Monday, July 28, 2008

Christopherian Encounters of the Third Kind

Cristian could not accept what his eyes told him; his brain rejected the obvious. (“Obvious” is a wonderful word—look at its roots.) Howard Gardner is a charismatic education guru, and favored by many educators. He was a Harvard professor, wrote well, but most important, coined the term “multiple intelligences”, developed a thesis around it, and hit the circuit making teachers feel good. He is a cult hero to a few of my mentors, and he looks like a mensch on video, so bashing him for mediocre thinking feels petty. I must be an emotional learner.

In The Unschooled Mind Gardner talks about Christopherian encounters, moments when a child’s education bumps up against what he believes (“knows”) to be true.

I encourage the creation of “Christopherian encounters,” where students must directly confront evidence that contradicts their intuitive theories…. (p. 227)

Any science teacher paying attention (a few don’t) sees this regularly.

Gardner introduced the term “Christopherian encounter” (or confrontation) before revealing its etymology, and I was hoping he wasn’t referring to Christopher Columbus, and hoping even harder he was not referring to the myth that Columbus “proved” the world was not flat. (Columbus could not prove the world was round—he had to turn around to get back to Europe.) Gardner credits Columbus as “the first human to demonstrate unequivocally that the intuitive impression that the earth is flat had to yield to the alternative conception of the earth as spherical.” I think that’s a high-falutin’ Harvard-speak for saying Columbus prove the world is round.

I think Howard Gardner could benefit from a Christopherian encounter of his own. Take him to the Jersey shore, let him watch a tanker on the horizon—watch as it slowly “sinks”. A lot of Europeans had access to beaches, even “way back when”—the “spherical” view of the world was not a radical concept. At any rate, Columbus turned around. Most one can safely infer is that the world was not flat, which is a whole lot less than calling the world round.

A fun classroom activity is asking the class if the world is round—and just about all my kids are culturally astute enough to say yes. But then ask them to “prove” it, while I attempt to prove that the world is flat. Caveat: make sure your kids catch what you’re doing before dismissing the class—getting called down to administration to explain why a parent complained you’re teaching Flat Earth Society science can be dicey, especially before tenure.

No comments: