But how will you look for something when you don’t in the least know what it is? How on earth are you going to set up something you don’t know as the object of your search? To put it another way, even if you come right up against it, how will you know that what you have found is the thing you didn’t know?
—Meno to Socrates
In the “Paradoxes and Predicaments in Learning to Design” chapter of Donald Schön’s Educating the Reflective Practitioner, a text that I will be reading and thinking about with my students in upcoming weeks, Schön evokes the perplexity that many of us confront at the beginning of learning a new skill or discourse. Feeling that we are missing some essential key, we attempt to quell our mounting anxiety by faking the external signs of competence, even as it begins to dawn on us that we are so far afield that we do not even know where to begin looking for the missing key (do not, perhaps, even know that it is a key we are seeking at all and not, rather, a steel file, or calcium carbonate, or a rose-flavored macaron). Schön focuses on the particular pedagogical situation of the architectural design studio, a locus of the design student’s “experience of mystery and confusion,” where, one student observes, “What we have here is a very Kafkaesque situation where you really don’t know where you are, and you have no basis for evaluation. You hang on the inflection of the tone of voice in your crit to discover if something is really wrong.” Hanging on the inflection, the design student (who has not yet learned to “think architecturally”) can sense – viscerally, intuitively – the discrepancy between her performance and the studio master’s expectations, even before she has the conceptual tools to name or describe the particular nature of that gap.
Schön connects the design student’s “predicament” to the paradox described by Plato’s Meno, the “general paradox attendant on the teaching and learning of any really new competence or understanding; for the student seeks to learn things whose meaning and importance she cannot grasp ahead of time.” The student knows that she is failing to see something, yet without seeing what it is she’s missing, how can she begin to look for it? Complicating the design student’s situation even further, the studio master cannot tell her what she needs to know, cannot give her in advance a description of the idea that she needs to attain. In learning to design, it seems, certain “essential ‘covert things’ … can never be explained; either the student gets them in the doing, or he does not get them at all.”
The subtle distinction between “getting it” and “not getting it” points to a kind of irreducible remainder in the practice of learning to design, something greater than the sum of the tasks that the student performs and the studio master’s input on the results of those tasks. The studio master “cannot explain these things with any hope of being understood, at least at the outset, because they can be grapsed only through the experience of actual designing.” Even the experience of actual designing is no guarantee of learning; it remains mysterious (a question of “divine dispensation,” in Plato’s terms) when and if these “covert things” will eventually take root for the student. For even if the student is “able to give a plausible verbal description of designing—to intellectualize about it—he [may] still be unable to meet the requirement that he demonstrate an understanding of designing in the doing.” The only evidence that the student has at last learned to “think architecturally” seems, finally, to issue from within, to be embodied within the student’s practice; it seems, paradoxically, not to have been transmitted from the studio master at all. This question of whether knowledge derives ultimately from the teacher or from the student returns us to another Socratic hypothesis: that “the nature of the process by which we may ‘look for what we don’t know’ … is, in its essence, a process of recollection; the learner ‘spontaneously recovers knowledge that is in him but forgotten.’”
The situation that Schön describes applies aptly to the task my students at NYU’s Polytechnic School of Engineering are now facing as they begin drafting their first essay, an entity that many (perhaps all?) of them might still perceive as one of those “covert things.” Like Schön’s studio master, I have offered guidance that may appear, for now, enigmatic, in that I cannot tell them what shape their eventual essay must take, or prescribe the process by which they will write it. I have told them that their essay must host an idea – something that, unlike a thesis, cannot be constructed according to a plan or formula in which words slide into place like the parts of an Ikea chair. I offer them no assembly manual for this thing that we call an idea; we will know it when we see it. Essentially I am asking them now to do something that I have not taught them how to do, asking them in the doing to work their way out of the perplexity I have been complicit in making.
Like the design tasks that Schön describes, the work that students in writing classes undertake requires that they formulate “the problem of [the] problem.” Rather than present our students with problem solving tasks, we ask that they themselves crreate or select or enact problems. Unlike the perfect AP English exam essay with its sleek topic sentences, the essay that I have asked my students to write may well be “unteachable” – unteachable unless, following Carl Rogers, we “[reframe] teaching in a way that gives central importance to [the teacher’s] own role as a learner.” Schön turns to the controversial remarks that Rogers delivered to a group of Harvard faculty in 1952 in order to think about the role of the teacher in light of the radical destabilization provoked by the Meno. If the student can only ever learn through doing, what does the teacher do? For Schön, Rogers’s performance of “uncertainties and convictions” before the Harvard faculty strategically “elicit[ed] self-discovery in others, first by modeling for others, as a learner, the open expression of his own deepest reflections.” Only by enacting the “paradoxical teacher who does not teach” – who invites or provokes rather than instructs – can the teacher begin to put students to work.
These reflections are inspired in part by a professional development meeting that took place last Friday for the faculty who work as consultants for NYU’s Writing Center, where that center’s director, William Morgan, opened the morning’s conversation through another passage from Schön, in which the writer describes what he calls “the swamp of important problems and non-rigorous inquiry.” Placing Schön’s “swamp” in conversation with L. S. Vygotsky’s concept of “the zone of proximal development,” we talked about the different kinds of confusion that writing entails: the productive kind that leads, after a period of necessary struggle, to insight, and the non-productive kind, the kind where students remain “stuck” in the relative safety of rote ways of thinking rather than attempt the often frightening task of descending into the swamp. We discussed, too, the many different words that exist for the various topological obstacles that we encounter as we attempt to chart new courses (metaphorical and actual) through unknown terrains: swamp, marsh, sinkhole, quagmire, quicksand.
As writing teachers, we face yet another paradox: we find ourselves constructing these bogs and bayous (the “swampy lowland[s where] messy, confusing problems defy technical solution”) even as we also try to guide our students out of the mud and towards the clarity of expression they ultimately need.
Another source of inspiration for these remarks is Kristina’s post below. The “make it work” principle she discusses in the context of Tim Gunn’s marvelous catch phrase seems to point to another kind of engagement with the mysterious space of designing:
Within the particular situation of designers in a workroom, or students in a classroom, “make it work” signifies a practice. This practice can’t be reduced to a simple game of winners and losers. Because its objectives are not about a ranking or a grade, the practice of “making it work” is really about exercising problem-solving, resourcefulness, and experimentation.
Telling the designers on Project Runway to “make it work,” Gunn models a way that we, as teachers, can put the space of the classroom to work, emphasizing “the problem of the problem” that can only be seized through practice. Telling the designer (or the writer) to “make it work” communicates to her “that she is expected to learn, by doing, both what designing [or writing] is, and how to do it,” and that ultimately “she is the essential self-educator” (Schön). Envisioning the writing classroom (or the writing center cubicle) as a studio space – a “work-room,” more than a classroom – entails launching not only our students but also ourselves “on a process which is both fascinating and at times a little frightening,” as Rogers put it; for “[i]t seems to mean letting my experience carry me on, in a direction which appears to be forward, toward that [which] I can but dimly define, as I try to understand at least the current meaning of that experience. The sensation is that of floating with a complex stream of experience, with the fascinating possibility of trying to comprehend its ever-changing reality.” Like my students, I do not yet know where we are headed; I only know that it’s working.
1 Donald A Schön, Educating the Reflective Practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.