Perspectives and Peers 8, Interview with Mark Safranski

Note: This is a selection from Perspectives and Peers, part of tdaxp‘s SummerBlog ’06

Mark Safranski is a trained historian, mentioned in Blueprint for Action and other books. He’s also a close blogfriend of tdaxp, running the phenominal ZenPundit. On top of all of that he is a professional educator, and agreed to be interviewed for this project.

Thanks Mark!


The interview was conducted through electronic mail in three waves. Pay special attention to his comments on multiple perspectives and peer interactions, which are the questions that form the backbone of this paper. For ease of reading, my words are in bold and the subject’s are in italics

Wave 1

Background: I work with 13-15 year olds from a generally economically advantaged area in the wealthiest county in Illinois. While the students fall all along the traditional Bell Curve the aggregate mean I.Q. would be closer to 110 than 100 and approximately 20 % would have I.Q.’s in at least the superior range. As for myself, I have years of experience administering programs for At-Risk as well as Gifted students and have worked as a consultant and presenter on matters of curriculum and teaching methodology

To what degree to adolescents you interact with possess formal operations?
Probably less than 10 % of my students begin the year in the stage of formal operations in the sense of solid, regular and frequent demonstration of logical thinking and abstract conceptualization. Another 25-30 % can demonstrate these abilities intermittently but without any real consistency but can make relatively quick mental leaps from single concrete examples in a structured, teacher-modeled format to a generalized abstract principle. The numerical majority are concrete thinkers and a minority on the low end of mental ability and or emotional maturity show sporadic signs of preoperational stage thought.

To what degree do you witness the emergence of formal operations in adolescents?
To a considerable degree over the course of a year – with the caveat here that I am regularly, intentionally and systematically trying to elicit these behaviors with cognitive exercises to an extent that is most likely atypical.

Roughly, in an average year, I would guess that my top two cognitive categories increase by about half to as much as double. The concrete thinkers as a group decreases though the very lowest group probably changes very little, if at all.

Is flow (being “lost” in work) or metacognition (being aware of one’s thoughts) more common when students are practicing rationality?
In my experience, I would say that metacognition is an activity that has to be taught formally to this age group as a form of self-monitoring awareness so “ rationality” as I understand you to be using the term is something that would be practiced here. At least initially, as I have also observed that students who understand the concept of “metacognition” and have tried conscious monitoring will then almost immediately recognize or relate to intuitive metacognitive experiences like “ fingertip feeling” or “ tip of the tongue” feeling.

“ Flow” is another matter and it relates to the critical issue of attention. Adolescents put in any kind of a sizable group are very vulnerable to distraction – both extrinsically and intrinsically – which is an obstacle to having meaningful cognitive experiences that we like to describe as “ learning”. The absorbed, almost zen-like state of “ flow” is something that most adolescents drift into unintentionally unless they are quite practiced at some activity like playing a musical instrument and have honed their powers of concentration.

In general, do adolescents attain formal operations and rationality faster in peer-to-peer or “mentoring” style situations?
For the majority of students in this age group I would say “mentoring” is far and away more efficient – with the proviso that the “ mentoring” involves meaningful, focused, interaction and not an adult talking at a room of disconnected adolescents.

Emotional and social concerns and insecurities are such primal drivers here as to make peer-to-peer situations counterproductive unless they have been highly structured with objectives that are both understood by the students and for which they are motivated to accomplish. If that is the case then peer to peer is a useful learning technique and method of positive reinforcement.

A minority of students, usually the most able but not always, who are intrinsically driven by intellectual curiosity can, if grouped together, have some very productive experiences without (or because of the lack of) a formal structure as they make their way to a common goal.

Do formal operations seem to kick in faster, slower, or at about the same time as rationality in adolescents you interact with?
As you have defined rationality that would, on average, be faster than fully entering the stage of formal operations.

Formal operations is more complex and it lumps together some activities that take place in different regions of the brain (granting the emphasis in the prefrontal cortex) and with aggregate mean differences between genders. If you have ever watched middle school students struggle with algebraic formulas or analyzing scenarios using Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development you see that multiple variables, sequential causation and like aspects of complex problem solving are something that most of them succeed in doing in short bursts.

Wave 2

Are those fractions (less than 10%, and 25-30%) typical of the student population where you are at?
Past years (5-10 years ago) were better. As the population has expanded we have seen regression toward the mean in action in terms of IQ as well as a culturally based decline in reading skills, study skills, positive parental involvement and so on. Abilities can be latent but if not tapped they look the same as if they didn’t exist – hard to disentangle these factors from anecdotal observation alone and truly well done longitudinal studies are rare.

Dr. Von is running one in several Evanston Il. School districts through Northwestern U. that is in ( I believe) its fifth year but the data won’t be in until the test group graduates High school ( he started with – if I recall) impoverished, at-Risk, 3rd graders).

“Do adolescents you interact with practice, on purpose, formal operations, or that style of thinking?
Autonomously, without prompting from me ? Yes, but more rarely. Generally a high level of motivation the factor in triggering it – either deep interest in figuring something out or competitiveness with a peer to prove them wrong.

Could a student by “flowing” and metacognitive simultaneously?
While I can think of past or current students who I suspect are or were capable of doing so I am not able to provide an example ( hard to discern spontaneous metacognition from visual observation alone. That would have to flow from a verbal interaction which time constraints and peer pressure will frequently inhibit).

Regarding the attainment of formal operations, does presentation of more different perspectives (that would provoke more disagreement) or more similar perspectives (that would allow more refined disagreement) seem to help more? Does the same hold true for the attainment of formal operations?
If you wish to inculcate critical thinking and dismantle egocentricity in young adolescents in relatively short periods of time, forcing them to utilize multiple perspectives is invaluable. There are many ways to do this – scenarios from Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development, Counterfactuals, exercises from Edward De Bono, Socratic Method, Optical Illusions – since novelty is a key a key “ hook” with adolescents you are best off not overusing one particular method.

In my humble opinion, multiple perspectives should be the cornerstone of secondary teaching methodology and should definitely be used as part of the Arts ( Art, Music, PE, Drama) in intermediate elementary education because the tangible, hands-on, participatory, kinesthetic aspect is an accessible bridge to higher levels of thinking for younger children who may not have developed their verbal reasoning sufficiently.

Wave 3

Do you ever witness movement form formal operations to pre-formal operations?
In the sense of regression, a student who has attained the formal operations stage and then moving backwards, no. Students in transition and showing behavior in both concrete and formal operations stages as they move to formal operations, yes, all the time.

In general, do students who attain the same level of formal operations seem to have practiced the same amount? In the same way?
No, individual differences seem to rule and there are often disparities even between the capacity for logical reasoning and comprehension of abstractions in the same student. I’d say that of the two, logical reasoning is more readily attainable and also ” teachable” for young adolescents.


Perspectives and Peers, a tdaxp series:
Perspectives and Peers 1. Introduction
Perspectives and Peers 2. Books Assigned in Class
Perspectives and Peers 3. Articles Assigned in Class
Perspectives and Peers 4. Other Articles
Perspectives and Peers 5. Interview with the Subject
Perspectives and Peers 6. Conclusion
Perspectives and Peers 7. Bibliography
Perspectives and Peers 8. Interview with Mark Safranski

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