Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Thinking One Level Up

I was walking through the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University a couple weeks ago, and stumbled upon a group of high school students in one of the galleries, with a tour guide and a couple of teachers.  The tour guide was talking about one of the paintings, describing the artist, and pointing out details in the scene.  He was providing a lot of valuable information, yet about half the students weren't really paying attention.  I could see them shuffling their feet, staring at another piece of art, whispering to a friend, or looking at their cell phones and iPods.

Perhaps some were not interested in art or at least not in the particular details the tour guide was talking about.  Maybe they were busy thinking about their weekend plans.  It started me thinking about what I would do differently to keep their attention.

Your brain has the built in ability to absorb and process information, and then come to conclusions that are beyond the collection of facts you just absorbed.  The absorption part is natural, and it works best when you are working on a problem or thinking one level up.  This doesn't necessarily mean trying to solve complicated problems, but just a problem for which you need the information you're trying to learn.  The best demonstrations of your brain's incredible ability is on display constantly, from walking across a room to catching a baseball.  Each of those amazing feats requires advanced knowledge of physics, mechanics, and more, and cannot be easily replicated by our best robotic efforts to date.  But you didn't need to study any of those topics to get your favorite toy as a toddler: that was your one level up problem when you first starting walking, and your brain figured it all out.

Now let's head back to the art museum.  Rather than trying to have students absorb facts about the artwork, I would ask them to think about some problems.  Why did the artist choose the medium that he or she painted on?  Why is the subject off center?  Why is there so much red?  How old do you think the artist was when the work was created and why?  What would you do differently?

By acting as a facilitator instead of lecturer, we let the students build the core knowledge by thinking and then by talking. This process engages the students, and will likely draw in some of the disinterested students.  Finally, by thinking about and discussing the problems, they'll start generating their own questions and some specific interests of their own.  And the only way to answer those questions is to seek information -- which is what we wanted them to do in the first place.  It's like a learning sneak attack by asking questions, thinking one level up, and then listening instead of talking at the students.

This post was written by Peter Mangiafico, an educator, techie and private pilot living in Silicon Valley.

Do you use this approach in your classroom or study plan? Share how it's working either here or on our Facebook page.

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