Epiphany: C. Wright Mills Sociological Imagination Is Also a Pedagogical One

In my title I suggest that Mills’ appeal might also be part of the pedagogical imagination as well.  More and more I feel like an anthropologist in my classroom.

For example, having read 54 summaries over a very challenging article by Jonathan Haidt, I had one extremely powerful insight.  And I only had that insight because I had a set of 30 minute conferences as well.

I am so lacking in sociological and pedagogical imagination that it only became clear to me after the dust settled that students ignore what they don’t understand.  It is gobsmackingly obvious now.  Let me elaborate.

One of the essential concepts Haidt discusses in his article is the “culture of victimhood”.  None of my students made the leap of understanding that connected this concept with an earlier one from the article, “concept creep”.  Part of the problem is that Haidt’s explanation of the connection is unclear, perhaps an expert’s failure to be aware of who his audience is, but for whatever reason my students didn’t get it.

So what did they do? Either they slided over it quickly or they ignored it.  Most ignored it.  To be clear: if his argument is a door, the idea of a culture of victimhood is the hinge.

Ignored it.  I need to keep Mills’ guidelines close at hand and I need a notebook where I contemplate them on a daily basis.  I need to exercise my pedagogical imagination so that I can be active in unearthing the blindspots in my teaching practice.

All texts are problematic.  For some of my students much more than others.  If I know this before I assign the reading and if I use my imagination and anticipate (perhaps hypothesize is a better word) these cognitive choke points, then I can prepare for them.  I know this will be imperfect, but at least I stand a better chance of knowing the ‘why’ of my students’ learning struggles.

The late New Zealand researcher Graham Nuthall pinned this problem down with clarity AND imagination:

There is a potential problem with ideas and models about how to teach. In most cases there is a description of what to do and how to do it, but no description of why it might work. There is no explanation of the underlying learning principles on which the methods or resources have been constructed. The result is that teachers are constantly being encouraged to try out new ideas or new methods without understand how they might be affecting student learning. It’s like being told how to drive a car without being given any understanding of how the car and its engine work.  This is fine until some emergency occurs–the engine makes a strange noise, the car won’t start, or the driving conditions become dangerous.  Unless you have a good understanding of how the technique is supposed to effect student learning, your adaptations can only be trial and error. (Nuthall 14)

I have to acknowledge that while I understand that there is research on the power of summary writing in learning, I am uncertain how that skill is supposed to effect my students’ learning.  The little discovery about how students ignore what they don’t understand is a small opening into that black box of learning.

1 Comment

  1. // Reply

    Totally – and this is something that is just glossed over in HE, isn’t it? The revelation that we humans ignore what we don’t understand accounts for so much in everyday life, and how we anticipate what our students won’t know is … difficult.

    This morning I gave my students an “easy” quiz. They did badly, but we then had a really good talk about what they didn’t know and why. I didn’t plan it, but it was one of the best sessions I’ve had with them. I can’t always build this in, though.

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