April 3, 2006
Heart and mind both find home at Oxford conference
Some 160 educators from around the country converged on the Oxford College campus, March 24, to explore the complex interplay between mind and heart when it comes to learning, and how they can take advantage of both aspects to maximize teaching effectiveness.
“The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning: The Cognitive-Affective Connection” incorporated more than just the standard fare of academic conferences (lectures, panel discussions, etc.). Professional actors were part of the program, as the University of Michigan’s CRLT Players (named for the school’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching) opened the day with a dramatization of a hypothetical classroom problem in a sketch titled “X and Y.”
Scene: A young, white, female graduate teaching assistant leads an introductory statistics class for five students. The subject: Correlations between household income and infant mortality rates. Student #1 (white male) raises his hand to ask what qualifies as income. “Does welfare count?” (Yes, says the instructor.) Student #2 (black female) turns to Student #1: “Why are you asking this?” The first student replies (“I’m just asking a question”), then mumbles something under his breath about how, perhaps, “poor people shouldn’t have babies.”
From there, predictably, the class careens off the rails. Not knowing how to handle the situation, the increasingly anxious graduate TA eventually shuts down all discussion, and the sullen students comply, their minds no longer attuned to the world of statistics.
What should have been done differently?
Remaining in character, the actors fielded questions about their motivations from the audience, as CRLT director and moderator Jeff Steiger kept the discussion moving, even inviting audience members on stage to show how they would have acted as instructors. Finally, Steiger switched up the casting: What if the teacher were a white male, Student #1 a black female, and Student #2 a white female? How would this have altered the dynamics?
In the afternoon, Amherst College’s Arthur Zajonc described in his keynote lecture a class he co-teaches with a colleague that teaches first-year students how to blend “Eros and Insight.”
“‘Cognitive-affective learning,’” Zajonc said, calling attention to the term. “Doesn’t that makes us feel like professors in some important discipline? Really it just means the relationship between knowledge and love.”
That relationship is a crucial one, Zajonc continued, quoting the likes of Rilke and Goethe, as well as famed pedagogist Parker Palmer. The Amherst physicist describing how intelligent young students in his class break out of the mold in which they’ve been cast—one where they’re expected simply to regurgitate knowledge in a manner they think will please the professor—and learn to truly open their eyes and experience the world around them.
“Contemplative education,” Zajonc said, “is transformative education.”
Conference organizer and Oxford psychology Professor Patti Owen-Smith broke up the morning theater show and Zajonc’s afternoon keynote with split-session panel discussion on topics like “Heeding Student Voices” and “Cognitive-Affective Learning in Mathematics and Science.” And lining the small Tarbutton Performing Arts Center lobby were poster displays related to the conference’s subject, such as one advertising Oxford’s own Journal of Cognitive Affective Learning, an online, peer-reviewed publication.
“It’s not by accident this meeting is being held here,” said Oxford Dean Steve Bowen. “Oxford professors take students seriously, so we expect to get to know them as individuals—their affective natures as well as their cognitive natures.”