This question emerged from a conversation. The Moth podcast canvassed a story told by Molly Ringwald, the famous 80’s actress. She was talking about the difficulties with her young daughter that emerged when schools (and school environments) changed. The punchline came toward the end of her narrative when she realized that her daughter was having difficulties (emerging bullying behavior) at the new school because she was not in her ideal learning habitat. The story was beautifully told recounting how this insight came when she and her daughter were listening to a different podcast hosted by Radio Lab. It was a story about zoos and the first time an adult gorilla named Kiki went outside. Powerful account of human ignorance, nature and behavior, and the power of natural habitats. It made me give further consideration to the question of teaching and learning habitats.
I began to wonder: What is the ideal (natural) habitat for my kids? Does one fit both? To what extent do we force a particular way of thinking, of learning, of interacting on students who may have different needs and desires? To what extent are the artificial learning habitats we create conducive to the types of thinking and behaviors (e.g. skills, abilities, dispositions, knowledge) necessary to survive and thrive in the world outside the classroom walls?
Britt Watwood has an April 2014 post that addressed the new nomadic learner in the modern era of online and networked learning pondering: How can I cultivate knowledge nomads who learn rhizomatically and create their own knowledge domains? This question places the focus on the student. Learning and living habitats are changing, so what do students need to know and be able to do to adapt to those changes? In a March 2014 post by Jeff Nugent takes a different approach exploring the question: What might it mean to teach like an octopus? Nugent places the focus on the instructor and acknowledges that intellectual flexibility is a desirable quality given the variation in students we encounter.
Today, I want to take a slightly different approach to the question and ask: What is my natural (ideal) teaching habitat? In other words, under what conditions do I thrive as an instructor? What makes me, or would make me, happy and excited? I am driven to ponder these questions because without a clear understanding of the ideal, then I question the extent I can sufficiently manage the realities of the instructional contexts to which I am assigned. In logic and conceptual analysis, this thinking move is termed: Identifying the paradigm cases on either extreme of an issue or idea (see John Wilson’s Thinking with Concepts). Illustratively, I might frame it this way:
The Ideal The Real (If I’m lucky)
We are all very familiar with the realities of our teaching habitats. All too often they feel like a zoo: walls, regulations, schedules, and artificial experiences. How, then, might I move toward the ideal….for me? I believe that my happiness as an instructor has direct and maybe even proportional consequences for students. I want to explore ways I can pragmatically move toward the ideal. If that means less grading, then I am going to figure out ways to make that happen while maintaining intellectual rigor.
If we don’t ask, we can’t imagine.