Howling at the Moon

How I Teach

by Ken Moss

I want to talk today about human learning, beginning with a theoretical base and offering a number of concrete suggestions to practicing educators.  If I succeed, some of you will find suggestions in what I describe that appeal to you and might be integrated into your own approach.

Okay, let’s get theoretical.

Oddly, public discourse of late has been dominated by terms such as standardized testing, assessments, rubrics and learner outcomes.  In a way, they are all learner outcomes.  Rarely are they associated with theories of learning or actively debated.  To my way of thinking, all of these focus on the wrong end of the learning process.

Here we are preparing an egg salad (filled with delectable, tempting and dynamic tastes) while some nameless invective comes at us now and, frankly, for the better part of 30 years telling us to look at the other end.  At best it is an anal joke.  At worst it imposes a kind of tyranny (c.f., Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison and his extension of the argument as it applies to schools as institutions).

What happens after our classroom presentations isn’t truly known to us anyway as responses vary substantially from person to person.  Given the diversity of learners generally and our students specifically, we cannot teach in the finger warning way of lecture certainty, but only by invitation -- an invitation to engage, to sing along, to investigate, to consider -- and to pursue what lays claim to personal interest and enthusiasm.  “Boredom,” says my brother, ”is constrained anger.”  (He teaches in Watts … yes, that Watts, but boredom isn’t limited to an underclass.)

Learner outcomes tend to be short-term goals sterilized by the abstractions of academics.  What the student has learned may or may not be evident when we receive the papers or tests we spend so much of our time marking, depending on how far the process has progressed.  For learning is an ongoing process and grades but temporary markers.  And since student learning of substance will proceed without us, our contribution simply must come at the opening of an investigation.  In a real way, we have already done what we can, before we put a single mark on a single paper.

The learner outcomes approach is based on an American Psychology once aptly called Behaviorism – where white rats run mazes and the experimenter alters a number of variables to see what can increase the speed of memorization while decreasing the time it takes to get to the goal with its food pellet reward.  Often this results in well-trained if somewhat obsessive animals.  As the organism gets more sophisticated, this anti-therapeutic psychology suggested that we think of the learner as a black box.  While there were inputs and outcomes, what took place inside the being had no scientific basis for commentary since there was no way to gather experimental evidence other than to ask the subjects, and who could possibly believe what they had to say?

Yet only when students lay claim to their learning does it become vital and sustainable.  It is characterized by bright eyes, enthusiasm, earnest pursuit, and that most affirming of all responses, laughter.  It can take the form of a curious investigation or the formulation of a surprising proposition.  It can break out in class discussions so engrossing that we can sit down and just listen to the exchange.  I am particularly pleased when students tell me of the discussions they have had on topics raised in class which prompted hours of reflection, comment and argument at home, in the dorms, or in the bars for that matter.  These can be spoken of as outcomes, I suppose, but as a friend of mine who I will call Professor Kevin – now teaching Philosophy at a university outside Dubai — puts it, “Learning cannot be measured quantitatively.”

So let’s begin again.

Sooner or later all educators come to know that a well-planned lesson has a better chance of success.  [By the way, in many countries in Asia, teachers routinely have hours of scheduled prep time within their workday.  The first time I saw this, I was astounded.]  Meanwhile in America we may not have enough time to do this well when new to our profession, or for that matter when we first construct and offer a course.  Over years of praxis and ongoing revision, however, including just after class commentary on our own plan, an edifice emerges which provides structural support yet varies from lesson to lesson and within a lesson in how it unfolds and the modalities it offers for conveyance.  Of course, we can on any given day ignore the structure we’ve erected in favor of spontaneity, but its presence provides focus nonetheless.

When I was working in high school, I was often asked to submit lesson plans.  Administration had their own tasks and little time to understand each teacher’s approach.  So specifications of form were substituted which proved largely to make the entire exercise a waste of time for those doing such a complicated and dynamic task.  One year, begrudgingly, I kept two sets of books: one to satisfy the boss and one to help with the teaching.  It was absurd.

But the first step in our preparation, I’ll call it a propadeutic, and one that really counts, is the need to get in touch with the learners.

Coming from American High Schools, students have been subjected to pressures of conformity on multiple levels.  Parental concern for safety has been taken over by schools who are increasingly uneasy about exploration beyond the school grounds, or beyond traditional practices for that matter, and have emphasized instead the importance of tracking protocols, standardized test scores and the five-paragraph essay.  At the same time peer pressures continue to insist on conforming social codes and judgments limiting acceptable behaviors to avoid ridicule.  Some of our best students bear the scars of that practice.

By college entrance the twin towers of need can be clearly defined as explorations in two areas: learning about the wider world, and the discovering and fine-tuning of the self as a particular and peculiar being.

A colleague of mine at the alternative public high school I helped create contributed one sparkling idea.  He called it ‘unstructured time.’  What he meant by it was that class time for each course should be limited to two or three times a week and the rest (quite unlike normal high school supervision) would be free for the students to do as they would.  In short, the college system that until recently provided ample time for investigation, experimentation and reflection.  And much of the time these American Colleges were well thought of internationally, unlike our younger grades where the ability to read, write and think were limited to unacceptably small percentages of our population.

Today, however, we are increasingly cluttering student choice with ever-narrowed opportunities:  for example, to take what courses they may want to explore amid an avalanche of departmentally focused expectations and state requirements.  Few college students are prepared to make occupational choices.  Frankly, it is premature at this stage, and the society is certainly unprepared to offer them worthy positions.  Most certification and credentialing programs will have to wait till graduate school anyway, and in a fast changing world even the software doesn’t stay for more than a year.  So what’s the rush?  Perhaps we should hold off asking students to declare a major until Junior Year.

Furthermore, the unbelievable amount of work assigned to students has reached such a crescendo -- based, I suspect, on the productivity model taken from modern business practices designed to get as much work from each worker as possible so corporations won’t have to pay as many employees.  A colleague commented recently that she doesn’t assign papers near the end of the semester anymore because her students don’t have time to do them.  And of course with the students writing so many electronic pages, guess who has to grade them?  It’s reminiscent of Cat’s Cradle – everyone is busy, busy – forgive me, but it reminds me of the rats.

Here at SUNY New Paltz we have an opportunity to explore the world in a relatively safe environment.  An unusual number of intelligent people live in the area, the environs are known for their beauty in all seasons, and the activities available are splendidly diverse.  Clearly exploration is essential and makes maximal use of our circumstances.  But the matter goes far deeper than this.  Each discipline (perhaps as Plato himself conceived it) is really a path to make sense of the world.  History, geology, architecture, etc., each seek to describe what is.  But to make sure it does, to parallel the high level abstractions and specialized language of each discipline with what it purports to describe, one simply must be in the field.  What John Dewey called experiential learning.  So while we may agree to meet on Tuesdays and Fridays in the academy for convenience, the focus of our work must relate to the world as it is now.  Language is not what used to be spoken.  And this understanding helps shape the nature of our approaches to ‘curriculum’…etymologically, a cart path cut through the fields to ease a student’s course of study.

On another level the exploration of the self and the path that leads to private epiphanies often described in the writing of modern bildungsroman makes contemporary sense only when grounded in the experience of the students’ lives – what I call the ‘modernist technique of validation.’  Even as I read this today, for example, I recognize that only if you concur with aspects of my discourse do we have a basis for conversation.  So students must seek something in their experiences that resonates with, is consensual to, what our finest writers describe.  We must transcend the academic experience in order to ground what we have to say in personal realities.

At our core, humans are decision-makers first and foremost (it is a pivotal concept in our most primal literature), and the choices we make are so varied and so nuanced that different theoretical approaches and their ramifications are needed than the paradigm of lecture input and prescribed outcomes afford.  We simply must begin with respect for the individuals and their need to find their own way.

I like the image attributed to Michelangelo.  Here is the rock and we need only carve out what isn’t the emerging figure to find what is authentic.  But the sculptor here must be the learner.  Who am I and what is my path will emerge dimensionally if time and opportunity for exploration, reflection, turnings and returnings will be expedited and nurtured.  What is not you, let go of.  Learn to choose wisely.

If there is a single item that will affect a student’s future, it is this ability to choose…widely and subtly disparaged by authorities of all kinds.  In some ways these are the tests that matter.  The rest are useful for accreditation but are usually used for control.  The need for external control simply must be shifted as our students enter their adulthood.  The notion that increasing the number of tests a student takes, the number of pages a student writes, the number of grades (and thus judgments) a student receives, is largely disproportionate and antithetical to the need of the developing individual.  I am intrigued by the idea that perhaps students should not write a paper until they have something to say.

And thus I conceive our real task as:  How to promote learning in all its diversity using a progressive and respectful approach which grounds itself in the experience of world and growing personal awareness.

Okay, let’s get practical.

Bearing all this in mind, my front-end approach begins with a focused prompt.  It is a thematic title, a leit motif for the lesson, often phrased in an intriguing way.  It focuses the prep for the lesson as well as the lesson itself.  Often I will write it on the board like a banner and expect it to become clearer and more dimensional as the discussion progresses.  I aim to instill it with certain dynamism, and try to avoid getting lost in data points, not because they aren’t important but that they often work better as illustration than content.  If I can tie the idea of the day into what the individual is already familiar with on some levels, it will become easier to understand it dimensionally.  I recognize that what any individual retains will depend on previously established awareness and personal perspective, including aesthetic appreciation for the modality in which it’s presented.  Then I seek to extend the concept beyond the classroom.  I think of it as: Presentation as Prompt.

In Great Books of Western Literature, for example, my first lesson is called: ‘Where do We Begin?’  While it asks an ontological question characteristic of creation tales introduced later in the course, at first it provides a more specific approach.  Where should we begin the course?  Where did Western Civilization begin?  Where does what we call literature begin?  And by the end of the first class we are discussing early cites of Mesopotamia, estimating dates, and reading what was written on the walls before the bombs fell and Western literary roots with them.

Characteristic of my pedagogy is a workbook/journal designed for informal writing – largely ungraded though still submitted for review.  In it I encourage responses to in-class discussions, allusions to the literature including cited lines as take-off points and – here’s the kicker – extended activities in the world beyond that I encourage each student to attempt and write about when they work on some level for them.  Here the follow-up is:  How close to Mesopotamia can you trace your family’s roots?  I suggest possible approaches like map readings, family consultations, name research.

One psychologist named Guthrie had well-known disagreement with Skinner, the rat man.  He suggested that it wasn’t the reward that got the rats to learn the maze, but the completion of the task—that by making the circuit whole, it held its form in memory.  I’ve been intrigued by this conception for some time.  James Joyce in Stephen Hero presents his theory of aesthetics, that what is beautiful has three key attributes: integrity or wholeness, symmetry (in the sense of rhythm), and epiphany.

By extending the history lesson to include the idea that the student’s life is connected to Mesopotamia by heritage, I complete the gestalt.  I urge them to connect with their ancestry and thus with the concept of ancestry itself.

This lesson is followed by another entitled ‘The Relay Race Begins,’ suggesting that when writing emerged (I use play dough and chess pieces for a brief cuneiform demonstration) it enhanced the ability to pass on ideas.  The human race is a relay, I point out, not only genetically but also in terms of civilization and why it is we need not reinvent the proverbial wheel.  The workbook here focuses on the transition to agri-culture, a truly primal and essential epiphany of human understanding.  (“The seed is in itself” is how the bible will phrase it, but the understanding comes earlier.)  And for the workbook, I offer:  Go to main street and, without asking for directions but while thinking of the decision of early humans to settle rather than remain nomadic, make your way to what one Albany Professor informed us is “the oldest surviving community gardens in the State of New York.”  Should you get there, open each of your senses to what is present.  Be sensual in the garden.  Maybe gather some seeds.

‘His Story Begins’ suggests that the Epic genre emerged in literature to parallel the Patriarchal social structure increasingly practiced by society at that time.  And I raise the intriguing possibility -- suggested, for example, by the fortifications of the architecture -- that the needs of early civilization may have shifted in similar fashion.  I follow with a mock-quiz consisting of statements purporting to describe a society as an anthropologist might and asking students to specify which items can be associated with patriarchic and hierarchic structures not unfamiliar to them today.

  A man’s name is passed on 

  Rain is bad weather 
  We own pieces of the planet

The subtle idea here is to demonstrate that even though the epic hero on whom the very outcome of an ancient culture might have depended no longer seems to apply to our times, many of the values which the genre endorses continues in our language, sport, values, and idol worship.

While all 28 lessons have a central and extendable theme, as I’ve been working on the course for some time, here’s a final one I particularly like.  In the literature Gilgamesh and his companion went to battle Humbaba – the personification of the unknown and not yet known, the forest guardian, the monster from whose grip many a traveler did not return.  On the night before the battle in some versions their fears have grown like elongated shadows.  Perhaps they drink some Lebanese beer (extant some 3500 years ago) and seeing the full moon, traditional ally of the Goddess they left at home, they raised their spirits with their voices by howling.  And so I say, on the night of the next full moon, with or without a companion, with or without the beer, howl at the moon.  Try to fully let the tension go.

My intent on one level is to help them connect with one of our most primal rituals: the light in the forest is also moonlight.  Perhaps when they howl they will hear from other mammals; perhaps they too can free themselves from their fears of the darkness in their souls and grasp the adventure that is life.

To be sure, some of all this is whimsical – like literature I suppose – but it is at its root exploratory: of our town, of the topics, and of the very real adventures which await our students.  In every instance, please note, I let the world in with a connected relevance and the self out so to say.  As Joyce leaves his college for the continent, the last image is of a lone dog howling as persons gather round the howler but do not participate.

Some weeks ago I was about to pay for my lunch in a restaurant in Tillson where I live, when suddenly the cashier shrieked, “Professor Moss!!”  She forgave me for not recognizing her and told me how she had taken a course from me long ago and had never forgotten the experience.  And how for years now her friends and she would gather once a year at the night of the Harvest Moon and sing and dance and howl some 30 strong, and that that is what she was doing just the night before and remembering the experience -- and there I was the next day.  I asked her if she had learned to let go.  And she replied: You don’t get to be a Rock musician any other way.

Way leads to way, I suppose.  And howling at the moon is how I teach.

Thank you for listening.

Copyright © 2009 Kenneth S. Moss