How Do We Guide our Students? Teaching as Ritual Change Facilitation.

 Try this thought experiment.
Picture yourself somewhere in your home or apartment: lying in bed at night, or sitting on the couch watching TV, or sitting at the table eating. It's night. Now suddenly, the lights go out. It's pitch black. Right now, thinking of that situation, if you close your eyes, you can probably describe exactly what you would need to do.
  • Throw your legs to the left, find the floor, feel with your feet for your slippers, fumble on your left for your phone.
  • Fumble for the remote. Put it on the coffee table in front of you. Stand and walk slowly to the right, feeling your way between the coffee table and the couch.
  • Etc.
It might take a bit of concentration, but you can think of all that now. But how do you feel imagining yourself on the couch and the lights going out? How have you felt in actual circumstances when the lights went out? Likely you feel and felt: stressed, panicked, even frightened.
Now I want to make a comparison. You at home is your students before your class starts. They know where they are, what the world around them is like. They're at ease. But whether it's math, philosophy, sociology, chemistry, or whatever, you in the dark is your students upon encountering the complexities of your discipline for the first time. That is: we tend to forget that every discipline is a tightly organized body of knowledge, and it's not obvious to outsiders. You are an insider.
  • You know what the commutative principle is, what a proposition is, what social solidarity is, what the periodic table of elements is, etc.
  • You know your way around. You know what's there. It's all inside you––like the layout of your home you would know in the dark and could narrate if you needed.
But all these concepts, ideas and principles are highly structured based on assumptions and methods that make up your discipline. To the outsider, they mean nothing. Worse than nothing: they're scary. The step-by-step instructions we give students are like the inner voice that guides us in the dark and says "stand up and move to the right, but don't bump into the coffee table." Our students may be blindly following our instructions, because they don't really know the space in which they're navigating. They may just trust that if they follow the instructions, the countours of the room will eventually become clear. Indeed, one successful intellectual remembers asking his undergraduate math professor to explain the idea behind a certain mathematical process. The professor said "don't worry about it––just follow the instructions." That student transferred to a different college. The fear of the unknown is real. New information and ideas are unknown. And you must deal with this fear as a teacher––if you wish to succeed, that is. So how do teachers do this? How do we bring the student from where she is to some new place? Happily, there are some good examples of how people can be brought from what they already know to what they don't yet know. Some are some small and verbal, some are quite a bit larger and not merely verbal. But we can start with the smaller verbal analogies. How do writers of sentences and paragraphs manage to bring the reader from what's familiar to something new, possibly strange, which the writer wants to introduce? The same basic phenomenon has been viewed from two, nicely complementary angles. Consider this simple element of the classic style in prose writing (spotlighted by Francis-Noel Thomas & Mark Turner): the twist. The writer repeats a common phrase, but turns it unexpectedly. Oscar Wilde was quite good at these.
"Her husband died, and her hair turned quite gold from grief."
The traditional image is someone's hair turning white from grief. One's hair only turns 'gold' (aka blond) upon being bleached or dyed. So the inference is: this widow wasn't grieving at all: she was quite a merry widow. Another fine one is:
"I can resist anything––except temptation."
What, I ask you, is one supposed to resist if not temptation? Not to be able to resist temptation is not to be able to resist much at all. Here the writer builds his meaning by changing something familiar. If you simply repeat what's already known, that's what Thomas and Turner call the plain style:
"When I was a child I spake as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things."
  • The plain style pretends to do nothing other than: to say what everyone knows, the assumption being that what is known by all is true.
  • The classic style, by contrast, allows the writer to express a meaning which is not familiar and traditional. And so the classic style emerges with the Enlightenment, in which individuals can create new knowledge by building on, criticizing or departing from what's already known.
What's good advice for addressing an audience of strangers is also good advice for teaching--as I've argued before. Sadly, most professors almost never write for an audience of strangers: they write for professional colleagues. They write in what Thomas and Turner call the practical style: a discussion among professionals of how to solve a professional problem. This is almost meaningless to an outsider. Which is why most scholarship cannot be understood by the average intelligent lay reader, and why many terrific scholars cannot lecture terribly well: they're insiders who spend most of their professional lives debating with other insiders. What in the classic style we might call "what's twisted" and "the twist" can also be identified as:
the familiar and the unfamiliar, the old and the new, or, in a more linguistic frame: topic and comment.
Another excellent writing guide suggests ordering your writing so that you start from the former and move to the latter: in sentences, paragraphs, sections, and whole essays. Compare the immediacy and impact of:
"Your car is on fire."
"There's a fire burning right now––in your car."
It's easier to process the first sentence, because you know the topic first; whereas the second sentence has a weird effect of suprise and delay: you can't quite process that the important bit––that it's your car that's burning––comes at the end. The rule-of-thumb is:
  • Start with the topic, then add the comment.
  • Start from what's known, and add the as-yet-unknown.
  • Start from the old and move to what's new.
These two pieces of writing advice, taken together, suggest that the introduction of new or unfamiliar information requires careful management. These experts on writing suggest strategies for managing the transition at the level of prose––right down to the level of the sentence. So sentences can manage the movement from the familiar to the strange. And something very similar is needed for learning. Learning means changing: a more or less conscious change in dispositions, habits, or abilities, as one common formulation runs. In teaching, you are asking your students to change.
  • You may be asking them to master entirely new skills or to change very old habits.
  • You may be asking them to criticize or give up on cherished beliefs and assumptions.
  • You may be asking them to shift from concrete to abstract thinking.
  • You are effectively (we are told) asking them to rewire their brains.
Like it or not, as teachers, we facilitate change. Change has a psychological and emotional dimension, and these things are intimate, and in public settings we tend to shy away from intimate matters. But we do this at our peril. At some point those of us involved in teaching and learning must recognize the elements of the psychological processes of growth and change, and we must come to terms with the ways we have of managing and helping learners manage those processes. Naturally, there are disciplines and frameworks for thinking about the personal, psychological, social and emotional dimensions of change.
  • Psychologists, social workers, counselors and other helping professionals have models and frameworks for how change happens and how to facilitate it.
  • Social scientists in a variety of fields concerned with changing behaviors––quitting drinking or drugging, eating differently to lower your cholesterol, and the like--have a transtheoretical model for the stages of change, and they even know that you talk to someone differently if he is ready to change or not ready to change.
  • And anthropologists consider rituals as mechanisms which help to manage how individuals change their role or status.
I've already written a little about some similarities between teaching and psychotherapy. But here I'd like to consider the last topic––rituals as symbolic structures which facilitate change. Many of  society's rituals help manage changes such as:
  • a young person becomes an adult;
  • a man and woman become husband and wife;
  • someone gets a new job--notably a leadership role.
This is the rite of passage. It's well-studied, and I won't rehearse many details here. You can look it up and make your own connections to learning. Suffice it to say that most cultures use symbols to manage changes in status, and these symbolic things called rituals also help organize the psychological experience of changing. Some see folk tales as mirroring these rituals. Joseph Campbell's famous analysis of the "hero's journey" does just that. Campbell sees certain mythic narratives, folk tales and popular culture as symbolizing a specific ritual movement and its attendant psychological changes:
  • a violation of expected norms;
  • a disturbing movement from the familiar to the strange;
  • a reassuring guide who gives new skills, new tools;
  • a challenge, trial or test;
  • followed by a return in a new form, ready to take on new challenges, sometimes with a new status.
If learning really is a stressful experience which needs to be managed and faciliated, then each lecture, each class meeting, each course might take the shape of this kind of ritual or journey:
  • We take learners from where they are.
  • We rupture their world view with a paradox or an anomaly.
  • We give them the tools to make sense of something strange.
  • And
  • And they return to life different, their spirits enlarged, better prepared to meet a wider array of challenges.
In short, when we teach, we are helping people to grow. If we are not mindful of the contours of this journey, we will be poor guides. And if we are not aware of the journey's stresses, we will fail to take many all the way to the journey's end––which is where most really want and need to be. At a certain level, we must begin to think of teaching as a cultural ritual or work done with symbols which helps learners to manage the psychological stress and disorientation of learning––which is a form of change. It was once an insult to refer to mental health professionals as "witch doctors."

But Jerome Frank suggested that belief played a key role in psychotherapy, and "expectancy effects" have now been accepted as part of psychotherapy's efficacy. And perhaps now we are ready to accept that how we approach teaching may have a beneficial effect on learning which goes beyond "cognition."

 In higher education, professional teachers often see themselves as professional something-else's first. Professionalization is the social and psychological process by which people who earn money in the same way come to identify with their mode of making a living and to act in certain ways in order to protect and promote that group identity. It's not a bad thing.

But as professors are professional x's, y's or z's––mathematicians or philosophers or sociologists––they get wrapped up in professional communication, and their ability to communicate to those non-experts called students suffers.

 If we are to be a society that cares about learning, professionals who teach must also see themselves as professional teachers––and therefore also to care deeply about the way we help learners manage the stress of becoming someone new. Verbal models can point the way. So can rituals and stories. But eventually, we must understand better the broader symbolic mechanisms which help us to facilitate the enormously important personal growth called "learning."

 ––Edward R. O'Neill


  1. Great information Edward, thank you for the insight of the ritualistic form..

    1. Thanks! It would be interesting to see all the places in life we need rituals to help us get through the day.

      Even when we come home and change out of work clothes and pour a glass of something nice....It's like we're becoming a different person.

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