14 December 2010

when you know why and shifting the paradigm

A friend of mine visited me in Madison last spring. She is a community college biology professor near Detroit. The week after she visited, she was teaching her students about levers for anatomy class. So while I was working at school, she spent some time trying to understand these simple machines.

She and I talked about how we both have a hard time using information we have learned until we feel there are no gaps in our understanding. For me, if I wasn't careful at understanding why something is the way it is, I have to take giant leaps of faith in actually applying it. And being a skeptic, I'm not particularly good at leaps of faith! You can ask my sewing teacher-- I'm always questioning the instructions she gives me. But sometimes, all the inside-out seams and pattern matching suddenly make sense, and I realize she was right all along!

When some fundamental thing just clicks, it's not always obvious why things suddenly make sense. We all have a paradigm which we accept, and once something new fits into that paradigm, we feel it "click." But this is also a hindrance to shifting the paradigm itself.

I have been reading a very good book about incorporating Structured Controversy into the classroom, by Johnson Johnson & Smith 1996. Intellectual conflict is believed to be a central part of learning to have an open mind and to be a critical thinker. Piaget in 1950 proposed that cognitive dissonance-- or inconsistency among a student's understandings of the world and what they see and hear from others-- is what motivates transitions from one level of reasoning to higher level which is more broad and flexible, and which causes "a shift from egocentrism to accommodation of other people's

It should be the lifetime goal of the researcher to achieve a balance between on one hand having a paradigm that allows you to incorporate and use new knowledge efficiently and on the other hand being open to shifts in your paradigm in order to follow the really breakthrough ideas.