2 September 2013

Quartered Curricula: Themes for Pedagogy (book review)

The Process of Education by Jerome S Bruner (pp 97, Vintage 1960)

In light of my recent post-map this essay exposits Bruner's, The Process of Education.1 The book is a lucid account for a scholarly meeting in 1959 where scholars discussed teaching science's methods and content (vii). Though dated, four themes were derived and are still relevant to learning and curriculum design today.

1. Theme 1: Structure

The first theme is quite obvious: a good education must be well structured (11–2). If a broad framework is given to students (or held in the educator's mind), further details and specifics may be delivered in a suitable order. Without that structure, the information taught is likely to be unrelated and sloppy.

For Bruner, this theme also concerns 'teaching and learning of structure' per se (12). Teaching Theme One--and teaching with Theme One in consideration--is beneficial:
  • Students must consider the framework every time they consider a topic's details. This repetition aids learning because it constantly helps fit new information in with already gained knowledge;
  • Constant return to an overall structure is likely to reinforce knowledge of that structure. Years after details are forgotten, the structure remains with which ex-students may re-build their knowledge quickly;
  • Whether or not the details are forgotten, ex-students (or older students) may assimilate new information into that broader framework because it explains relationships between new and old details.
  • In Bruner's words (at 12),
    If earlier learning is to render later learning easier, it must do so by providing a general picture in terms of which the relations between things encountered earlier and later are made as clear as possible.
It is unfortunate that Bruner says 'must', here, because 'must' precludes other methods of facilitating later learning. This is not to suggest Theme One is unhelpful. Rather, it is to suggest there are other ways to promote future learning via what is taught today. For example, simply learning something today eases learning in an entirely separate field later; the student gains some experience in the learning process itself--such as whether it is easier with pictures, mind-maps, or prose.

2. Theme 2: Readiness

The second theme is a brilliant warning to the softly-softly approach: any student at any age is capable of learning any complexity of ideas, so long as it is delivered in a suitable form (12).

It is important that students are aware of this, to help with self-confidence. At the least, it will give students someone else to blame rather than a self-perceived inadequacy (so long as they put in some effort, the blame may be acceptably attributed: 'if I can't grasp it, it must be the teacher's delivery style'; which may help with transparency and responsibility in pedagogy, too).

Theme Two simply claims that complex ideas should initially be delivered as simple analogies. Once concrete in student-minds, teachers may add technicalities. In constitutional law, for example, this may be an analogy of the individual hero battling the powerful, capricious state (picture Hobbes' Leviathan). The state may later be analysed into its tripartite format, then into details of roles and processes, and finally into details of specific sub-sections in administrative statutes, broadening the picture with ever-increasing complexity.

2.1 Merging Themes One and Two

Bruner's first two themes culminate in an idea about spiral curricula: the basics may be taught early during an education, which are then added to with exponentially progressive complexity. And the spiral bit--initial materials are revisited in more depth once students have learned to accept and understand intermediate added complications.

3. Theme 3: Intuition

The third theme is difficult to fit in curricula. Intuition relies on confidence. It is achieved by those who arrive 'at plausible but tentative formulations without [traversing] analytic steps (…) which [demonstrate] such formulations (…) [as] valid or invalid' (13). Intuitive thought arrives at answers the thinker may not even be able to explain (58). It usually requires 'familiarity with the domain of knowledge (…) and (…) structure', which allow the thinker to 'leap (…), skip[] (…) and short cut' through the terrain (58).

After the formulation, students are able to trace back along the analytic steps they might otherwise have taken. These steps may involve a literature review to see where others found similar information. Because the students had to think first, however, there is a good chance they are now engaged with the material more than if they were just handed reading (see Theme Four).

Intuition may be taught as guesswork but this creates a problem: guessing will sometimes reveal 'correct' answers even though the guesser had sufficient reason to guess as they did. The best example of this pitfall-in-fruition is with multiple choice examinations (MCE). A student who passes an MCE just by selecting 'A' for every answer has guessed--and guessed right the necessary number of times--but the success is no reflection of learning.

This problem is combatted by an adequately designed curriculum, though intuition is still difficult to teach to bright students who lack confidence. That is, students must be aware that intuited formulations may be antagonistic to prevalent ideas (67). Their formulation must withstand self- and extrinsic criticism, however accurate it may end up being. An ancillary benefit with intuition-teaching is evident: to defend a formulation is good practice for--and will encourage--critical thought.

4. Theme 4: Desire

The final theme is to inculcate desire (14). The promotion of this theme is tied to motivation (69). Those enthused about a subject are more likely to read around subjects, concentrate, and therefore learn more and with efficacy.

Bruner identifies two methods to inculcate that desire (15–6):
  1. Teachers must be taught as much as possible to ensure their enthusiasm and passion is evident and passed to students, which is possible only when good resources are available;
  2. and opposing this,
  3. Students should be presented with contemporary media such as film to promote engagement and relevance.

While Bruner distinguishes between these methods--due to a debate articulated at the 1959 convention--I personally see little reason why the two formats are not consilient and interchangeable.

There is time, especially during higher education, for experts--lecturers--to teach with passion, and there is enough self-directed time for students to be provided with learning materials in various media, such as film.2 Saying that, though, if I had to choose, expertise in teaching seems much more important than colourful media presentations; it does not seem sensible to waste resources on the second before ensuring the expertise is present.

Either way, Bruner gives a warning that must be considered: 'Short-run arousal of interest is not the same as long-term establishment of interest' (72). To reiterate an earlier remark, the latter establishment seems much more possible for students taught by a genuinely interested teacher, than by one who presents a series of relevant, engaging-for-the-moment media. From personal experience, as fun as some films are, my biggest influences are those few teachers who instilled a love for law in me. That is why I aim to teach law rather than, say, become a mathematician.3

5. Conclusion

As I hope is evident, The Process of Education's developed themes offer useful guidelines for curriculum design. I plan to revisit these themes to apply them to a topic in law. The aims will be to (i) explore the legal topic, and (ii) demonstrate the four themes' pertinence to legal education. Success in that post should illuminate flaws and strengths in applying Bruner's themes to legal education. I will not attempt that essay until I have researched more about recent approaches to the four themes, which to reiterate, are structure (11–2, ch 2), readiness (12–3, ch 3), intuition (13–4, ch 4), and desire (15–6, ch 5–6).

6. Further Reading

For more information about intuition, one might begin with Edward de Bono, Lateral Thinking: A Textbook of Creativity (Penguin 2009). For general discussion of (radical) educational theory, three books come to mind, which explore quaint approaches to intuition in learning. The first two, especially, are aimed at laypeople:
  1. Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (Black Swan edn 1989, Vintage 1974);
  2. Matthew Crawford, The Case for Working with Your Hands: or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good (Penguin 2011); and
  3. Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (reprint, Pelican 1978).

1 All bracketed page numbers refer to this title.
2 For example Nottingham Law School's LLB Critical Legal Thinking module innovates with engaging in-house lectures and discussions, and Michael Sandel's informative Harvard on-line lectures. The latter are available at JusticeHarvard.org
3 Here, I am thinking about the film, Proof, which is an inspiring mainstream film about maths that is also mildly educative. The example is purely illustrative.

Created: 31 August 2013. Version 1.0.

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