When life is uncertain, turn to Mona Lisa
During these ever-changing times, we teachers know something about paradox and uncertainty.
Mona Lisa, also known as “la gioconda,” the laughing one – is famous, in part, for the ambiguous smile brought about by subtle shadowing of the corners of the mouth and eyes, which helps make the exact nature of the smile ambiguous. The shadowy quality for which the work is renowned is known as sfumato, or “Leonardo’s smoke.” If you look closely, you will notice that there are no sharp lines delineating the shape of the lady, but rather, soft lines converge to create a figure. As this blog suggests, sfumato in Italian suggests a willingness to embrace ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty. In a time of ambiguity and paradox, sfumato may help us as educators and also our gifted students.
But how can you embrace paradox in praxis? At Discovery Education, where I serve as the Director of Global STEM Initiatives, we are working with school systems across the nation and around the world to create vibrant communities of STEM. As we do this, my colleagues and I encourage educators to seek out ambiguity in everyone and everything you explore – in the assumptions you make about the lives and motivations of students, in lesson plan composition, in modalities to teach, in ways of increasing achievement.
Below I’ll explore some rationale and strategies for doing so.
How do you empower your gifted students to embrace paradox and uncertainty?
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Teachers and gifted students: all things to all people?
Much as the human need for order might resist it, we live with ambiguities and paradox every day. I, for example, always crave the company of family but in the history of my career have found myself in anonymous airports and hotels more often than I care to admit. In the end, the honor and importance of interacting with and influencing educators takes precedence in my life. COVID-19 has forced all of us to live more moment to moment, and ask ourselves to consider many things at once.
Of course teachers and gifted students also encounter these paradoxes daily within the profession. Educators—who must meet the needs of various audiences—are regularly asked to embrace paradox because there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Gifted youth, especially adolescents, live in a liminal space where paradox is as common as pizza. The Child is father of the Man, as Wordsworth once said, and likewise our gifted youth by the very nature of their developmental stage, are both forced to and need to embrace paradox daily in the face of constant change.
Trying to meet the needs of different families, colleagues, students, and others–especially in these times–means that higher expectations may feel compromised. We can feel we are settling and creating average solutions. More disconcerting is that often in social and political discourse, we are often encouraged by news outlets and social media to look down upon those that do not share our point of view.
Of course educators and gifted kids are similar in that they are capable of holding conflicting views simultaneously. In the courses I have been privileged to teach for Duke TIP I often encounter students who argue both sides of an issue. A gifted elementary school student said at one point in an eInvestigators discussion, “We should rely more upon artifacts and should dismiss Livy’s historical accounts of the Etruscans altogether because he is biased and he can not be believed.” In the very next sentence he said, “Livy is critical to understanding Etruscan and Roman history.” Gifted kids are multifaceted, flexible, and fluent in their views and so it is important to create fuzzy and ambiguous scenarios through which these gifts may be expressed. An added benefit is that these types of mysteries, upon which the online eInvestigators program is founded, are an opportunity to reach conclusions on the basis of testing out ideas with others through civil discourse.
The Sfumato Approach
When it comes to knowing and considering students, parents, colleagues, or issues it might be better to remember “the sfumato approach”, to try to use a bunch of soft lines to try delineating them. This approach basically removes any “I’m sure he…” or “That’s not her…” or “I am positive that I am right…” from our vocabulary. What if we replaced such language with
- He could be on to something…
- Hers is an interesting point of view…
- I should consider their ideas…
In painter’s talk, using soft shades of grey instead of precise solid lines allows exploration of possibilities, allows us to engage in civil dialogue, and allows us to work with others toward a common goal. This way of thinking is very important to innovation and creativity in STEM. Uncertainty is the space for creativity, and finding ways to resolve contradiction is the catalyst for significant breakthrough. We as teachers can coach our students to hold two conflicting thoughts in their heads simultaneously. We can coach our students to embrace certain points of view that are grey and not black or white.
Take the time to observe the margins, not the mainstream, for ways in which your students and colleagues have adapted teaching and learning to their own needs and consider the small things – like the shading in Leonardo’s drawings. These can make a big difference, particularly to the aesthetic qualities, and the emotional engagement of teachers, parents and students.
So how can we help teachers, parents and students to think more flexibly and see the softer, smaller sides of things? What strategies work?
What fuzzy questions can you ask that probe alternatives and points of view?
When listening to or teaching students, don’t always ask them what’s good or what they want. Instead focus on what’s not so good, or frustrating, and try to understand why. Probe their answers more deeply until you find some fundamental contradiction in their needs, or in the solutions available to them. Understand how you could make it better. And more importantly, ask them how they can make it better. Help them to explore possibilities by asking questions to which there is no obvious answer (sometimes known as the Socratic method).
Here are some questions to help students to consider other viewpoints and perspectives:
- How else might we look at it?
- What might be an alternative?
- Why is it beneficial?
- Who benefits?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses?
Collaboration and communication can be some of the most difficult STEM skills to teach and assess. The Fishbowl Discussion, a Socratic method, provides opportunities for students to use accountable talk to address others while requiring active listening and critical thinking. Teachers can use this strategy in any content area or grade level to assess learning or provide students with an opportunity for reflection. Learn more about fishbowl discussions below.
Multiple Perspectives is a teaching strategy that requires students to engage deeply with an image or video as they assume a perspective other than their own. Students create a narrative from inside a piece of media, from the perspective of an object or person within.
What is a paradox, ambiguity or challenge you face in your teaching and a strategy you use to address it? How do you help your students face such challenges in their academic lives?
Share with us below!