the box, but whether or not a box is even in the picture.
When I approach western-style ‘Critical Thinking’ in class (caps used purposely here for emphasis), I’m usually trying to impart some form of cultural awareness; to integrate with English-speaking co-workers more successfully, international students should learn how we think. For example, some educational approaches excel at teaching memorization of words, or plugging data into formulae, or extreme specialization. Others, like the Canadian system, focus more upon the scientific method, questioning of common wisdom, and digging for deeper meaning in a broad range of topics. In Canadian schools and workplaces, we value the transfer of information from one situation to another, and the inventive use of analogy. We call them ‘leaps of logic’, but for some immigrants (and let’s be honest, some more linear-thinking native speakers of English as well — I have a cousin who cannot for the life of himself wrap his head around the concept of irony), these connections can seem random and/or ridiculous. Perhaps there is another level beyond teaching a man to fish. If you leave a man at the edge of the water with a stick and some twine, he’ll invent fishing out of sheer necessity. What comes with that kind of learning through discovery is indeed empowerment, transformation and emancipation.
I’m reminded of a longstanding squabble I had with my wife. It started almost immediately after we met twelve years ago. As a Canadian, I had spent much of my life hiking, backpacking and camping; a Mexican, she was utterly disinterested in joining me. We compromised, but neither of us was really happy. I significantly reduced my outdoorsy activities, but she still gritted her teeth whenever I did go up into the mountains. It was a couple of summers and my enrolment in a Latin American History course at UBC that helped us figure out where the schism came from: I had grown up in the extreme, sheltered comfort of Vancouver’s middle class, completely removed from my grandparents’ Depression- and WWII-era struggles. My wife, on the other had, had toughed her way out of a much more difficult lifestyle in suburban Monterrey. Growing up, I’d never wanted, and only worked when I decided to; she’d had little, and had to scrape and scrimp for every bit of luxury she ever experienced.
Given our backgrounds, then, our tension made sense — if your ancestors have spent decades climbing out of the dirt, and you yourself have worked tooth and nail to gain a decent standard of living, you probably don’t want to walk for seven days in the muck for fun, with your house, clothes and food slung over your shoulders on your holidays. If you have never experienced true desperation or hunger, but rather have had a warm bed followed by breakfast every day of your life, you’re more likely to volunteer to spend a few days wearing the same socks and eating Mr Noodle around a campfire.
Who knew a history course could identify the impetus behind a minor (yet irritating) marital rift? It was only through critically examining each other’s viewpoints that my wife and I were able to understand the tension. Now, when I head for the hills, she’s not upset. And I most certainly don’t hold her anti-hiking preferences against her.
In response to Merriam & Brockett’s quote, then: when a light bulb goes on for a person in my classroom, it might not be illuminating this grammar point, or that communicative approach. There’s a chance it’s not related to the topic we’re discussing, or the class in any way, shape or form. That flash of understanding on a student’s face could be their brain building a new way of seeing their bank statement, or reinterpreting a childhood memory, or contemplating action in response to some high-profile blunder in Ottawa. It could just be that they just remembered that there’s a pastrami sandwich waiting for them after class — not that there’s anything wrong with that. Or it could be that the student has come to an understanding of their spouse that they didn’t have yesterday.
In my approach to the classroom, I will attempt to acknowledge more perspectives from around the box. I have long encouraged my classes to jump out of the box, but rarely have I challenged them to turn it upside down, unfold it or even throw it away. Much as this quote and this blog post have led me on a rambling, meandering path through bureaucratic, domestic and civil politics, I hope to set my students loose on some seemingly aimless journeys to self-discovery.
Merriam, Sharan B., and Ralph Grover Brockett. The profession and practice of adult education: an introduction. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997. Print.