Different Ways of Knowing

Originally posted as a M.Ed. course journal assignment, February, 2005

I’m glad we have a chance to reflect on Baxter Magolda’s stages_of_knowing_model.

Interestingly, when I read her chapter on teaching to the four levels, I was thinking strictly in terms of my students – when I looked at the journal questions, I was actually surprised to find the first one is “how would you classify yourself as a learner today?” I suppose that given the objective of the journal, I shouldn’t have been surprised!

In terms of Baxter Magolda’s framework, I can see a definite progression in my own learning over the years – and in reflecting on those years, I can even pinpoint a couple of specific instances where I realized that a particular teacher had become a peer, and how incredible that felt! I can also now understand a little better my resentment when, just last year, a friend introduced me to her husband, a university professor, whose style of conversation was more like an interrogation – there was a palpable professorial tone, which I immediately resented. I am a colleague, buddy, not a first-year student! (I could probably go on for ages about my relationship with my Dad, who seems to think I will always be a teenager, stuck in the Absolute phase forever, but there’s only so much therapeutic reflection I should inflict upon you!)

In my second year of university, I took my second philosophy course, because I had absolutely loved my first one. The second one was taught by a different professor. In the very first class, she said something that immediately made me raise my hand – I wanted to question what she had said, to better understand her point. Her response was that “we’d talk about that later on” in the semester. I dropped the course.

Similarly, in my second semester at university, I took ‘Introduction to Poetry.’ When we studied Andrew Marvell’s ‘To his coy mistress,’ I suggested that his imagery of “the iron gates of life” represented the female pelvis, bringing forth “our sun.” The professor not only rejected this interpretation (which, after years of studying English Literature, I can say is a perfectly legitimate interpretation), she did so rather condescendingly. I learned very quickly that this was a professor who wanted to hear her own ideas in class discussions and essays. I also learned then that having a doctorate does not have to immediately command my respect – I have much more respect for all those profs who welcomed my questions and encouraged debate.

On the other hand, while I can definitely relate to Baxter Magolda’s scheme, I think there’s a qualifier or two that might be added – for instance, if I were to enrol in an auto mechanics course, I would not expect to feel like a contextual knower, even if I was able to relate to the instructor as a peer otherwise. I suppose it might take less time to progress from Absolute to Transitional, but I’m not sure I would even get to Independent or Contextual in that field. So I’m not sure that her framework necessarily reflects context – it seems to indicate that students will progress in chronological terms, that is, that a certain percentage of the student body will be at a certain stage at a given point in their university career. What’s missing is the stipulation that the same students, successfully Contextual in one field, may well be Absolute or Transitional in a different, unexplored field.

Of course, in my hypothetical auto mechanics course, I would expect the instructor to interact with me as a mentor, rather than the ‘master-slave’ dichotomy suggested by one of Baxter Magolda’s interviewees. Regardless of my knowledge of the specific field, my general knowledge should demand a certain level of respect.

Perhaps the qualifiers, then, are maturity and prior knowledge, both general and specific – a student who is young and has little prior knowledge is likely to be most comfortable with the strategies suggested for the Absolute learner, while a student who is older, and has already studied the topic for many years, will respond best to the strategies of Contextual knowing.

So where does this leave the student who has a certain maturity and an advanced knowledge of a different subject? In terms of personal interaction, this student no doubt will expect to be at the Contextual level; but in terms of subject material and assessment, wouldn’t this student be more comfortable at the Absolute or Transitional level?

When it comes to my students, I think I can still apply my modifications to the Baxter Magolda framework – yes, I can see how the framework reflects the changes in student behaviour from first to second year courses, but more than that, I can see the framework reflected in student behaviour at different levels of knowledge. In other words, my first-year anglophone students are ‘further along’ than my first-year francophone students, generally speaking. If I consider this in the Baxter Magolda scheme, I can say that my anglophone students are more comfortable with Transitional approaches, because their prior knowledge of English, as literature and as a language, gives them an edge. I can also surmise that the same anglophone students, in a French literature class, would be ‘behind’ their francophone counterparts, and therefore happier with an Absolute approach.*

I liked Baxter Magolda’s framework, and the accompanying evaluation tools, not because they have given me something to aim for, but because they have given me insight into why the things I’ve been doing work (and why other things I’ve tried don’t!). I can better articulate why my second-year students are ‘ready’ for a looser approach, with more discussion, interaction, group work, and student input into the overall course plan; and I can see why many of my first-year students aren’t comfortable with the same approach. The framework, as I see it, represents a movement from desire for security through to desire for independence. While even students at the Absolute stage have a certain desire for independence, they are much more concerned with feeling safe. As students move ‘further along,’ they gain more confidence in their own minds, and don’t need the security as much as they need the opportunity to validate that confidence.

My first semester at Champlain, I taught Introduction to College English. We had a great time, and several of those students have ‘followed’ me, and are now taking their last English course with me. That Intro course was very structured – I divided the class time equally between grammar and literature, there was an essay due every two and a half weeks, and so on. This fall, I taught Intro again – this time, my approach was a lot looser, because I had taught a couple of second-year courses where looser was better. But it backfired – and now I know why. At the Intro level, my students need more structure – they need to know what to expect, because they have yet to acquire the maturity and knowledge that they need to be ‘loose.’

Having said that, I think it’s important to recognize that students can be at one level in terms of their knowledge and at a completely different level in terms of their interpersonal behaviour. My first year students, while they need more structure in terms of classroom content, don’t necessarily respond well to the ‘master-slave’ approach to classroom interaction. I believe that I get better results in the classroom when I make it clear to the students that I consider them responsible adults. I also believe that it’s harder for me to adjust to varying maturity levels than it is for me to adjust to varying knowledge levels. In other words, I can modify my content approach to help an Absolute in a sea of Transitionals, but I’m not at all comfortable in the high-school teacher role, and get flustered when faced with immature behaviour.

*In reading this post now, a decade later, it occurs to me that I need to add to this particular observation, now that I’ve been teaching literature and essay-writing for more than ten years, most of them at a different, more diverse, college. While it’s still true that English-speaking students have certain advantages in an English Literature classroom, it must be said that students who have studied essay-writing in French are better prepared for college-level writing, and students whose mother tongue is neither English nor French, presumably because they are multilingual, come to the classroom with many other skills and aptitudes.

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