Evaluating Thinking: Why Connect to our Experience and Intuition?

In a previous post, I explained the thought process behind seven of my choices of standards for evaluating thinking.  They are mostly unsurprising items like clarity, precision, and logic, unpacked into student-friendly language (I hope).  The remaining one is not like the others.  When we are evaluating reasoning, I ask my students to find and evaluate the connections to their own experience and intuition.

I don’t do this because I want them to reject ideas that contradict their expectations. I also don’t do it because it’s a warm-and-fuzzy way of making things seem “personal” or because it’s a mnemonic that anchors things in your brain.  Finally, I don’t do it (anymore) as a way to elicit and stamp out their ideas.  I do it because a bunch of previously disconnected thoughts I’ve had about teaching are converging here.  I’m trying to document the convergence.

The more I ask students to evaluate how their experiences and intuitions connect to new ideas, the more I learn: about my teaching, about their thinking, and about when I should ask for experience vs. when I should ask for intuition.  Every day, I find a new reason why it’s important to develop the habit of asking this question, and of determining whether our ideas help us accomplish our purpose:

  1. because my students often can’t tell the difference between their ideas and the author’s ideas.  I find this downright alarming.  When asked, they will report that an author’s idea was also theirs “all along” (even if they contradicted it yesterday);  or, they will report that “the author said” something that is simply not there.
  2. because an ounce of perplexity is worth a pound of engagement, and our own experience is a great source of perplexity (“but wait, I thought…”)
  3. because convincing students of some counter-intuitive idea without giving them a chance to connect to its counter-intuitiveness can steal the possibility that it will ever seem cool to them
  4. because “when things are acting funny, measure the amount of funny.”   If you are not comparing new ideas to your intuition, nothing ever seems funny
  5. because failing to ask this question teaches students that what they learn in school is not connected to the rest of the world
  6. because as Cris Tovani writes in I Read It But I Don’t Get It, we need to ask “So what?”  Making connections with the text simply to get through the assignment, without asking the “So what?” of how it moves us closer to our purpose, can damage our understanding rather than strengthen it (and might be an ingredient in the “mythologizing” that Grace writes about)
  7. because “when intellectual products attain classic status [and become divorced from our own ideas,] their importance is reflexively accepted, but not fully appreciated…
  8. because I’m starting to think that well-reasoned misconceptions help us make progress toward changing the game from one of memorization to one that’s about “learning the genre” of a discipline.  I want my students to see “technician” as something they are, not something they do… and I think that that sense of participating in an identity, not just performing its tasks, is a clue to the 50% attrition rate in my program
  9. because maybe initial knowledge is a barrier to learning that must be corrected or maybe alternative conceptions are hallmarks of progress but either way, students need to talk about them… and I need to know what they are
  10. because the other day I wished I had an engineering logbook to keep track of the results of my experiments.  I haven’t wanted one of those since I left the R&D lab where I used to work.  The fact that I have some results worth keeping track of makes me more certain that I’m doing the kind of inquiring (into my students’ learning) that matters.


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