Pedagogy in an age of disorder

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There are, I propose, three types of students. Taking a framework proposed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Anti-Fragile as a point of departure, I want to suggest that in a world of increasing disorder, including economic crisis, erosion of social programs, climate change, war and terrorism, obvious categories or modes emerge. A student is predominantly fragile, resilient or self-transcending in relation to the turmoil amplified by the current form of globalization.

The fragile or precarious, to some degree, live like the mythical Damocles. They may seem to be enjoying themselves but a metaphorical sword hangs by a thread over them. This type of student can be self-expressive in class, but lacks the self-mastery needed to deal with the challenges that our contemporary society presents. They do not yet have the ability to learn continuously, in the sense that they dislike making errors more than they enjoy acquiring knowledge from their mistakes. They lack the capacity to engage in additional professional development, tied down by debt repayment or short-sighted spending habits. If there is an economic crisis they are the students who experience it first and hardest. Most of their intellectual discovery occurs in class. Outside of the educational institution they are continuously un-learning because mainstream society's implicit pedagogy produced by multi-tasking, relentless channel surfing and obsessive texting, undermines the concentration skills developed through a college or university course. The precarious because of their situation or approach, have little room to manoeuvre.

I have had a number of students who spoke English as a first language but had trouble formulating grammatical sentences when speaking in class or writing essays. I remember one of these students telling me that he disliked reading. Surprisingly, he was in the third year of a four-year degree program. In order to protect anonymity, I will use an analogy: one of the course essay questions was to compare and contrast two course texts -- one, for example, by Eric Hobsbawm and the other by Niall Ferguson. The title that the student gave to his essay was "Ferguson Explains Best." This student was fragile. No doubt all students have some of these qualities, but they are most prominent among our precarious students and they therefore have the highest exposure to the worst effects of the unpredictable.

The second category, the resilient, is like the mythical phoenix who endlessly rises from their own ashes. These students will deal with economic crisis or disorder in life with a method that will return them to the same state that they possessed before the crisis. Their approach is usually to seek safe, secure employment and to focus on self-mastery at base for the sake of self-protection. While the fragile is inevitably benched, the resilient plays, but mostly defence. I remember one student who was especially robust. He had lived through poverty, experienced police harassment and believed that society conspired against him. Yet this perception seemed to empower him. It provided him with clear limits and therefore an approach: sturdy defiance. Every problem had one cause: the rich. I have seen this dynamic with other resilient types. Whether the student is progressive or conservative, they explain all problems with the same structure: defence from a foe and that foe can originate in genetics, family dysfunction or a social factor. While the fragile do everything they can to avoid volatility, the resilient identify a cause of disorder, armour themselves and resist its incursion.

The third mode, the self-transcending or innovative, is like the mythological hydra. The hydra was a serpent with nine heads. Every time one of the heads was severed, two would grow back in its place. This type of student thrives on adversity. For these students, the discordant, the dangerous and the unforeseen all become forms of developing greater learning capacity. Every trial enables them to grow another extra head, to develop greater consciousness and thus greater capacity for development. I had a student years ago who was a refugee. When she arrived in North America at the age of 17, she spoke no English. By 19 she had enrolled in a community college. At the age of 21 she graduated, then went on to do a bachelor's degree, then a master's, and then started earning a very good salary -- more than most professors -- as part of the management team of a well-known non-profit organization. She has worked there for 10 years and recently told me that she was considering a career change because she wants a vocation that will offer her even greater challenges. This type is perpetually transcending their situation: the greater the hurdle, the higher they learn to leap. They accept, perhaps even embrace, the random, because they know that they evolve because of it. They are creative: they are not on the bench, they do not need to only play defence but can instead play all positions on the field. They are distinct from the other types because they have the highest exposure to the benefits of the unknown.

These three approaches are of course relative: in one context a student may be quite fragile in comparison to the others, whereas in a different context he or she may be relatively resilient. Students also usually combine all three types, but gravitate towards one. The question for teachers is how to get our fragile students to become more robust, how to get our robust  to become more creative, and how to enable our creative to continue challenging themselves. How do we move students away from a set of skills and a mode that limits their range of options towards an approach that helps them flourish in the age of disorder?

Thomas Ponniah is an Affiliate of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin America Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University.

Photo: Adan Garcia/flickr

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