UNBOXING “MENTAL COMFORT” WITH STUDENTS

Zachary Cain, BHP Teacher
Illinois, USA

WhyLieHeader


This post is part of a series addressing a BIG question: “Why Lie?”

There’s a lot of talk about “fake news” these days. “Why Lie?” is a response to questions this problem surfaces: Statements and beliefs are debunked all the time—why did we believe them in the first place? When something is at odds with our belief system or point of view, why do we see it as a falsehood and ignore it? As teachers, how do we help students decide what to believe?em>

We kicked off the “Why Lie?” series with an extended post by James Paul Gee – an expert in learning, language, and literacy. Give it a read—it’s well worth your time.

We then asked Big History teachers to react and respond to Jim’s post in our online teacher community: How does the post reinforce or extend BHP themes? How would you use it in your classroom? (We received many exceptional responses: view here.) The submission of BHP teacher Zachary Cain caught our attention. He expertly wove Jim’s post into his classroom instruction, using it to push student thinking on origin stories in Unit 1.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on Jim and Zach’s posts, and as related to your own instruction. Join the discussion here.


UNBOXING “MENTAL COMFORT” WITH STUDENTS

After digesting the blog post “Learning and Thriving in a Complex World,” by Dr. James Paul Gee, I wanted to share some highlights with my students as we began our BHP journey into origin stories. I began by asking students two simple questions: “What is an origin story?” and “What is an example of an origin story?” These are relatively easy questions for sixth graders to understand, but I wanted them to go deeper, so I asked them, “Why did people develop origin stories?” and “How did the stories come to be accepted?”

As a class, we talked at length about how Homo sapiens have not only been afforded the luxury of being an inquisitive species able to collectively pass on their knowledge from one generation to the next, but a species that has the time and resources to devote itself to thinking about how and why we are here on Earth. This brought us to one of Dr. Gee’s points about mental comfort and why we may be reluctant to test or even question why we believe or accept something.

According to Cody C. Delistraty in his article in The Atlantic, “Stories can be a way for humans to feel that we have control over the world. They allow people to see patterns where there is chaos, meaning where there is randomness. Humans are inclined to see narratives where there are none because it can afford meaning to our lives—a form of existential problem-solving.”

Moreover, as Dr. Gee points out, “brain bugs” coupled with a tribal mentality can cause us to tighten our mind’s grip on what we find comforting or familiar.

This is the mentality that many of my students have fallen back on when we’ve look at origin stories in past years, so I wanted to try something different this year. Instead of a traditional compare and contrast of the various origin stories, I asked them to look only for similarities among the stories. After reading and discussing them , we came back to our initial questions—“Why did people develop origin stories?” and “How did the story come to be accepted?”—and many of the groups agreed that each story would have provided its people with a sense of comfort in a world that often lacked structure and stability. Moreover, I also had many students express that while the stories are not all believable in the context of our understanding of the world today, they do give a us a wonderful window into what these people did or do believe.

I pushed a little further, asking my students why they believed that these stories don’t hold up today, and students began citing various theories and concepts they’ve been exposed to over the years. This led us to one of the last and most important points Dr. Gee makes: Although students need “lots of well-designed and well-mentored experiences” to help them build their knowledge and understanding of the world, they also need the skills to question the validity of the experiences and information they are being presented with. Sounds like the perfect lead-in to claims testing!

If you’re teaching Big History for the first time, don’t feel compelled to cover everything in Lesson 1.2: Origin Stories. The two biggest takeaways for students in this lesson should be:

  1. Every major culture has attempted to explain how and why we are here. Big History is attempting to do the same thing using the most up-to-date knowledge and understanding from a wide variety of disciplines, and
  2. Big History requires us to keep an open and inquisitive mind, one that questions what we believe to be true using empirical evidence, authority, logic, and intuition.

About the author: Zachary has been teaching since 2002 and has taught at Edison Middle School, in Champaign, Illinois, since 2004. This is his fourth year teaching BHP. In Zachary’s school district, Big History is taught to all sixth graders (800+ students) as a year-long course that meets for 47 minutes each day.

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