Fishbowls, Rabbit Holes and Lunch: The Many Ways Students Learn


Guest Blogger: Jane Fried, Ph.D.

“Everybody else walked to school, but you carried your lunch.” My father used to say that to my mom when he wanted a laugh, but we never really figured out why it was funny. Finally I began to see…walking to school and lunch carrying were two different activities that were only marginally related. It’s the old apples and oranges problem. In a similar vein, “Who do you think you are – or what do you really care about?” doesn’t seem to relate to “Explain the second law of thermodynamics,” or “What is the symbolism of the broken pickle dish in Ethan Frome?” As it turns out, pickle dishes, physics and who you believe you are may be are strongly related. If you don’t think that either of these has anything to do with who you are, you won’t learn about them, remember them or know why they matter. I love pickles, and that’s why I pondered the pickle dish.

Of Education, Fishbowls and Rabbit Holes is an excellent place to start a conversation about learning between academic faculty and student affairs staff members. The book is based on the premise that if you don’t care about what you’re supposed to learn, and that information doesn’t fit into your life narrative, you won’t learn it in any meaningful way. Fishbowls are a metaphor for our invisible worldviews. Rabbit holes are a metaphor for the confusion that may result when academic faculty and student affairs staff members try to talk about student learning. When the constructivist and the positivist traditions of learning get into a conversation, nobody really knows how things will turn out because the premises are different. Students learn because they care about the subject, care about passing the course, or care about some other relevant variable, like what time the course is offered or sitting next to the current object of their affections. Otherwise students are “disengaged,” and tend to fail. Zull (2002; 2006). frequently refers to “emotion molecules,” and asserts that they anchor all of our learning in the brain. Bottom line….We don’t learn if we don’t’ care.

It seems as if students don’t care about a lot of what they learn in the liberal arts because they don’t understand what it has to do with them. In traditional pedagogy, discussing what the subject matter has to do with the students personally or emotionally is a rare event. Thus the conundrum – students don’t’ understand the value of general ed requirements and they also don’t connect what they’re learning to their out of class lives. Nobody helps them make the connections.

Student engagement in general education would benefit tremendously from increased connections between the faculty in the academic disciplines and the educators in student affairs about learning goals and outcomes for students. Of Education, Fishbowls and Rabbit Holes will give you a place to begin thinking about connections, some activities to practice and some opportunities for reflection. If this book engages you, you have a good chance of improving your ability to engage your students.

Zull, J. (2002) The Art of Changing the Brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus
Zull, J. (2006) Key Aspects of How the Brain Learns. New Dimensions for Adult and
Continuing Education, 110, 3-10

To order “Of Education, Fishbowls, and Rabbit Holes: Rethinking Teaching and Liberal Education for an Interconnected World“. click here.

Guest Blogger