Last Novelty Reminder: Be sure to check out this week’s “Book Review in Pictures” – The Enchanted Loom!
Mine was a class in Social Psychology taught by Dr. David Schiffman at SUNY New Paltz. The first day of class I found myself surrounded by 26 other students – none of whom I knew – who were all at least a half dozen years younger than me – 20 and 21 to my 27.
At the start of the semester, Dr. Shiffman walked in, handed out a syllabus and announced the name of the class – The Social Psychology of Tavistock Groups. Then he sat down at the front of the room in a desk-chair exactly like the ones we were sitting in. And for the next two hours, that’s ALL he did. He didn’t say another word. At most, he crossed and uncrossed his legs now and then, answered no questions, and only occasionally made eye contact with a student here or there around the room.
As you might guess, most of the students in the class, including me, found this approach to teaching somewhat confusing; not to mention anxiety-producing (to those it didn’t piss off).
The next class – now reduced in numbers to about 22 – found Dr. Schiffman offering us a bit more “instruction.” About every 20 minutes or so over the two hours he would make a dispassionate process comment. “People seem really upset about not being taught anything.” “The group seems to want different things.” “It doesn’t seem worth it to waste two hours each week doing nothing.”
The Benefits of Age
Since brain networks basically aren’t finished building out until roughly age 25, while I didn’t know it at the time, I enjoyed a significant advantage the rest of the class clearly did not: I could easily see a number of meta-teachings going on here.
One was: I essentially had two free hours when I could basically do anything I wanted and get course credit. I could study materials for my alternative housing class, I could analyze data from my experimental psych class, I could probably read a good mystery novel on my Kindle if Kindle had been invented then.
But what I mostly could see is how conditioned we all were to have teachers teach and students learn. Why did it have to be that way? Why couldn’t students learn AND teach (years later my friend and co-conspirator Dr. Ruth Cox and I would design college courses precisely that way).
Over time two leaders emerged from the group. Both male. I wasn’t one of them. One leader wanted all the students to simply boycott the class and stop attending all together. The other wanted the students to agree on a petition for everyone to sign to bring to the department chair demanding that Schiffman be fired.
Schiffman didn’t seem especially concerned, making process comments throughout. “Many students seem content to let two people do all the talking.” “What is it that prevents more people from speaking their minds?” “No one seems to know the best course of action to take.”
I took a lot of brain-changing learning away from my time in David Schiffman’s Social Psychology class. One significant takeaway was my recognition that, left to their own devices, for better or worse, groups invite leaders to emerge; and I don’t do well with self-appointed or self-proclaimed authority. Another learning was that groups with a majority of women operate more intelligently. Finally was the realization that no matter the purpose or place, groups go through developmental stages, perhaps best characterized by Ohio State professor Bruce Tuckman as:
- Forming (pretending to get on or get along with others)
- Storming (letting down the politeness barrier and trying to get down to the issues even if tempers flare up)
- Norming (getting used to each other and developing trust and productivity)
- Performing (working in a group to a common goal on a highly efficient and cooperative basis)
- Mourning (the feelings that emerge as the group comes to an end)
Probably the most significant takeaway however, was the clear recognition that I wouldn’t necessarily be well-served by solely relying on teachers for my learning. For that I would be best served by taking responsibility by being the director of my own education and searching out what it is I wanted to learn and who best to get that learning from. It is a teaching that I still carry with me 40 years later.