I’d just finished reading part of a chapter, in Donald Schon’s book, entitled How the Teaching and Learning Processes Can Go Wrong (Educating the Reflective Practitioner 1985, Chapter Six p119 - 156) and flicked on the television in time for the start of The Big Bang Theory (Season 4, Episode 14 “The Thespian Catalyst”). As I started watching it, all the stuff I’d just been reading popped back straight back into my head and I realised that I was reflecting on the behaviour on screen using the theory I had just been reading!Let me explain...
In his book, Donald Schon talks about the relationship between the teacher and the student and the need for it to be one of trust and understanding. He suggests that a failure to communicate can lead to a “learning bind”, which restricts the process of reflection and of learning itself. Schon states that the “learning bind” can occur when student or teacher, usually both, fail to reflect on and thereby misunderstand each other’s statements - a reaction is made to another’s utterance, which has been misconstrued, this reaction is (mis)interpreted as defensive or aggressive and causes an equally unreflective, dismissive response and the two-way communication breaks down completely.
The opening sequence of The Big Bang Theory starts as follows:
DR. SHELDON COOPER, AN ASTROPHYSICIST, IS GIVING A LECTURE TO A FULL CLASS OF PHYSICS STUDENTS
Good evening. I’m your guest lecturer, Dr. Sheldon Cooper (PAUSES)I was expecting applause but I suppose stunned silence is equally appropriate.
I agreed to speak to you this evening because I was told that you‘re the best and
brightest of this universities doctoral candidates. Of course, that's like saying
you're the most important electron in a hydrogen atom. (GIGGLES AND
STUDENTS MAKE NO RESPONSE TO SHELDON’S JOKE.
Cos you see there’s only one electron in a hydrogen atom (PAUSES
Best and brightest my sweet patootie! Alright, let’s begin. Show of hands who
here is familiar with the concept of topological insulators?
ALL STUDENTS RAISE THEIR HANDS.
Don’t kid yourselves!
As I was watching it the following thoughts occurred to me:
1. The lecturer expects the student to be in deference to his knowledge (a round of applause for his name). The student is put off by the lecturers seeming arrogance and I’m-better-than-you attitude (Indifference to his introduction, blank expressionless faces)
2. The lecturer comments on the students intellect and then makes a joke that belittles this intellect (the lecturer feels students are beneath him intellectually and therefore cannot possibly learn what he has to teach, students show no reaction suggesting both defensive behaviour and not finding the joke funny)
3. The lecturer makes the assumption that the students do not get his joke (this reaffirms his perceived opinion of their intellect) and explains the joke (students still don’t laugh, defensive action is reinforced by lecturers belittlement of their abilities)
4. The lecturer makes an aside (signifying that he feels he has had his assumptions confirmed) and carries on with the lecture by asking a question to which he automatically dismisses the students response (suggesting that even before the students raise their hands Sheldon has decided that they know nothing of what he is going to talk about).
5. The classroom has turned into a battleground!
Later on in the episode, Amy, Sheldon’s girl friend (not a typo, just an in joke), talks to him about the experience:
Have you considered improving your socialisation skills, thus
allowing you to communicate effectively with other people?
Isn’t that their burden? I’m the one with something interesting to say?
Fair enough. But in its essence, teaching is a performance art. In the
classroom paradigm the teacher has the responsibility to communicate as
well as entertain and engage.
In one short sentence Amy has been able to reflect on and verbalise to Sheldon the very crux of his problem, something that he had not been able to see for himself as he was not able to reflect on his actions nor see things from another perspective - just by engaging with them in a more sociable way the relationship between Sheldon and his students could have been very different!
Who says there’s nothing educational on the television these days...