Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Koan Enigma and On-Line Teaching/Learning

In some Zen Buddhist practices, there's a way of teaching / learning called "koan."  There's a LOT of variety, but in one basic practice, a koan is a question, problem, or riddle given by a teacher to their student.  The student then ponders and comes back with a response.  At some point, if everything's going well, they figure out a correct response.  And then the teacher gives them another koan.

One of the most famous koans is the question: What is the sound of one hand clapping?

If you're like me, you ponder for a very short bit of time, and then look up the answer, thinking that it's like math, and if someone shows you the answer to one, you can repeat it and then learn how to do the next one.  But koan really aren't like that.  The point is more the pondering than the answer to the question.  Just getting the answer doesn't teach you what pondering and finding a correct response will.

Some of the things I'm doing for my on-line classes are sort of like koan: I ask students to freewrite, not because there's a specific answer, but because working through and thinking about things, even for 3-5 minutes, will help them learn in a different way because reading literature, thinking critically, writing well, these are skills, and to do them, you have to practice a lot.

In person, I ask my students to freewrite, and say I'll give them x amount of time, and wander around (warning them off phones if those are out, which is rare, but not unheard of), and most of my students, because they're cooperative, will appear to be doing something. And then when I ask them to share some ideas, they actually tend to have stuff to say.

But how do I convince them that it's actually worth taking that time on-line?  If they're like me, they just want to get through things, get to the "punch line" or point or whatever.  I know from personal experience that I don't do freewriting or whatever unless I really have a committed purpose that I'm convinced it will help with.  But I'm not sure I can convince very many of my students to feel that commitment or purpose when they're doing a class on line.

Are there ways to actually convince them? 

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