Learning without teachers: “The Doubting Game” versus “The Believing Game”

Back in the early 1970s, the college writing classroom was a touchy-feely environment, occasionally subject to instruction through experiential events called “happenings,” which were basically instances of hippie-era performance art.

In a “happening,” students engaged in random, unorganized activities like flicking the classroom lights on and off, tapping on a desk with a pencil, marching around the room, or maybe opening a window and repeatedly shouting out a word or phrase.  The idea was to disorient students and make them freshly aware of their surroundings – so that in writing about the experience, they would use language with an organic connection to reality instead of the distance (and emptiness) created by the usual freshman composition clichés.

Although such an exercise may seem ridiculous today, those teachers may actually have been on to something.  After all, every cliché was once fresh.  An expression becomes clichéd only as it loses contextual immediacy and assumes a new function as cultural shorthand.

How often, for example, have I seen the phrase “a hard road to hoe” in the writing of students who have never hoed a row in a garden and have no idea what the original expression means?  Yet, despite the spelling error, they DO understand the meaning of the cliché itself because they have heard it in context so many times.  “A hard row/road to hoe” has a meaning that transcends its meaning . . . sort of a “meta”-meaning, you might say, that indicates something similar to but different from its literal meaning.  (Maybe clichés are a topic to blog about on another day.)

What made me think of these 1960s/70s-era “happenings” now was an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education a few weeks ago, titled “In This Online University, Students Do the Teaching as Well as the Learning.”  The institution discussed is Peer 2 Peer University, or P2PU, an online nonprofit, unaccredited forum in which participants work through “challenges” by posting their work on blogs and critiquing each other.  Participants (not really “students” in the usual sense of the word) work at their own pace, and their online discussions are unmediated by professors.  Learning occurs both within courses and outside of them, through the friendships and mentoring-type relationships participants form with one another.

This idea of learning from peers was also central to Writing Without Teachers, by Peter Elbow, which was possibly the very best book in my field (rhetoric and composition studies) to emerge from that early-1970s countercultural – hence, the “happenings” – period of writing instruction.  Writing Without Teachers emerged from a “declaration of independence” Elbow made for himself after having his own writing life “ruined” by institutional strictures, and the book was based on the central premise that

[L]earning is independent of teaching.  I had come to notice a fundamental asymmetry: students can learn without teachers even though teachers cannot teach without students.  The deepest dependency is not of students upon teachers, but of teachers upon students.

Elbow was a teacher himself, so he was not anti-teacher.  But he understood that the impulse to write comes from the need for a writer to communicate an idea and have it be understood by others.  Writing improves naturally . . . on its own . . . when writers make a connection with readers and hunger to repeat that experience again.

And again.

And again.  (Kind of like blogging 🙂 )

While a writing teacher evaluates content, judges it and tries to figure out how to make a text better, a peer writing group tries to appreciate, understand, and experience the text instead.  Said Elbow of the peer writing group (which is now a standard feature of composition classrooms):

When the process is useful, the benefits seem to come not from hearing right reactions or getting good advice from readers, but rather from being understood and from hearing readers’ experience of one’s words and trying to have their experience.

This is the key to writing – or any learning – without teachers.  At the end of Writing Without Teachers, Elbow included an appendix essay, titled “The Doubting Game and the Believing Game – An Analysis of the Intellectual Enterprise.”

Absolutely brilliant essay.  I don’t know why it has never gotten more notice in my field, except that it is an appendix, and most of us pay no attention to appendices.  This essay’s premise is that there are two ways to learn: the “doubting” game and the “believing” game.  Elbow doesn’t reject the doubting game; he just wants us to make a place for the believing game.

The doubting game is the one we all know best.  You learn (or find the “truth”) by looking for error.  You apply critical thinking and analysis.  You tear something apart, find its weaknesses.  Whatever is weak must be incorrect, or “false”; and, conversely, whatever does survive rigorous examination must therefore be correct, or “true.”  The doubting game has a long and honorable history.  The Socratic method is basically the doubting game manifested through dialogue.  The scientific method is also an example of the doubting game, formulating hypotheses in order to disprove them.  Ironically, however, despite our reverence for its logical precision, the doubting game doesn’t actually show us what is true, only what is not true.  We assume that whatever is not “not true” must logically be “true.”

The believing game is less familiar and is therefore suspect.  It seems “soft” and intellectually lax to people used to the “rigor” of the doubting game.  Whereas the scientific method involves “controlled” experiments where all variables are accounted for and carefully monitored, the believing game is like a party.  The more, the merrier.  Diversity and serendipity are good; you want to shake things up and see what happens.  The believing game is inclusive and “uncontrolled”: it involves taking everything in, accepting everything on its own terms, and trying to believe in everything instead of being skeptical.  It also involves empathy, as in that old proverb about not judging a person until you’ve walked in his shoes.  Instead of looking for errors and weaknesses, you look for strengths.  Instead of tearing something apart, you pull together incongruous elements in an attempt to see a complete whole.

The doubting game, says Elbow, is one of propositions . . . of symbols and deduction and argumentation.  But the believing game is one of language and experience and persuasion.  It involves entering into an idea completely and then experiencing it respectfully, trying to inhabit and live inside of it for a while.  If the idea doesn’t “feel” right after you’ve done this, you reject it.  Otherwise, you hang onto it, at least until you encounter another idea that you can believe in more strongly.

In a later book, Writing With Power, Elbow uses the following analogy to help readers understand how “believing” works:

Eat like an owl: take in everything and trust your innards to digest what’s useful and discard what’s not.

What a striking image!  I’ve often read interviews with athletes, military or government leaders, and top executives in which they talk about being guided by their “gut.”  While they probably aren’t visualizing owl-pellets  with their metaphor, the idea they’re getting at – trusting their feelings – is exactly what Elbow’s believing game promotes.  People who practice becoming attuned to their emotional, intuitive, and non-rational (not ir-rational) responses to situations develop a discipline that allows them not only to analyze the facts of a given case but also to discern their feelings about it.  The believing game is an important complement to the doubting game – like yin and yang, shadow and light.  Once we know how to use the doubting game to cull through data, the believing game becomes our best tool for making good judgments and decisions.  It helps us find meaning in complex, chaotic environments.

The doubting game is the dominant methodology found in today’s classrooms and requires a teacher (or a Socrates-like guide) to ensure that the blind are not leading the blind, as critics would charge.  The believing game, on the other hand, often occurs outside of a formal classroom setting (like the Peer 2 Peer University, for example).  It is a good fit for self-directing your own learning, and its methodology can involve peer relationships and connection-making strategies like joining clubs/organizations or social media groups, reading novels, watching YouTube videos, etc.

Or, perhaps, meditating on a work of art.  One of my personal favorite Ernest Hemingway quotes comes from the first few pages (p. 13 in the 1963 edition) of A Moveable Feast, the memoir of his time in 1920s Paris, where he talks about how he would go to the museum every afternoon after he had finished his writing for the day:

I was learning something from the painting of Cézanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have dimensions that I was trying to put in them.  I was learning very much from him but I was not articulate enough to explain it to anyone.

What Hemingway learned from “experiencing” the impressionist painter’s art was how to leave things out and thus create the “impression” of something more.  Presence through absence is a hallmark of Hemingway’s work.  In one of his more famous short stories, “Hills Like White Elephants,” the characters never actually state what they are talking about.  You have to fill in the text’s empty spaces and make intuitive leaps as a reader to realize that the woman is pregnant and feeling ambivalent regarding the abortion she is about to get and which her boyfriend/husband is so certain will solve all their problems.

The believing game is messy and nonlinear . . . very inefficient.  Playing the believing game requires self-awareness and a willingness to “follow your bliss” (as Joseph Campbell so aptly put it).

In Steve Jobs’ now-famous commencement address to Stanford University’s graduating class of 2005, the late Apple co-founder recalled how, after dropping out of Reed College in his freshman year, he stuck around campus and “dropped in” on a calligraphy class that had piqued his imagination:

Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country.  Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed.  Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this.  I learned about serif and sans serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great.  It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life.  But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me.  And we designed it all into the Mac.  It was the first computer with beautiful typography.  If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.  And since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them.

Jobs ended his story with a conclusion that sounds a lot like playing the “believing game”:

[Y]ou can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.  So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.  You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.  This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

Trusting that the dots will somehow connect – moving forward despite not knowing exactly where you are going – requires something Romantic poet John Keats (who wrote “Ode to a Grecian Urn”) termed “negative capability”:

[A]t once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason . . .

The believing game helps us develop this “negative capability” by encouraging us to feel more comfortable with ambiguity, more able to accommodate multiple potential truths at a time.  We become better able to postpone that “irritable reaching after” the refuge of the doubting game’s precision – an impulse that would prematurely end exploration.

Learning to move ahead with confidence – without the guidance of a teacher who knows the correct answer and despite uncertainty about how the dots will eventually connect – is important for anyone whose work requires synthesis and meaning-making.

It will be an essential skill for anyone who expects to innovate or lead going forward into the 21st century.

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
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5 Responses to Learning without teachers: “The Doubting Game” versus “The Believing Game”

  1. You have hit the mark — again, my friend!!! Thanks for reminding me and giving me permission to “believe”!! 🙂


  2. Pingback: If you build it they will come: the importance of infrastructure for creativity and innovation | Katherine Wikoff

  3. Li Xingjie says:

    Your article is really fastinating. But how to put the believing game into use in the classroom teahcing?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Li! I guess the most important thing I do is have genuine, authentic discussions with my students. That is, when I ask a question, I’m not trying to skillfully lead the class toward a predetermined response. I personally can’t stand the Socratic method of dialectic you see in Plato’s “Dialogs” where Socrates is the star of the conversation and his conversational partners end up agreeing with his every word and acknowledging how much smarter he is than they are. No new knowledge is created in that kind of “discussion”; in my opinion its a waste of everyone’s time.

      But you know what? Your question is a really good one, and I promise to think about it over the next few days and write a follow-up post in the coming week. My “Learning without Teachers” post is a few years old, so I have to put myself back into that headspace again. Which I’m looking forward to, actually. Thanks!😄❤️


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