Integrity in Teaching

This is a response to the article “Integrity in Teaching: Recognizing the Fusion of the Moral and Intellectual,” by Deborah Ball and Suzanne M. Wilson (1996). Since the article discusses student-directed and inquiry-based learning, I thought it was an appropriate thing to share with readers of this Philosophy for Children blog. Happy reading and please join the discussion in the comments!

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Teaching: “Knowledge endeavor” or “moral enterprise?” There is a tension in the academic community between those who say teaching is about transmitting content and those who approach teaching as primarily about engaging with students’ wellbeing. Ball and Wilson use two examples from their third grade classes to illustrate the point that these two ideas are inseparable.

Wilson begins by giving an account of a unit she spent discussing government with her third graders. A discussion of the history of how Lansing (their home city) became the capital of Michigan yields a number of misconceptions – some vocabulary confusions, some geographical, some about the nature of government. Instead of slamming down the discussion by correcting her third graders’ misconceptions right away, Wilson engages her students in further discourse, encourages them to respond to one another, and learns a great deal more about their thinking and understanding.

Wilson continues with an example of a fascinating third grade math lesson. She works hard to foster student-directed learning in her classroom, and encourages students to come to solutions and new knowledge through inquiry, active experimentation, and debate. During the episode she relates for this essay, her students are trying to figure out how to compare the sizes of different fractions. A portion of the class comes to the conclusion that five fifths is more than four fourths because there are more pieces. Wilson is befuddled but ends the lesson at a loss of what to do.  “Having worked hard to create a classroom culture in which mathematical ideas were established with evidence and argument,” she writes, “I found that many students were no longer so influenced by my views” (169-170). With five minutes left before recess, she asked students to journal about their thinking: “I was humbled to see that, even when I do choose to tell students something, there are no guarantees, and I remembered that this was one of the things that spurred me to make my classroom more centered on the children’s thinking in the first place” (171). While I grew up with and nearly always promote student-directed learning, one thing I noticed that makes Ball and Wilson’s techniques unique is that the content of their teaching is quite purposefully teacher-directed, but the process and method of the learning is student-led. This is a new model of shared responsibility for student learning.

The writers go on to discuss the potential challenges to their inquiry-based methods of teaching. More traditional modes of teaching might yield the correct answers more often, but their experience has shown that students can often give the “correct answer” without actually having the underlying understanding. For instance, it is common for students taught mathematics traditionally to understand the correct answer in one situation but not another – e.g. representing six pieces coming together to represent one whole using manipulatives, but still insisting that a sixth plus a sixth equals a twelfth when using just numbers alone without the manipulatives (presumably adding across the top and adding across the bottom). Instead of providing examples (e.g. same size pizzas getting cut into different numbers of pieces), Wilson chose to encourage students to come up with their own examples. These examples did not provide the correct answer right away, but they demonstrated students’ thinking in a way that working with only teacher-provided examples would not.

We also must consider that many subjects will arise in the conversation that the teacher did not intend to bring up. Some may engender discomfort, and some students will be more or less uncomfortable depending on their experiences. When some of her students made derogatory remarks about welfare, and Ball had no lived experience with the subject, luckily some of her students were able to advocate for themselves. But what about the students who remained silent? When discussing serious and sensitive topics, is there a point at which the teacher has a responsibility to step in and steer the discussion? And if so, at what point and how is this to be done without squashing student creativity and self-advocacy?

A central theme of this essay is how to approach every topic with intellectual honesty. Bruner (1960) claims that any subject can be taught honestly in some way to any student at any developmental level. Being intellectually honest means both taking the subject matter very seriously and taking each student and their individual thinking seriously. What does this mean when a student’s entire framework of understanding is at odds with conventional wisdom? Even once Wilson’s students understood that a cookie was the same size no matter how many pieces you split it into way, five fifths was considered more because you could share the whole thing with more friends. In a poetic way, one could argue they have a point. But according to the conventions of mathematics, they are wrong. How does an educator honour the poetic truth in the student’s understanding of a situation while explaining the mathematical flaw?

Ball notes how happy she was to see four young girls in her classroom, three who were students of colour, debating mathematical proofs – a domain too long dominated by white men. However, she worries that in her quest to respect her students’ critical thinking and learning process, she let her students leave third grade without the skills to defend themselves against the erroneous notion that women have lagging mathematical skills. Providing our students with only one or two conventional perspectives on a mathematical idea or historical event robs them of the nonstandard but valuable insight that they can achieve for themselves: “History would be something others do, not them” (186). However, as educators we have the responsibility to “represent the subject matter in ways that are honest and true” (178). If we leave our students believing that five fifths is more than four fourths or worse, have we failed them? Worse, if we teach social studies and do not ensure that our students see people like themselves represented in government positions and historical turning points, do we leave our students believing that they do not have the opportunity to be moral agents in the shaping of their world?

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