Friday, October 12, 2012

Introductory Paper on Critical Explorations in Teaching Art, Science, and Teacher Education

Cavicchi, E., Chiu, S., & McDonnell, F. (2009). Introductory Paper on Critical Explorations in Teaching Art, Science, and Teacher Education. New Educator, 5(3), 189-204.


This paper serves as an introduction to a series of three more papers that examine critical exploration in three separate classrooms (art, science and teacher education).  The art teacher explored Chinese brush painting with middle school girls, the undergraduate science class investigated mirrors and the teacher education students explored seeds, pendulums and the moon.  It is focused mainly on the theory behind critical exploration, the dynamics of a classroom where critical exploration is happening and the potential for student and teacher growth that can result.    

Critical exploration is a classroom practice introduced by Eleanor Duckworth based largely on research of Jean Piaget and Barbel Inhelder.  The work of psychologists Piaget and Barbel indicates that children construct their knowledge by relating actions to outcomes associated with the actions.  Through exploration/experimentation a child may reach a “stage” where, temporarily, the outcomes associated with their actions cohere with their expectations.  Then, however, unexpected outcomes may destabilize this coherence.  Piaget called this destabilization “disequilibrium.”  He saw this as a time of rich growth where children try new ways of acting or thinking and try to synthesize them with previous actions.  Critical exploration is the idea of using this process actively and consciously in the classroom.

Putting this idea to work in the classroom can be disconcerting to the teacher as he/she must
“...[break] with the role of providing answers to students or telling them what to do.”  Critical exploration is the idea of raising questions, unpacking ideas, tolerating spontaneity, wondering and discussing.  These types of activities often “[compound] the risk that teacher and students experience” in the classroom.  However, they can also lead to the type of “disequilibrium” that is the harbinger of meaningful growth.  

The paper claims that, in order for critical exploration to be effective in the classroom there must be an triangular relationship between learner, subject matter and teacher.  This idea of a triangular relationship was first expressed by David Hawkins.  For the learning to be most effective the relationship between the three should be equal and none shall be dominant.  For example, if the teacher takes a lead role, the contributions from the student and from the subject matter may suffer.  If the subject matter and teacher dominate (as in a lecture for instance) the student’s role is diminished.  

The subject matter itself is very important in this process.  The subject matter must have many facets and “problems veining through it” in order to provide room for critical exploration.  Duckworth refers to this as the “complexity” of the subject matter.  Students must be able to explore the subject matter endlessly to give rise to “new ways to act, observe and reflect...”  It must have dimension.  I imagine this as one of the more difficult jobs of the teacher.  Selecting the subject matter with the appropriate level of “complexity” is crucial in critical exploration.             

Relevant Quotes/Concepts:

“Classrooms have potential to be places for taking the risk of discovering how much is unknown within what we thought we knew.”  

“Duckworth associates the ‘essence’ of teaching with providing opportunities by which students may ‘have wonderful ideas’ that are expressions of their learning.”

“...learners’ confusion is often a prelude to their keener involvement and the making of connections or analyses that deal with significant puzzles in the subject and the learners’ grasp of it.”

“It appears ‘slow’ to teach by involving students in explorations by which they may, or may not, generate understandings that are consistent with those already formulated.  Such objections to exploratory learning privilege a certain type of efficiency and uniformity in information transfer while ignoring the processes by which anyone’s learning becomes sufficiently deep as to be usable in new, evolving situations.”

“That multiplicity of paths, which a complex subject matter can sustain but a simplified one cannot, is a means at the teacher’s disposal for accommodating diverse learners in noticing for themselves its multiple possibilities.”

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