The Veil of Calculated Ignorance

Full confession: I’m a West Wing addict, still able to recite from memory more scenes than a reasonable person really should. One of those scenes came back to me last week as I was thinking about planning our department activities related to developing our integrated mathematics curriculum. In the scene, Will Bailey (played by Joshua Malina) describes the Veil of Ignorance, a thought experiment designed by John Rawls that calls for a person to design a system, such as a tax code, ignorant of what position that person will hold in society.

With apologies to both Mr. Bailey and Mr. Rawls, I decided to adopt this idea to create a design challenge for the department. I called the exercise the Veil of Calculated Ignorance, and I described it this way:

Imagine that you are going to be teaching calculus to a group of students who you know nothing about. You do not know what school they came from, what they might have studied in the past, what their other courses or interests are, their standardized test scores, or even what age or sex they are. However, you do know one thing: they only get to be in your class if they meet criteria that you have described. Describe your ideal calculus student: what content do they know, what skills do they have, what study skills, technology familiarity, and habits of mind do they have?

This seemed to me to be a good way to help us all focus on the things that are most important to us, those things that should be at the core of our new curriculum, and to spark some good conversation about our relative priorities. It turns out that I was only partially right. Working in small groups, we were all able to focus on the things that are most important to us. It turns out that these things are virtually the same for everybody, so after the groups presented to each other we had very little left to talk about. (I would have liked to show you examples of the different groups’ work, but WordPress wasn’t cooperating on the photo uploads so you’ll have to take my word for it when I say that they were essentially the same.)

On one hand, this felt good. It’s nice to know that we’re on the same page and that we already have a good start toward building consensus. On the other hand, I left feeling nervous because of what lies ahead. As a department, we clearly put a priority on developing qualities like inquisitiveness, perseverance, and patience in our students. We also put a priority on helping students learn to work well both independently and in a group, to use technology effectively, and to communicate mathematics clearly and well. The challenge is going to be in deciding what content, and what pedagogy, best allows students to learn these skills. On this question, I’d imagine there will be much more debate. But enough of that for now. It’s time to pack the car – we leave tomorrow morning for our trip!

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