Today’s highlight was small-group discussion and round-robin presentation on The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down, something I’ve been looking forward to throughout this course. My table-group and I entered into the discussion slowly, a few of us tentatively throwing out some of our most-remembered moments from the text, until we eased into a theme for discussion.
At its core, this book is about a collision or clash between two very different cultures – sub-cultures, even, because the focus is on the differences between Hmong ideas about spirituality and health, and the American medical establishment. What became apparent to me as I read was the degree to which American medicine really is a culture all its own – with its own language, hierarchy, assumptions and beliefs, all of which are strongly held and considered superior to most of what’s beyond the bounds of that system.
I couldn’t help but draw a parallel with the American education establishment. There’s a great chapter in The Spirit entitled “Fish Soup”, which starts with an anecdote about a Hmong man who was a student in a French class at an American university. This man was given an assignment to teach his class how to do something, in French. He decided to teach his class how to make a Hmong fish soup.
Now, to most American educators – and, I’d hazard to say, most American standardized-test-making companies – what we’d expect to happen when a student says “I’m going to teach the class how to make fish soup” is that the student would perhaps write down a standard-format recipe on the blackboard and walk the class through it step-by-step, while in their rows the other students would throw spit-balls and pass notes. But in this man’s case, the lesson ended up being 45 minutes long, and progressed gradually and smoothly from an outline of the problem to a lesson on making fish-hooks to commentary on where and how to find fish, what kind of fish are best, and how to catch them, and, very gradually, onto the process of actually cleaning and cooking the fish and making fish soup. The lesson concluded with the man expressing his sincere wishes that he’d conveyed enough knowledge for the class to be able to catch, clean, and cook their own fish soup, should the need ever arise.
This made me think: just as in American medicine we live by certain assumptions, certain codified rules about what is medicine and what is not, I think that in American education sometimes we only count as “knowledge” the little compartmentalized, easily measurable chunks of data that we can test for with multiple-choice assessments; we are sometimes in danger of only counting what we “like” or “expect” as knowledge, as thinking. There is an education “culture” as surely as there is a medical “culture”, and I believe we need to stay very much aware of that.
A classmate of mine and I were looking together at a poster another table-group made, illuminating the thoughts they had in discussion. I wish I could remember off the top of my head what the poster said, but what I definitely remember is my classmate saying “In medicine, they’re very good about acknowledging or defining the ‘placebo effect’, but they tend to think of it as something that’s only relevant to clinical tests of new drugs; if the belief in a treatment’s effectiveness really can be powerful enough to provide real benefit to that patient, why isn’t that something we can just go ahead and use to help people?”
Why not indeed. You might as easily say: “If having fun helps children learn, why isn’t that just something we can use to help them learn?” Or something to that effect.