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Deeper Understanding Of Stages Of Insight Development
In my experience, the “teaching epiphanies” or moments of spontaneous intellectual clarity so cherished by those of us committed to teaching and learning are much more abundant and well articulated in classrooms. Although educators and cognitive psychologists are quick to define “insight,” there is little empirical research to assess its occurrence in the classroom. More often than not, the methodology used to document changes in student understanding and understanding involves an approach that privileges teacher perceptions over student perceptions. Ironically, very little attention has been paid to student voices as important and necessary assessment tools.
My project explored ‘insights’ or ideas in the learning process using the student’s perspective as manifested in her/his writing. The specific questions I sought to explore were: When and how does a student’s moment of clarity occur, and what vocabulary does the student use to describe a particular understanding? What qualities are embodied in insight? Does the particular composition of the course shape the moment of insight, and if so, how (ie, what role, if any, does theory-practice or service-learning, interdisciplinarity, feminist perspective, and collaborative pedagogy play?)
Although all student self-reported insight descriptions fell into one of the above categories, the composition and depth of the descriptions varied considerably and appeared to fall on a continuum. To capture these differences for each category, I assigned three dimensions to each category:
Dimension 1 – the insight experience is reported as sudden without reference to past events or future applicability; understanding depends on the context. The evidence provided is descriptive, but not explanatory.
Dimension 2. The experience of insight relies on a past event(s) that serves to illuminate present understanding. The evidence provided is descriptive, explanatory and interpretive.
Dimension 3. Intuitive experience is based on both past and present events that facilitate personal connection and future application of the item. The evidence provided is descriptive, explanatory, interpretive, empathetic and suggests a certain self-awareness.
It turned out that they do not possess their own process of understanding, do not feel their own personal voice, power or will. Despite the fact that the classes used a collaborative, student-centered pedagogy, many students continued to operate in the “insight as received” mode. Interestingly, when students tried to take responsibility for their understanding, they often described it as “confusion” or “frustration.” Similarly, students often dismissed their insights with phases such as “I’m probably crazy for saying that” or admitted confusion that the insight had not been recognized earlier (ie “Why did it take so long to make me realize the significance”). These findings should serve as a powerful reminder to us as teachers that most of our students have been well socialized in institutions that not only support this way of learning, but continue to encourage it in their curricula and pedagogic designs. Our students have learned to trust external voices and to distrust and even deny their intuitive understanding. Thus, “deconstructing” these structures and ways of learning may be one of our first tasks in developing voice and personal authority in our students.
As noted above, the complexity and depth of descriptions within each category varied considerably and appeared to reflect three dimensions of understanding, each qualitatively different from the others. Although I have conceptualized these differences as dimensions, they can perhaps be thought of as stages. Of course, this conceptual framework is based on students’ written articulation of their understanding and may not adequately capture the depth and breadth of their actual understanding when given the opportunity to verbally describe their experiences. Obviously, further interviews can add a deeper understanding of the stages of insight development. However, these findings suggest that insight is not static but rather a process and that there are qualities and degrees of insight and understanding. These results also indicate that, like deep understanding, this dimension of understanding may entail more complex analysis, one that requires a longer process, but one that we as educators can hope to encourage our students to do.
Although one of the questions I sought to answer was whether the particular composition of the course shaped the moment of insight, I did not find a clear connection between one particular method (ie, service-learning, interdisciplinarity, feminist/collaborative pedagogy, etc.). Each of these methods was mentioned on a regular basis and thus implied importance to the learner: however, no single method seemed particularly conducive to greater understanding compared to the others.
I was struck by the greater depth and richness of the journal entries as they explained the development of insight. The frequency of reported ideas was greater in the violence studies seminar that used journals, even though the seminar had fewer students compared to the women’s studies class. Journals involved daily writing and reflection, and as all teachers of writing know, thinking and writing are closely related and contribute greatly to each other’s development. If we, as teachers, want to empower our students and dissuade them from relying solely on external ways of learning, it seems axiomatic that consistent writing is a teacher’s responsibility.
Students’ views of their own intuition and understanding are very close to many of those teachers who evaluate them and teach them for these qualities. The good news is that we as teachers and students can finally be on the same page! Understanding usually comes from reflection, and this reflection begins with doubt, indecision, or wonder. Students in this study described insight in ways that indicated a sudden epiphany. Indeed, the vocabulary used by these students captured the notions of doubt, indecision, and wonder in different ways. However, it seemed clear to some students that understanding is a process that is both fueled by and fueled by reflection, and as such is the beginning and culmination of deep understanding.
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