pedagogy of inception

We have long-rejected the banking model of education in favor of a student-centered, constructivist pedagogy. Fundamentally, this rejection rests on the recognition that simply presenting students with a body of information does not constitute an education. Instead, for an education to be transformative, for students to really learn and internalize knowledge, they need to be engaged, actively constructing their educational experiences. That said, formal schooling remains cybernetic: however student-centered the activities may appear or feel, ultimately a class is being steered toward a predetermined set of outcomes.

So when I was watching Inception the other day, I was thinking about this. In the film, where people share subconscious dream spaces, one person, the "architect," creates a space and another fills it with his secrets. With the particular task of inception, the goal is to place an idea within the dreamer's head, so that s/he recognizes the idea as his/her own, and that idea begins to grow.

Perhaps this is education as well, eh? I am certain one could have an extended argument about the ideological and/or indoctrinating/socializing function of education. There is the knowledge that we know that we learned from somewhere at some time, e.g. facts about American history. But that's just the banking knowledge, right? The constructivist knowledge comes out of a kind of pedagogy of inception in which students come to recognize certain thoughts and ideas as their own, e.g., the opinions or value judgments they make about America's history and the way they situation themselves within that history. Of course it's fairly easy to politicize history education, even literary history education. It is also perhaps not so hard to view an aesthetic education as one of inception. That is, an education in which students' aesthetic sensibilities shift to appreciate different literature, art, music, etc. or cultural practices different from their own.

I see the same things in my own teaching, from first-year composition courses, through undergrad digital composition courses, to graduate courses. The purpose is never simply to offer students "information" about how to write an essay or analyze or compose a digital text or teach composition. On the other hand, it is not necessarily effective to situate a course as an argument in which one attempts to persuade students to hold a different viewpoint, to convince students on a rational level to embrace an active writing practice or view digital media in a new way or adopt different teaching practices. Certainly the experience of the class may be filled with such discussions, but that's not what sticks, is it? That is, I would doubt that many of my composition students would recall specific arguments or discussions from the class. What sticks are the ideas that are implanted on a deeper level, that are embedded in the activities of the course, that students experience as arising from within but are part of the pedagogical design.

Perhaps that strikes one as unethical. Certainly if one thinks of the process strictly as it occurs in the film, then there are undoubtedly ethical issues. But on some level, students come to school looking to be transformed, and it is really not possible for them to understand fully the transformation they are signing up for. If they did, then they wouldn't need the education. To be educated does not mean to be the same person you were four years ago, except with some extra information in one's head. After all, the great job and value of an education is to encounter an idea that takes over one's life, transforming it in some significant way. You don't really get to decide what idea it will be, and you certainly don't get to choose how you will be transformed.

The challenge is in how people get stuck, determined to hold onto wherever they are. It happens to undergrads and grad students. It certainly happens to faculty. As such a pedagogy of inception is not necessarily about instilling a particular idea or trying to predetermine the shape that idea will take in a person's mind, but rather about creating conditions of openness where inception might occur.

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