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History for education and the demonstration of mastery

This past year, I had the unexpected pleasure of being invited to give two guest lectures in the Philosophy of Science course that my institution offers bachelor students in “pedagogical sciences.” It was quite an honour: according to the national rankings, this is the top program in the country. And teacher-candidates are one of the primary audiences for my research. So despite the stresses of the pandemic, I developed some new material to connect my interests with the students’ needs.

I knew I wanted to talk in my second lecture about how Piaget and Vygotsky were popularized during the initial wave of post-Sputnik US education reform, between 1957 and 1962, and how this popularization subsequently led psychologists and education theorists to misunderstand them in ways that were consistent with the needs of the time. So I settled on “education reform” as the theme for my contribution to the course. I then worked backward from there to plan my first lecture.

Because Kuhn’s Structure was also published in 1962, I decided to use my first lecture to deepen my colleague’s earlier “introduction to paradigms and scientific revolutions” lecture by doing with Kuhn what he had argued-for in that famous book. So I placed the development of his thought in the context of its origins in Conant’s general education program at Harvard, and used my readings of his 1949 notebook and 1951 Lowell Lectures to bring together his thought and his context.

I was also excited to read George Reisch’s new book, The Politics of Paradigms, and I thought my own recent article on Kuhn and Piaget could provide a convenient bridge between the two parts. But the book was too much to assign, and there was no time to invent something completely new. (These were last-minute replacement lectures.) So I kept Reisch in my back-pocket and chose instead to assign Jensine Andresen’s much shorter “Crisis and Kuhn” article from Isis. Then I walked the students through the material, including countering Andresen’s appeals to psychoanalysis with my “hauntology” showing that this influence on Kuhn came via Piaget.

Kuhn argued that how we think about science is embedded in context and social relations, and that this is where the meanings that seem natural come from. So I showed that we can consider this argument symmetrically and do the same thing with him. As the context has changed, we have then understood different things that reflect those changes. And this message carried through into Lecture 2.

More than this, though, I was trying to use Kuhn to do Conant: I wanted these teacher-candidates to use the material to reflect on their own understanding, its place, and their future contribution. It went well. I’m told they found the material difficult, but also that they appreciated my enthusiasm for it.

At the end of the course, the teaching team decided that the final exam would be composed of six questions: one for each of the substantive lectures. We then each wrote five questions: two for the exam, two for the resit, and one to give to the students in advance so they would have a sense of what they could expect from us. This last one then also came with an answer that fit the same constraints as they faced: it should be a short essay of 200 words, clear and concise, that demonstrated their mastery of the material we had taught.

I wrote my answer for the Lecture 1 question quickly, and in the same amount of time we were giving them. I was also quite pleased when it came out so well: part of what I use these example questions to do is provide a final teachable moment. So here it is, with only minor edits.

What is the connection between Kuhn and Conant’s program of post-WWII education reform?

Jeremy’s example answer:
Conant hired Kuhn to teach in his “general education” program at Harvard. This was intended to complement the students’ “specialist education,” and thereby help them put their studies to work in a responsible way.

Kuhn’s job was to teach science to non-scientists. However, as a trained scientist himself—with a PhD in physics—he found that what his students sometimes thought wasn’t just wrong; their scientific insights were also often attached to historical Great Men (like Aristotle) whose authority made it difficult to address the resulting misunderstandings.

His solution was to introduce what we now call the “incommensurability” thesis: sometimes things don’t make sense because they are separated from us by a different logic, and it’s our task to understand those things according to how they made sense at the time. Aristotle’s physics therefore weren’t “wrong.” Instead, he thought about the world differently; in ways consistent with what was considered normal then.

In the context of Conant’s goals for the general education program, this move toward contextualization was intended to encourage students to think more broadly about the complex decisions they would have to make. Because the future of democratic society ought to be humane as well as technological.

When the teaching team discussed my text, however, there was a concern that the students would worry that I expected them to replicate it on their exams. So rather than freak them all out, we decided to tell them that it was the equivalent of a 14 out of 10. And I wrote some further reflections to help them interpret what I’d written.

Jeremy’s reflections:
My answer above is much more complex than what we are asking of you. But I also wanted you to see how I would answer it. Now we can discuss why it looks like this, and use it to reflect on how you can maximize your scores on exams generally.

To begin at the beginning: even though I don’t use the word, this is a question about the historical context of “paradigms.” Their origin. The source is the Andresen reading, and also my first lecture.

To show your mastery of the material, you need to demonstrate that you know who Kuhn and Conant are and—ideally—that you understand why it’s relevant that they’re connected. For a 6, though, you could simply say “Harvard.” (That’s a fast and correct answer to the question!) For a 6.5, this could be expanded to “the Harvard general education program.”

To pass, you don’t need to say anything about Kuhn’s job or his background, the contemporary critique of Great Man history, incommensurability, or Aristotle. Nor do you need to delve more deeply into Conant’s goals for General Education. Or show the symmetry between the question and my goal for my part of the course in asking it. These are all extra details that serve to demonstrate mastery in different ways.

Because that is what you’re really doing in this kind of exam: you’re demonstrating your mastery of the course material. It’s not just about answering the questions correctly. Rather, you are performing “expertise” for an audience (albeit one composed of your teachers).

This is why adding extra details can help you to maximize your score. Show us you know what you’re talking about.

Of course, there are diminishing returns: every additional detail is worth less, and the effort required to include them coherently increases. Especially in such a small space. So when you’re writing an exam that allows you to go back and edit your responses, always start by giving a basic correct answer. Then go back, use these draft-answers as notes to help you think more coherently and completely about what you mean, and then add the details that will increase your scores.

Generally speaking, each additional detail above the basic correct answer will be worth an extra point. Of course, that’s just a guide: not everyone grades this way. (Sometimes you also get a point for the clarity of your writing, because that suggests your thinking is clear too.) Still, it’s a useful thing to know: adding lots of details to one answer, and none to the others, is not as good as adding just one detail to each of them.

In aiming for a 10 by adding to your basic correct answer, you could give any of the details I mentioned above. You can’t just list them, though, because that wouldn’t demonstrate mastery. (It would only demonstrate memory.) Instead, you have to connect the thoughts together: show that you understand the material and, for a 10, show that you understand why the question itself was asked. In short: show that you can climb into your teacher’s head.

I felt especially clever by ending it there, because that’s how Kuhn described his method. And I’d included it in my lectures. Unfortunately, however, it seems my comments were never shared. I sent them, but they didn’t get posted to our course management website. They simply fell through the cracks left by Corona. So I thought I’d share them here instead.

Categories: Kuhn Pedagogical Sciences Teaching

J. T. Burman

JEREMY TREVELYAN BURMAN, PhD, is tenured Senior Assistant Professor (UD1 with indefinite contract) of Theory and History of Psychology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. The primary focus of his research is Jean Piaget, but he is also interested more generally in the formalization and movement of scientific meaning—over time, across disciplines, between languages, and internationally. To pursue these interests, he uses methods borrowed from the history and philosophy of science (esp. archival study) and the digital humanities (esp. network analysis).

Selected recent major works
Burman, J. T. (in press). The genetic epistemology of Jean Piaget. In W. Pickren (Ed.), The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of the History of Psychology. Oxford University Press.

Burman, J. T. (2020). On Kuhn’s case, and Piaget’s: A critical two-sited hauntology (or, on impact without reference). History of the Human Sciences, 33(3-4), 129-159. doi:10.1177/0952695120911576

Burman, J. T. (2019). Development. In R. J. Sternberg & W. Pickren, eds, The Cambridge Handbook of the Intellectual History of Psychology (pp. 287-317). New York: Cambridge University Press.

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