Dialog/Think formatively

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Think formatively

Wherein V and R explore how a person's capacities and possibilities are unknown to herself and to others until she discloses them through her work of self-formation.

V 1 — What's new here?

R 2 — As you imply, the imperative "think formatively" overlaps with "study deeply," and "learn liberally." All five activities are of a piece; they aren't a sequence and we should grasp them all together. So let's ask, What's different here? Generally, allowing for many exceptions, we study matters that are more or less given and complete, seeking to grasp and understand them. In contrast, we think things that are more in process, ideas that are taking shape. Instead of interpreting the work of others, here we advance our own, developing our ongoing thinking. In thinking we are progressively disclosing our thought rather than interpreting something finished.

V 3 — I get that, but why "Think formatively?"

R 4 — Excellent! That's important to ask. Human action is complicated and usually has immediate instrumental consequences as well as longer term formative ones. Take a tiny instance, a teacher asks a question and some kids squirm, hands raised, trying to look the teacher in the eye to catch her attention, others look down, getting still and small. All that body language has to do with the instrumental side, getting called on or avoiding it, knowing the answer or not.

V 5 — That sounds like elementary school. Isn't it all pretty instrumental, imparting basic skills?

R 6 — Maybe, but imagine the teacher calls on Cindy, believing that she probably knows the response but is frozen as small as can be because she is shy, even though smart. The teacher thinks Cindy might flourish if drawn out. And formative consequences may indeed follow: if the teacher is wrong and Cindy is further mortified, her shyness gets reinforced; if the teacher is right, Cindy may indeed gain some confidence in herself and overcome her shyness. But really, right or wrong, Cindy might respond in many different ways. She might answer correctly but feel put out at the intrusion into her inner life, or she might feel the teacher tried spitefully for some reason to mortify her and decide to tune that teacher out, or....

V 7 — Would Cindy have an inner life at 9 or 10?

R 8 — The kids are making choices for reasons, some clamoring to answer, others holding back. At every age, people choose in a variety of ways and have complex responses in every situation beyond the immediate issue, right or wrong. They make important choices for and about themselves through these complex responses. "Think formatively" suggests that persons, in the course of coping with immediate circumstances across their span of age and circumstance, consider that what they are doing and how they are doing it will shape and form their human capacities .

V 9 — I'll grant a distinction between the immediate and longer term, which may be between instrumental and formative, more or less. But isn't all of education about the formation of human capacities? Will it work? and Is it good for me? are two different questions applying to most everything we do. Do we need this workplace to think formatively?

R 10 — Perhaps we don't. But let's go back to the teacher and shy Cindy. In calling on Cindy, the teacher takes a risk in the face of numerous uncertainties. Most educational research and thinking about instructional practice concentrates on the pros and cons of curricular objectives and teachers' actions to attain them: Was the teacher doing the right thing in calling on Cindy OK for ? Such questions really concentrate on the instrumental activities of instruction, which may have good or bad long-term formative consequences for Cindy — we rarely know.

V 11 — Well, I sort of follow, but I don't see where you are going.

R 12 — I want to ask whether the pedagogical problem, the formative problem, is really a problem the teacher faces. Might it be Cindy's problem, even when she is a little kid?

V 13 — How so?

R 14 — Laying responsibility on the teacher requires her to guess a lot about Cindy and to make some predictions about her reaction, which may or may not be on the mark, in this case, a mark centering on Cindy's shyness and its possible long-term influence on her capacities. Let's try to think formatively with Cindy and draw her out a little about why she feels shy. Why has she formed that capability, a strategy of making small and withdrawal, in dealing with others?

V 15 — But will Cindy know? And is it fair to expect her to?

R 16 — In drawing someone out about something, should we think they will know all about it? I don think so. In conversing with someone about thoughts and feelings, we do not anticipate an authoritative transmission of tested knowledge. Can and should we expect Cindy to converse about how she thinks and feels, our exposing in turn how we think and feel too? To be sure, it's difficult. She may be thoughtfully introverted with lots of reasons for not clamoring for the teacher's attention, or she may be shy because she feels inadequate, a lack of self confidence, lots of different things, or who knows what. It may be hard to get her to open up, and for the teacher to interact with Cindy, each revealing their own inner feelings. But a little one-on-one between the two of them might have value, not to change Cindy in some predetermined way, but to encourage her to think about her intentions and their complexity, and the teacher to do so too, for both to see things as many-sided possibilities. It's not a matter of knowing. The teacher can help the student recognize possibilities, and vice versa.

V 17 — Hmm. Most teachers would say that their job isn't to enter into such conversations and they haven't been trained to do so. If anyone, parents should do it! Or, if things are bad, perhaps a shrink.

R 18 — You're right, but that is precisely the point. Yes, parents should do it, but most of them are no more prepared for it than teachers are. And the shrink will see the situation as an instrumental call to control the problematic behavior. And why aren't teachers ready to enter into such conversation? I think it's because everyone — parents, teachers, the public — sees "education" simply to mean formal instruction, an instrumental service, not a formative interaction between a person, the pupil or whomever, and her circumstances, which include teachers, the school and its program, and ever so much more. But really, when we see education narrow, instrumental way, it isn't the real thing; it's training, not education. Education comes about cumulatively and continuously as each person manages her self-formation in interaction with others through the course of her life.

V 19 — Isn't doing that a big burden to put on kids?

R 20 — We're not putting it on them. The burden is there in their lives, in the life of each person. That's life, as Sinatra sang. We're recognizing that the burden is there. The kids, any one of us, may not have the right words — an infant not yet any words! — but recognizing what they see and feel and finding ways to serve as sounding boards for their felt questions about themselves and their possibilities can be very important. We have a huge opportunity to redefine how we think about education by beginning with the proposition that people at all ages, even the very young, are aware of their formative dilemmas and do make choices about them and would benefit, not from instruction about them, but the opportunity to discuss them with willing interlocutors as a way of better informing, of forming their choices within.

V 21 — So the imperative — "Think formatively!" — encourages us to think about ways to interact with persons engaged in their self-formation, helping them perceive and understand possibilities and make sound formative choices in the course of their lives.

R 22 — Yes. Who are the educators? And who do they educate? And how do they do it? Those are the questions we ask ourselves here.