I don’t really want to grow up.
Problem is, I’m 41 years old with a mortgage, a family, an aging car, and a neurotic dog. The world wants me to grow up. It’s tiring to keep fighting.
So I try to find ways to fake it. For instance, when talking about educational philosophy with colleagues, I pretend to be fancy. I talk about cognitive dissonance and Piaget’s ideas of assimilation vs. accommodation. I talk about how discrepant events can create a sense of imbalance in my learners, an imbalance that they are motivated to equilibriate. It all sounds very impressive.
But it’s crap. Shhh, don’t tell!
Here’s the thing. When I was little, my Dad was good at everything – well, everything that mattered, anyway. He still is, and is one of the greatest people I know. He’s my hero and my model of how to live a good life. But he’s so good at stuff, I knew I could never be as good as him.
Stuff like fixing cars. Or furnaces. Or plumbing. You name it, if it broke he could fix it. My dad always had a corner on practical knowledge. Still does.
So I had to find another way. I had to find something my dad didn’t specialize in. I found science, particularly the esoteric, totally impractical, seemingly useless parts of science – stuff like cosmology, nuclear physics, quantum mechanics, evolution. Anything weird, bookish, and impractical, I was attracted to it. It gave me something that was mine.
It seemed that the coolest parts of these subjects were their utter unreality. Every common sense notion seemed to be turned on its head. The stars may seem like dots in the sky, but they’re actually suns, very far away. Time may seem constant, but it actually changes, depending on how you’re moving. Things may seem to be like particles, either here or there, but actually they sometimes behave like waves, a little here, a little there, a little somewhere else. These anti-commonsense ideas led me eventually to the idea of what they call in hoity toity circles “discrepant events.”
I love discrepant events. Most of my favorite science demonstrations hinge on some unexpected effect. In that way, I think they’re a little like magic tricks. They’re a chance for some showmanship, for playing up that moment when I know something the learners don’t. It’s a rush!
But as Jean-Luc Picard said in one of my favorite STTNG episodes, “I’m going to show them how the magic works.” That is of course the key to a discrepant event as a science demonstration. It’s where the whole cognitive dissonance thing comes in. Through surprising effects, it is our hoity toity hope as educators to cause our learners to not assimilate the discrepant event into their current worldview, but instead to accommodate their world views to take into account this discrepant event. Very impressive sounding. Also not the real reason I do it.
The real reason is I love the “wow” moment, the wide-eyed wonder of it all, the realization by the learner that the world is a more amazing and wondrous place than she ever thought. That’s what I’m after. Whether she gets the concept or not, I don’t really care. What I want is for her to think about the world in a different way.
And from this comes my fatal flaw, my utter contempt for the practical. It’s a horrible affliction, and keeps me from growing up. If you can take a wonderful, exciting discrepant event – electricity making a magnet, for instance – and turn it into something practical, then for me (I have to admit it, it’s what I feel), you’ve robbed it of its magic. Practical application depends on regularity, predictability, everything occurring as it should. Discrepant events are just the opposite. Hence my downfall.
What I really want my learners to “get” from my demonstration is not, “Wow, I could use this effect to create a practical bit of technology!” No, what I really want is my learner to say is, “Wow, the Universe is an amazing place. Maybe I can learn more about it!”
And then they’ll let me keep doing what I love.
I know. Hopeless.