Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Thinking in the Seams: Engaging Interdisciplinary Thinking

It was ingenious. So much so that some listeners wished to be high school history teachers so they could “borrow” the analogy. Even though my first listen was is in a semi-awake state, I understood enough to be informed, entertained, and left wanting to hear it all again. What caught my ear and interest was an NPR interview with Marc Lynch, author of an article that explained world politics through the analogy of a rappers’ feud. The clarity the analogy brought to the more complex issue of foreign policy and “rogue” nations amazed me. It truly was ingenious.

Such analogies are products of what I call “thinking in the seams,” thinking that merges ideas from different disciplines to generate something novel and beneficial. Researchers use varying terms for such thinking—cross-disciplinary thinking, multi-disciplinary thinking, and interdisciplinary thinking—and define it as the use of frameworks from one discipline as “points of departure for discovering or confirming similar structures and relations in other disciplines.”1 It stitches together perspectives or modes of inquiry from two or more disciplines to explore ideas. It is thinking “in the seams.”

Creativity, innovation, and deepened understanding can result from interdisciplinary thinking. Despite these potential benefits, schools rarely cultivate the “mental dexterity” required for thinking in the seams.2

Many education systems emphasize departmentalization, especially as students progress through the grade levels. Each subject is taught by an “expert” who specializes in the discipline and who rarely, if ever, designs instruction that engages students in interdisciplinary thinking. Specialization, while valuable in some contexts, prevents interdisciplinary thinking.

However, specialization should not be confused with deep understanding of a discipline. In fact, deep disciplinary understanding can foster interdisciplinary thinking if the understanding includes the recognition of patterns within the discipline. Patterns play a critical role in enabling interdisciplinary thinking.

According to researchers, interdisciplinary thinking often follows a sequence of mental actions: relationships between ideas within a discipline are recognized→the relationships are recognized as forming pattern(s)→the pattern(s) are decontextualized/generalized→examples of the same pattern(s) are recognized in other disciplines→ideas from one discipline “overlay” with another, generating new ideas.3

How can we foster such thinking?

First, teach the disciplines through patterns. By using patterns as entry-points to material, teachers can connect students’ prior experiences to new content. This helps students construct deeper understanding of the content and alerts them to associations between major ideas.

Second, teach to understanding. Moving from simple recall to understanding is moving from being able to answer a trivia question to possessing “usable knowledge”—knowledge that “is connected and organized around important concepts” and “supports transfer (to other contexts) rather than only the ability to remember.”4 Engaging students in connecting new content and patterns fosters understanding.

Third, challenge students to recognize other patterns within new content. Challenge students to explore how else the major ideas may be organized, identify the new patterns that result, and to generalize those patterns so cross-disciplinary possibilities can be explored. (This is a process of thinking that will need to be delineated and modeled for students.)

Fourth, engage in interdisciplinary thinking with colleagues. Explore patterns within the material you will be teaching and see if any possesses potential for engaging students in interdisciplinary thinking. Work collaboratively to design instruction in which patterns from both disciplines can be used to encourage interdisciplinary thinking.

Finally, encourage interdisciplinary thinking by designing time for thinking “in the seams.” Designate a period of time (daily? weekly?) in which students reexamine material to identify potential overlays of two or more disciplines. One relatively easy way to engage such thinking is to identify analogies, explaining Concept A from Discipline A by referencing Concept B from Discipline B. As students develop and express such analogies, they reprocess the content from both disciplines, deepening their understanding of both. By structuring time for it, students recognize that you value such thinking. That understanding may motivate additional interdisciplinary thinking throughout the school day.

Several teachers have expanded their own capacity for interdisciplinary thinking and for designing instruction that fosters thinking “in the seams” through instructional design models, such as the Architecture of Learning, that emphasize patterns. Teachers find their own thinking about teaching and material changes as they work with such models. Changing our approaches to material can lead to improvements in our teaching. Personal growth and professional growth are not mutually exclusive.

Do rappers and foreign policy elements share significant similarities? Yes, and examining one can truly enlighten thinking about the other. Interdisciplinary thinking is an effective tool for understanding and interacting effectively with our world. And isn’t that part of what we seek to equip students to do?

  1. van Leer, O. in Perkins, D. N. (ed), Thinking: the Second International Conference (Philadelphia: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1987), 405.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 407.
  4. Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R., eds., How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1999), 9.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Beyond Ovals and Pencils: Thinking in the Disciplines

Only the sound of #2 pencils carefully blackening tiny ovals could be heard. On one side of the room sat high school seniors, AP history students. On the other, working historians. All were taking the same test—an assessment that demanded typical school-oriented items: names, dates, events.

When the #2 pencils were put down and the answer sheets were scored, the results surprised the researchers. Many AP history students outscored the historians. In fact, some of the practicing historians knew answers to only a third of the questions!

Round one: students!

The second half of the assessment didn’t require #2 pencils. Researchers presented a collection of historical documents to the two groups. The documents made competing claims that had to be identified, sorted, and interpreted. The historians dove in, excelling at the task and even energized by it. The students were stumped, unaware of how to even start. Though they knew their facts, the students could not form interpretations or reach conclusions when given historical material.1

Round two: historians!

The second half of the assessment required thinking within the discipline. It required historical thinking, not factual recall. Faced with this challenge, the students were stumped. According to Howard Gardner, such results are not surprising: “Most students, including those who attend our best schools and receive the highest grades, are not able to explain the phenomenon about which they are being questioned. Even more alarmingly, many give precisely the same answer as those who have never taken the relevant courses and…never encountered the concepts relevant to a proper explanation…[they] have accumulated plenty of factual or subject matter knowledge, but they have not learned to think in a disciplined manner.”2

If we’re not equipping students to function beyond a multiple choice test, are we really educating them within the disciplines? I realize I’m not the first to ask this question, and I do recognize that factual knowledge plays a role in constructing understanding.

I’ve sat in numerous conference session where presenters admonished us to “engage students in thinking,” and then offered their preferred “tool” for making such activity happen in the classroom.

I always leave these sessions feeling like I am missing something. The generic approach to thinking seems to fit in some disciplines much more naturally than in others, and it seems like I often just ask for more information rather than engaging students in different ways of thinking. I never feel like I know what to teach so my students will know how to think.

So, what are the general characteristics of successful thinking within a discipline? While not intended to be exhaustive, allow me to suggest four possible traits.

First, thinking successfully within a discipline requires deep familiarity with the discipline’s major concepts. Ever seen a commercial where an individual is surrounded, 360°, by words? That’s how I envision the successful thinker within a discipline, surrounded by concepts that are so familiar he can reach out and grab those needed within the moment. He owns the concepts and can use them beneficially. He can illustrate major ideas with examples drawn from the discipline. For example, when a decision requires a careful consideration of structure and function, the scientist may recall and consider cell anatomy, the historian—forms of government, the writer—nonfiction paragraphs. Each would not only understand the decision to be made but also relate it to discipline-based concepts. These concepts can then inform their thinking, possibly leading to better decisions.

Second, thinking successfully within a discipline includes the ability to organize ideas in a wide variety of ways, and in so doing, discover new connections between concepts. For example, we’ve all experienced history taught sequentially. Every textbook I’ve ever used, both as teacher and student, presented history with sequence as its primary structure. But what would happen if we thought of major eras or movements (e.g., the Civil Rights Movement) in different schemes, such as organizing events from most to least influential? or those that involved the greatest number of participants to those that involved the least? Would we find correlations between number of people involved and influence? Would we return to the sequential organization and notice an ebb and flow of significant and common events? What new patterns would we discover? Such thinking empowers new perspectives that can initiate breakthroughs in understanding and generate new knowledge within the discipline.

Third, thinking successfully within a discipline is demonstrated by responding to circumstances with relevant ideas. For example, a historian may raise a simple question: “How did we get here?” She may then attempt to retrace the events that led to the current situation. However, this look back involves more than picking and ordering obvious happenings. Influences will be recognized, entrances and exits of critical contributors will be noted, causes and effects—even indirect examples—will be identified. The historical thinker looks broadly at the past, knowing that influences may never appear in the actual events. Recognizing such influences can illuminate solutions to problems, guidance for decisions, and effective ways to proceed through the current circumstances.

Finally, thinking successfully within a discipline includes recognizing limits of the discipline. Jonah Lehrer makes this point in his book How We Decide. An understanding of basic economics can help us make many choices, such as which of two potato peelers is the better value. However, it cannot help us choose the strawberry jam that tastes the best. In fact, trying to apply numerical reasoning to select the best-tasting jam often results in choices that are ultimately unsatisfying.3 Economics is a valuable discipline, but its usefulness does have limits. Every other discipline possesses the same characteristic, and successful thinking will not try to force the discipline into arenas where it lacks utility.

Obviously, knowing facts, no matter how numerous, does not equal successful thinking within a discipline. If we’re committed to equipping students to function within the disciplines and to use the valuable thinking represented in the disciplines, we have to do more than prepare them for tests requiring #2 pencils.

  1. Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R., eds., How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1999), 146.
  2. Gardner, H. Five Minds for the Future (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2006), 21.
  3. Lehrer, J. How We Decide (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009).

Friday, July 17, 2009

Conspiracy Theories: Patterns, Teaching, and Thinking

The human brain loves patterns so much it can take random puzzle pieces and construct seemingly coherent, if wildly implausible, pictures. “The CIA stockpiled lederhosen in case of an Alpine leg virus epidemic, causing the severe shortage of appropriate menswear for high school productions of The Sound of Music.” See? Random pieces strewn together to create a wild yet coherent picture—a conspiracy theory.

While interesting and entertaining, conspiracy theories reveal important principles for teaching, learning, and thinking.

The brain constructs meaning via patterns, even occasionally imposing patterns to make meaning from random data. As John Medina explains, “We…are terrific pattern matchers, constantly assessing our environment for similarities, and we tend to remember things if we think we have seen them before.”1 Patterns provide a gateway to prior experience, and prior experience provides reference points for constructing new understanding. “Patterns are paths for memories to follow,”2 explains Judy Willis. When patterns fail to emerge from sorted data, the brain either ignores the data or imposes a pattern on it—hence, conspiracy theories.

Researchers suggest teachers should develop students’ pattern-recognition capacities: “The idea that experts recognize features and patterns that are not noticed by novices is potentially important for improving instruction…One dimension of acquiring greater competence appears to be the increased ability to segment the perceptual field (learning how to see). Research on expertise suggests the importance of providing students with learning experiences that specifically enhance their abilities to recognize meaningful patterns of information.”3 Judy WIllis agrees: “Education is about increasing the patterns that students can use, recognize, and communicate. As the ability to see and work with patterns expands, the executive functions are enhanced. Whenever new material is presented in such a way that students see relationships, they generate greater brain cell activity (forming new neural connections) and achieve more successful long-term memory storage and retrieval.”4

By using patterns, the brain is able to connect ideas from disparate disciplines. The conspiracy theory in the opening paragraph features ideas from government, virology, economics, and musical theatre. Sure, the example is ludicrously wild, but it demonstrates the brain’s capacity to weave tapestries with threads from different spools. As the mind perceives patterns within a discipline’s content, it can seek, and often find, the same pattern within other disciplines. This enables the overlaying of one discipline with another, the identifying of connections between the disciplines, and the emergence of new ideas that combine concepts from multiple disciplines. A new tapestry is woven with thread from different spools.

According to Howard Gardner, such a “synthesizing mind” is now a “core competence”: “The ability to knit together information from disparate sources into a coherent whole is vital today. The amount of accumulated knowledge is reportedly doubling every 2-3 years. Sources of information are vast and disparate, and individuals crave coherence and integration.”5

Students who do not perceive patterns miss opportunities for beneficial interdisciplinary thinking: “In their English classes, young persons may learn how to write effective prose; but if they fail to transport at least part of those lessons across the hallway to history class or to biology lab assignments, then they have missed an opportunity to link compositional strategies. Adolescents may be exposed to causal reasoning in their physics classes; but if they draw no lessons about argumentation in history or geometry class, then this form of thinking needs to be retaught.”6

How, then, do we teach to foster multi-disciplinary thinking? I hesitate to suggest thinking like a conspiracy theorist, but to a degree, that’s part of the answer.

Consider an earth science unit—volcanoes, earthquakes, mountain formation, etc. As the teacher explores the content’s details, a few “conspiratorial” questions can help:
  • What are the major ideas in this unit?
  • How can I “connect the dots”—what are the relationships between those ideas?
  • What succinct, general statement communicates the relationships?
With the previously mentioned unit, the teacher may notice that internal forces/changes and external forces/changes are prominent ideas. How are these dots connected? Internal forces can influence external changes; external forces can influence internal changes. Succinctly? The internal (or inside) can affect the external (or outside), and the external can affect the internal.

Now, as the teacher teaches the material, she frequently references the pattern and engages students in thinking about how the material illustrates it.

Take another look at the pattern. Can you think of other places, other disciplines where the same pattern can be seen? How about characters in literature? Do internal forces (beliefs, values, motives) affect external elements (actions, dialogue)? Do external forces (character, events) affect internal elements (beliefs, values, motives)? Do the internal and external ever mingle and cause mutual change in other disciplines?

Instruction that emphasizes patterns creates opportunities for cross-discipline thinking. Concepts and skills get transferred (Constructing a geometric proof can help me write that persuasive essay), ideas merge to enable critical thinking (The inner turmoil at Company X seems like the pressure build-up along a fault line, which leads me to predict…), and new analogies empower “well-motivated leaps” (If I envision the website as a real estate agent’s showing of a new house…).7
With access to information on a constant and meteoric increase, knowing how connect data from disparate sources and disciplines—how to use patterns to recognize and use interdisciplinary connections—becomes equally constant and meteoric in its increasing necessity. Thinking a bit like a conspiracy theorist, connecting concepts into coherent patterns, can help us structure our teaching in ways that increase student ability and potential for interdisciplinary thinking.

  1. Medina, J., Brain Rules (Seattle, WA: Pear Press, 2008), 82.
  2. Willis, J., Research Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2006), 15.
  3. Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R., eds., How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1999), 24.
  4. Willis, 15.
  5. Gardner, H., Five Minds for the Future (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2006), 46.
  6. Ibid., 64-65.
  7. Ibid., 66.

Monday, July 6, 2009

TMI! Information Overload and Learning

“Too much information—TMI!”

More than just a retort when conversations turn personal, TMI also describes a common student experience. When one period of steady information flow follows another, the rising data tide does not lift all boats. It overwhelms them.

We can maintain a quick and steady pace when we enter information into a database or spreadsheet, simply pushing “return” or “tab” to move to the next entry, but the brain is not a computer. It has limits. Data funneled endlessly through the senses prevents the processing required for learning.

What do students’ brains need to do to construct new learning? Let’s listen in as the neural “Data Manager” oversees the processing…

Okay, we got incoming data here. Everyone look alive!

Get that bit there and put it with the other that’s like it. Those two bits there,
move them to the right. Move those others across the room to that grouping there.

Is that it? Do we have all the data? Okay, let me get up to the observation platform to see what we’ve got here. Hmm, okay. Put this label on that grouping there. And give that group to the right this label. That last group needs this label.

Okay, let’s see what’s really going on here. Seeing some patterns! Get the librarians searching for past records with these patterns.

Got something? Great. Let’s overlay it with this new data.

A-ha! The new data is like this past experience in some ways. Get the insights to the consciousness office and tell them to hit the “Give a lift” button! We’re constructing understanding right now!

Obviously no such director exists for cognitive activity, but the processing illustrated by the imagined “Data Manager’s” actions do reflect the brain’s approach to constructing new learning. Incoming data gets sorted and labeled as the brain engages in comprehension. The sorted and labeled data reveals emerging patterns that trigger recall of similar past experiences as the brain engages in elaboration. These cognitive processes empower learning.

But TMI floods the brain with data, preventing comprehension and elaboration, and thus, preventing learning. Jonah Lehrer suggests the danger of too much information is “it can actually interfere with understanding.” Why? Because the brain has a do-it-yourself attitude toward learning.

As teachers, we think through material when we plan its delivery. But students’ brains need to engage in that same process to learn for themselves. In short, we process the new material to teach it. Students must process the information similarly to learn it. As Daniel Willingham, author of Why Don't Students Like School?, explains, “Good teachers design lessons in which students unavoidably think about the meaning or central point” [emphasis added]. Thinking cannot overcome TMI, but TMI quickly overwhelms thinking. In short, TMI prevents learning while unavoidable thinking promotes it.

When you stop informing and engage students in thinking, you empower learning. In other words, you truly teach.