A Gulf of Understanding
© 5 Dec 2011 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Educators as proselytizers: converting student’s thought processes.


This morning I re-read L. Tom Perry’s remarks from General Conference last October. His topic was how best to share the good news with others, and included this passage:

There is sometimes a wide difference—a gulf of understanding—between the way we experience the Church from the inside and the way others look at it from the outside. […] The member volunteers at the temple open houses are simply trying to help others see the Church as they see it from the inside.

While certainly applicable to matters of religion, this observation struck me as applicable in many other settings.

A Gulf of Understanding

When I was a child, the word “‍calculus‍” struck me as being magical. I knew it was mathematics, and I knew it was not like maths I knew, and that was all I knew. People could have used the word “‍calculus‍” to explain anything and I would have believed them.

When I studied calculus, I found it elegant and intriguing, and though I excelled at my coursework I was always impressed by each new topic. There remained an element of mystery to it all; I could see the proofs and structure, but had no idea where it came from.

Today, calculus is almost boring, just another tool to throw at problems. If I forget a theorem it’s about as easy to re-derive it as to look it up. I live inside a world where calculus just sort of is.

This typifies, I think, the gulf of understanding between practitioners, initiates, and novices in many fields. It’s not just that the practitioner is more competent than the novice; rather, this is a difference of kind in perception.

Trying to Help Others See

I believe most instructors are hoping to bring their students inside their field, building within them practitioner-level thinking. However, it seems that few know how to do this. My calculus instructors were two of the best teachers I have ever had and I one of their more competent students, yet it wasn’t until years later when I had to plow through calculus I had at least partially forgotten without their guidance that I experienced a change in outlook.

Is there any way to bring an insider perspective to those outside? Can a world view be taught?

In matters of religion, such as Perry addressed, the answer appears to be “‍no;‍” no one I know claims that faith can be understood without faith. In secular subjects, the answer is less clear. I can point to a variety of times when new information changed my outlook on the world. This happened in my quantum physics course, for example, when the teacher explained the properties of fermions.

One of the principles I found as a student was that it was invaluable to be ahead of the class. When I was following the instructor down a primrose path of presentations I found that new ideas came to me a novel, isolated factoids, things to be viewed and not with which to view. When, conversely, I was ahead of the class mentally, speculating about each new topic before it was presented, then teachings were received as revelations, a lifting of a veil on my understanding.

I find as an instructor that those who were active in thinking in advance and seeking answers to questions where far more likely to understand the core of the material than were those who were merely accepting my presentations. Indeed, I wonder if this is not the underlying cause of the perception that drivers are preferable to passengers in a classroom. It seems likely that those who are reacting to the material are less likely to drive the conversation than are those who are anticipating its direction.

Yet I also know, from personal experience, that it is quite possible to be actively engaged in driving a course without conceptually entering the outlook of the material. We’ve probably all known the students who ask questions that have already been answered or that aren’t really on target. Participation is correlated with understanding, but they aren’t interchangeable.

Since encouraging participation isn’t sufficient, how do instructors help students see? Or is that not something that can be taught?

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