If there is one thing I want my students to learn in my courses, it is curiosity. I want them to know how to ask good questions and how to pursue a line of inquiry: how to access the research base, critically examine sources, and explore social phenomenon using the tools of social science. But above all else, I want them to develop the inclination to ask questions in the first place—questions that intrigue them, excite them, and compel them to follow up. Cultivating the habit of questioning is at the heart of all of my courses.
In educational terms, I seek to create what educational theorist Jean Piaget calls “cognitive disequilibrium.” Cognitive disequilibrium is a state of conflict that arises when one encounters information or ideas that are not already accounted for in one’s preexisting conceptual frameworks. People respond to cognitive disequilibrium through a process of either assimilation, whereby they fit the new information into their existing schemas, or accommodation, in which they revise and expand their schemas. In the classic children’s story, Fish is Fish (Lionni, 1970), the fish encounters cognitive disequilibrium, when his childhood friend, the frog returns to the pond to tell him about all the extraordinary things he has seen on land: birds and cows and people. As he listens to his friend, the fish “assimilates” the information into his preexisting schema: birds are fish with feathers; cows are fish with udders; people are fish with clothes. The fish accepts the knowledge imparted by the frog passively and rather unthinkingly; the fish does not pause to consider how uncomfortable and constraining it might be for fish-people to wear clothes and swim in the vertical, “upright” position all day (National Research Council, 2002).
Because my students, too, can sometimes show the inclination to simply accept information without interrogating it, I am careful to stimulate their metacognitive reflection. All of the undergraduate courses I teach are “service-learning” courses. Working with the Director of Service-Learning at Villanova, I have developed partnerships with teachers at Strawberry Mansion High School, Germantown High School, and School of the Future in Philadelphia. My students go weekly to these sites where they work individually with a high school senior to complete his or her “senior project,” a state mandated independent research project. My students’ observations about their experiences in these schools serve as the basis for many of our class discussions as well as course assignments; however, I am careful to push my students beyond simple observation. It is not enough to register surprise that they had to walk through a metal detector upon entering the building. It is not enough to express dismay that the Philadelphia students have never been asked to do a major research project before their senior year and now seem unprepared to complete their senior projects. It is not enough to sit in the library and notice that the bookshelves are bare. I encourage my students to ask why these things might be the case, and I help them to move beyond positing individual, cultural and deficit-based reasons to examine structural explanations and causes: to find and scrutinize school budgets, for example, and to consider issues of political capital and public will.
One innovative structure I have developed for these undergraduate service-learning courses is what I call the weekly “core question.” In addition to preparing the assigned readings each week, my students must ask the high school senior with whom they work a specific question and record their “learning partners’” responses. The core questions are closely linked to the topic we are discussing and reading about in class that week. For example, in my Diversity and Inclusion course, during the week that we discuss learning style theory, the senior learning partners are asked to describe how they learn. The Villanova students bring the answers to these core questions into class where we analyze them as another set of course texts. This core question structure is designed not just to prompt my students to ask questions that deepen their community-based experiences, but also to promote a truly reciprocal service-learning relationship. Too often, service-learning activities suffer from an imbalance of power. In fact, the very rationale for “service” often implies a deficiency among those being served and confers power and privilege to those serving, thereby undermining any chance of equal status between the two groups. The core questions, however, position the high school students as experts, from whom the undergraduates have much to learn. The undergraduates come to depend as much on the wisdom, insight, and guidance of the seniors, as the seniors do on their Villanova counterparts. In this way, I seek to disrupt status hierarchies, to challenge my students to value local knowledge, and to build a base of both friendship and understanding that can support collective action for school and community improvement.
Because I conceptualize my role not as a “sage on the stage,” but as a “guide on the side,” if you were to enter my classroom, you might at first wonder who the instructor is. I put considerable onus on the students to take charge of their own learning: they lead discussions; they regularly participate in collaborative learning activities, such as jigsaws, carousels, and “send-a-problem” (see other link); they conduct and present original research; they even teach mini-lessons to one another, and in some cases, to others in the community. I construct my classes in a way that makes it nearly impossible to be passive. My instructional role may be less visible than what you might find in a traditional lecture-based classroom, but I am transparent about my pedagogical practices and my thought processes. For each class, I develop lesson plans with specific objectives, and I share these objectives and our agenda with students at the outset of class. I also model how to think like a social scientist; how to teach so as to engage students actively in their own learning; and how to be curious about the world around us. My favorite moments in class come when a student asks me something I don’t know, and I can say, “I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s an interesting question. Let’s find out together. How do you think we should start?” As we proceed, I pull back the veil on my mental processes, enabling students to see that knowledge does not simply “burst Athena-like from the professor’s head” (Wineburg, 2003), but is instead constructed through processes of inquiry, collaboration, and analysis.
Just as the walls of my classroom extend beyond the Villanova campus, so, too, my work as a teacher stretches beyond my courses. Few things excite me more than supporting individual student research; this is why I am so passionate about partnering with Philadelphia seniors on their senior projects. Each year, I lead independent studies, serve on thesis committees, and write scores of recommendation letters to support students’ aspirations to continue their studies in graduate school or doctoral programs. I have mentored three students in seeking Villanova Undergraduate Research Fellowships. Two of these students were successful in securing the fellowship, and both went on to present their research at prestigious national conferences and publish their work in peer-reviewed journals.
Although we tend to compartmentalize teaching, research and service in academe, these three areas are intimately connected for me. For example, in service to my community, I have designed and implemented professional development workshops on student engagement for Philadelphia teachers and for my Villanova colleagues. One line of my research agenda investigates my own teaching practice, particularly the implementation and effects of service-learning on my students and the process and outcomes of engaging a student consultant to provide me with feedback. I routinely ask, “How are my students learning? How could I teach more effectively?” I use data, such as mid-course evaluations, to adjust, refine, and improve my instructional techniques.
The principal of a public school in New York, Ann Cook, has observed that standardized tests measure whether or not students can read, but they do not tell us “whether they do read. Do they use that skill? Is it something that they enjoy? Would they go and get a book in their spare time?” Every day, I work to make sure that students leave my courses not just able, but also inclined to ask questions of the world around them, prepared to take action to find answers, and perhaps even inspired to work to change the answers they uncover. In this way, I know that I am, at least, a better teacher than the fish.