Recently, Matt talked to me about how he was approaching the topic of “percentages” with a Grade Six class. He noted that, in this particular case, he did what is very common in education: he started scouring resources to figure out how to teach this topic. At a certain point, however, he remembered an adage about inquiry, one he had followed often before, but seemed, this time, to forget: the first questions to ask are not regarding how to “get across” such a topic, but rather these: What is “percentage?” How did we come to have such a topic in our world?Why would we want to pass along such a topic to our children? Where does it belong in human experience? Once he started to ask himself such questions, whole families of relations and ancestries began to appear–the idea of “per hundred” (per cent) as a common denominator, a common standard; the founding of this idea on “base ten” and issues of place value; images of cents and centuries and centurions and decimals and decimation (the effective technique of domination of the Roman Empire, where every tenth person was killed in order to establish order in a newly-taken-over town). Once he got over the all too common spell of “How do I teach this?” and turned his attention to the topography itself, the ancestors, as he put it, began to show up–why was this invented? what was it for? what is important about this phenomenon? how does it work? what does it do? What is the living question for which “percentages” might be a good answer?
By allowing himself the time to enter into this sort of topographical meditation, he began, so to speak, to learn his own way around this phenomenon. He began to let himself become experienced in this place. There is a wonderful etymological twist occurring here: to become experienced means “to learn your way around,” that is, to have ex-peri-ence (as in the term “perimeter”–the “measure” [metre] of “around” [peri-]).
To become increasingly more experienced, however, does not mean to have any final, foreclosing, definitive knowledge, such that further, new experiences become less and less necessary, less and less possible, less and less interesting or relevant or pleasurable. In this foreclosing version of “becoming experienced,” student’s troubles become increasingly annoying and the “experienced person” becomes more and more cynical or condescending towards those newly arriving in some territory. This is the old saw about “the expert” and why we find such a notion so troublesome in education. It seems to bespeak impatience and a grim sort of finality.
In stark contrast to this, in inquiry, “becoming experienced” in something means quite the opposite:
“Being experienced” does not consist in the fact that someone already knows everything and knows better than anyone else. Rather, the experienced person proves to be, on the contrary, someone who…because of the many experiences he has had and the knowledge he has drawn from them, is particularly well-equipped to have new experiences and to learn from them. Experience has its proper fulfilment not in definitive knowledge but in the openness to experience that is made possible by experience itself (Gadamer, 1989, p. 355).
The “expert” can be portrayed as the one who already knows and therefore as the one who is ready to simply dispense what they know to those who do not know, a moments notice, and with great ease and confidence. The experienced person, on the contrary, is someone who is ready for new experiences because of the experiences they have already undergone. Consider this example that Matt then pursued.
Once he had explored for himself this topography of “percentages,” Matt realized that the ancestors faced a real, living question in the world for which “percentages” was a real, living response. And, as he then noted, this is precisely the question that the students in his class now faced in coming to learn about percentages: what are the sorts of questions in the lives of students for which percentages might be the response? Or, as students often ask their teachers, “Why are we learning this?” If all we have examined for ourselves is how to teach percentages, this question is simply baffling.
Interestingly enough, therefore, in an inquiry, the ancestors and the children show up at the very same time and in the very same way, demonstrating that, in an odd and lovely way, inquiry is a necessarily intergenerational enterprise (see Jardine, Clifford & Friesen 2002, 111-128).
Matt pulled out two recent tests that his Grade Six students had completed, one marked out of ten and the other marked out of twenty. So the question was posed to the class:
“You received 6/10 on one test and 14/20 on the other test. Which test did you do the best on?”
One answer came back: “The test where I got 6/10, because I only got four wrong. I got 7 wrong on the other test” and the students seemed to get drawn into agreeing with this answer.
Then Matt pulled out a test where a student got 91/100 and right away students began questioning their agreement with the 6/10 answer. A glimpse was beginning of the territory in which percentages live.
It is precisely here that the character of “being experienced” in inquiry becomes clearly visible. Because of his own explorations of the topography of “percentages,” it is now possible to hear in this student’s response a great abundance, a great gift, a great opening, a great opportunity. Having become experienced, we can now experience and learn from this new experience. As David Smith (1999), following R. Murray Schaeffer, has suggested, we’ve undergone a sort of “ear-cleaning.” It is as if our own “becoming experienced” makes us more sensitive, more alert, more ready for the arrival of new questions, concerns, troubles, solutions. This student’s “6/10″ response and its initial attractiveness to the whole class is now not simply an error to be eradicated, but a difficult, generous way “in” to the topography of “percentages.”
If we hadn’t let ourselves become “experienced” in percentages, this student’s response would have just been a mistake, a problem. Now, this “6/10″ answer becomes a pedagogical invitation and the issue of “How do I teach percentages?” becomes grounded in a rich, fertile territory in which the students in the class are already living. An inquiry is now possible. Moreover, now, the inquiry is one in which the students, the teacher and the ancestors all join up together in the real work that this place requires of us. There is no beneficent “expert” that lives above this fray and who can dispense with the conversations we might now pursue together. This doesn’t mean that there are no differences in this living fray–the teacher is now visible as “experienced” in this place, as “having been around,” and the students are each differently experienced in this place. The individuality and difference of each student now becomes visible in (this) place and each has their own work to do in order to become more experienced in finding their own way around.
This idea of “being experienced” is really not that odd. We can all give plenty of examples–my own “experienced-ness” of the music of Duke Ellington makes hearing a piece of his that I haven’t heard almost overwhelming in its arrival. And the more “experienced” I become, the more vivacious and lovely and overwhelming are those new experiences. And, moreover, my own sojourn of “becoming experienced” makes the arrival of those who don’t know their way around this place even more enjoyable, because new arrivals make possible the enrichment and enlivening of my own experience of this place. “Being experienced,” then, means cultivating an openness to the future, an openness that suggests the very life-blood of pedagogy itself. As educators, we are forever susceptible to the arrival of the young, the new, and to the extent that we become no longer thus susceptible, we run the risk of become expert dispensers who slowly come to exhaustion, and come to despise such arrivals.
So, with inquiry, we arrive at a difficult spot. An experienced teacher is not simply a teacher who has taught for a long time. It is quite possible to have taught for years and not be “experienced” in this sense that inquiry requires. In fact, it is quite possible to have taught for years and to have become less and less “experienced,” less and less open for new experience. And it is also quite possible to be a “beginning teacher” like Matt and already be, in some important sense, “experienced” –already “ready” for the arrival of students into the lovely, difficult topographies/topics that we have been entrusted with as teachers, and already “ready” for the endless task of having to come to know his way around, again and again, here, with this new topic, and these new students.
And here’s the rub that “experienced teachers” always and inevitably face in inquiry: we always have to take up “the next topic” for ourselves, all over again. No matter how well Matt’s work on percentages goes with that Grade Six class, there is an odd sense of always being “back at square one” once, for example, we come upon the odd topographies of bisecting angles and the ghost of Pythagoras, or the terrains of democracy and its histories, or the contested terrains of grammar, punctuation and the conveniences of conventions.
There is a wee hint here of the idea of “going back to the beginning,” back to the “origin,” back to “the basics.” There is a hint here I once heard when someone suggested that, in education, “you don’t have to re-invent the wheel” and someone else suggested that perhaps re-inventing is the only worthwhile endeavour. But this topic will have to wait for another newsletter.
Gadamer, H.G. (1989).Truth and Method. New York: Continuum Books.
Jardine, D., Clifford, P., & Friesen, S., eds. (2002). Back to The Basics of Teaching and Learning: “Thinking the World Together”. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates.
Smith, D. (1999). Pedagon: Interdisciplinary Essays in the Human Sciences, Pedagogy and Culture. New York: Peter Lang Publishers.