“Why can’t we get back to the real learning?” It was another typical day in my Advanced Placement World History class. One of my students had asked his “philosophical question of the day.”
Is there such a thing as human nature or is everything just a product of history?”
I was extremely impressed by his question; but, the other students were not. One of the students in the group of the “hardly interested” had expressed what most of the class seemed to be thinking at the moment.
This demonstrates how difficult it is to get students to focus on abstract ideas. We want students to understand that learning is not about just gathering facts. It is a process of inquiry. We want students to ask tough questions, develop a passion and interest in learning, seek out relevant facts, and place those facts in a broader context. We also want them to assess these frameworks by comparing and contrasting their viewpoints with other points of view. In other words, we want our students to develop intellectual empathy with others with whom they most disagree.
This got me thinking about the connections with the Facing History curriculum. The point of Facing History seems to be two fold. On the one hand, we want students to understand the different viewpoints of all the actors in controversial historical moments. And, this sometimes means that the students need to understand the point of views of even the actors that we as teachers find to be the most damaging to human dignity. But the product of doing this is not just empathy and understanding. Rather, it is for the students to develop a coherent awareness of their own tools for developing ethical judgments for current events. We eventually want students to develop a sense of active citizenship so that they can make decisions to enhance human dignity.
I have been considering this problem for some time now because of the mistakes that I have made in the classroom. I love the abstract. For example, I believe students need to ask questions about ontology or the nature of human beings. Are we good, bad, or some mixture? Your answer to this will often determine how you look at everything else. Then there is the concept of epistemology or what is the method of knowing that you use. This is so essential because the methods we choose to use in inquiry (scientific, artistic, poetic, interpretative, philosophic) will themselves often shade our conclusions. I love these concepts. The problem is that students do not get it. So, how do most students learn? Well, we need to get our hands dirty.
Take the issue of intellectual empathy and point of view. I know that this will be the point of resistance for most readers. Why would we want to have empathy for perpetrators of mass genocide? Who would really want to understand or have compassion for the instigators of dehumanizing whole groups of people? I agree. But there is a difference between empathy and “intellectual empathy.” Empathy is an attempt to share emotional or intuitional solidarity with those who suffer. Intellectual empathy is the attempt to understand the motives and viewpoints of those who are different from us. The goal of the latter is not to sympathize. Rather, it is to provide the fullest context for understanding behaviors that we want to prevent in the future.
A teacher recently showed me an example of using the students’ experience at a school dance.
- Set up different roles in the classroom (i.e. the jock, the nervous freshman, the senior girl, the couple that just broke up) and ask them how they view the same dance.
- Have students get into groups with each of these roles and develop a narrative about how the dance went for them as that individual role. Then, have them share out the different perspectives.
- Ask them what was each individual point of view. How did each individual know his/her point of view? Which point of view is correct or is there any correct point of view? This develops the skills of analysis, inquiry, and empathy.
Next, I would have them apply those principles to an example relevant to your class. But set it up with an issue that can go deeper and deeper in depth. For example, I am currently using a website called the Big History project. This project takes classrooms through the entire history of everything. It starts with the Big Bang and moves to the current times. But it does so based upon broad concepts and themes. And, the website provides tons of articles and resources.
I give the students a controversial issue or question for inquiry, like the Armenian genocide. I have the students get into groups and use the resources and readings to go more into depth to answer the issues. I provide the students with resources that would include different perspectives, a variety of factual material, and different methods of knowing the factual material.
The students are then asked a difficult question about the genocide. For example, I have asked the students if the US leaders should have gotten involved in stopping the genocide. I use the Facing History Human Barometer for this activity. I have the students separate into three groups. The first group argues that the US should have gotten involved. The second group argues that the US should not have gotten involved. And, a third group argues the advantages and disadvantages of both of these positions. They stand in three separate areas of the classroom. And, they choose these groups voluntarily. This allows the class to understand the intellectual motives for why US leaders chose to intervene or not. Typically, we are able to develop a list that will include ideological issues like human rights, national sovereignty, isolation, American leadership.
The students then have to provide some presentation at the end of the project that demonstrates the variety of skills that I want them to achieve. They could choose a particular digital platform for presentations (Keynote, Prezi, iMovie, VoiceThread). They have to address the variety of issues that we want to get at (comparing different points of view, showing empathy for difference, analyzing method, and providing evidentiary support). The students then complete the presentation either in class or in a public display.
After this, we can raise the issues in class that we really want to discuss. We can talk about world views. We can talk about methodology for gathering information. We can talk to them about how to assess ideas and facts. And, we can ask about ethical issues. The comfort with uncertainty will have been developed by a hands-on project that engaged the students and got their hands dirty.
How do you help your students engage with abstract ideas?