Creating an aspirational classroom environment


In light of the several methods for awakening students’ aspiration discussed in the previous chapter, we can now turn to a closely related and equally important task for the aspirational teacher. Epiphanies, as we have seen, comprise a promising genre of educational experience. Students who have experienced an epiphany discover a profound means of engaging with subject matter, in which they strive to unlock the unique sources of value embedded within it. Epiphanies can show students that this subject matter can greatly enrich their experience of the world; they can usher students into the promising new ways of thinking, feeling, acting, and interacting at the heart of academic disciplines; and they can thereby jumpstart students’ pursuit of what they consider a better version of themselves. While such experiences therefore carry important educational potential for students, epiphanies are not the whole aspirational story. Epiphanies provide only an intimation of value. They can get the aspirational process off the ground, but they require further support to firmly place students on the path to embracing this value. If the epiphany is to lead to aspiration, the other constituents of aspirational psychology will need to be encouraged in the classroom. Students, in other words, will have to cultivate a robust relationship to the newly emerged value that includes acknowledging their distance from this value, recognizing the difference it represents, and resolving to change.

The central problem facing aspirational educators is that cultivating these three features of aspirational psychology carries with it special challenges. When students realize that the value they have caught a glimpse of is still distant from them, requiring them to become different than they are now, they may balk at the difficulty facing them. They may succumb to the various psychological dispositions that rival aspiration discussed in Chapter 5, or they may be simply daunted by the hard work of aspiration. In order to provide lasting support for students’ aspirations, educators will therefore need a more comprehensive approach than the methods of the previous chapter alone can provide. They will need to create a classroom environment that is imbued with the ideal of aspiration.

In this chapter, I discuss three general strategies for creating an aspirational environment in the classroom, each corresponding to one of the remaining characteristics of aspirational psychology. In the first section, I discuss an approach I call “building the narrative arc,” which involves using the power of narratives to engage students’ subjectivity in the presentation of course material. I argue here that creating dramatic tension and anticipatory build-up within lessons can help students grapple with the ethical distance that aspirational goals represent and can therefore encourage progress from their current valuational state. Next, I discuss the practical promises of practicing what I call “transformative care.” Transformative care is the responsiveness that teachers show towards the selves students are to become. Caring for students in this way is an important clement of the aspirational classroom because it can help them face the transformative aspect of aspiration, that is, the demand that we become different in aspira-tionally embracing new values. Finally, I discuss an approach called “cultivating aspirational community,” which addresses how aspiration can be facilitated by relationships between students in the classroom. Here I discuss how aspirational communities possess unique support for students who are striving to commit to the value they have come to recognize in subject matter. In this way, the aspirational community can bolster students’ resolution to become the people who they desire to be.

Each of these approaches highlights different ways that teachers can shape the classroom environment so that it becomes a place where aspiration thrives. Although they are oriented to individual facets of aspirational psychology, they will also influence and support the other ones. Building the narrative arc, for example, is focused on the aspect of ethical distance in aspiration but it can also help students appreciate ethical difference or encourage their resolution to change. The conceptual assignments I have made above are thus only schematic in nature, pointing to differences in emphasis and not in kind. Moreover, the strategies outlined in this chapter can also stimulate further epiphanies. Although the chapter concentrates on the aspects of aspirational psychology beyond the intimation of value, it would be a mistake to think that such intimations are one-off moments in the aspirational process. Students can lose touch with the value they had seemed to grasp in their epiphany, whether because of competing psychological forces or simply because the class has moved to topics whose value is less immediately accessible. For these reasons, the aspirational process is likely to involve many experiences of epiphanic insight as students move closer and closer to the value they are pursuing. The contributions of this chapter can therefore be seen as further methods of inducing epiphany, just as much as they address the further characteristics of aspiration.

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