"Only Connect..."

One of my biggest challenges is getting students to overcome a "plug and chug" method for learning that was usually sufficient in high school.  By plug and chug I mean simply plugging in a right answer and chugging through the course without doing any real thinking.

I have an exercise that's been useful for getting them to consider a new way of thinking about the material. I don't recall how I came up with it (or even if I up with it).  It works like this: during the first week of class I project a Power Point of five or six randomly selected images. I ask the students to come up with as many organizational schemes for these images as they can.

A scheme might be organizing the images from big to small, or in categories of living versus non-living, or natural versus human-made.  There is no right or wrong answer and it's permissable to include all, some or none of the images in a framework. The only test is whether the organizing concept can be understood by someone else.

For five minutes I have students students brainstorm.  Some produce lists of 10-15 ideas; others struggle to come up with three or four. Afterwards I have them relate their ideas to one another and we list any interesting or novel conceptual frameworks on the board. The exercise is actually a test of concept differentia. People who perform well at this exercise tend to have high levels of critical ability.  More importantly, everyone can get better with practice.

Indeed, the images are just a data set that can be manipulated into varying patterns. And that's essentially what I want students doing in my classes. The texts and authors we read, the ideas we discuss and the arguments we encounter are just data sets loaded with identifiable patterns, connections and contrasts. They may be more complex data sets than my random images, but we can do the same kind of intellectual work with them.

A few weeks into a course (after we have read multiple authors) I start demanding that all answers include inter-textual connections. It isn't enough that students write about lying and deception in King Lear. I now want them to bring Machiavelli's ideas about deception to bear on the play and, while we're at it, what do we make of the fact that the rational horses in Swift's Gulliver's Travels have no word for lying? That's interesting.      

The first-week exercise with those images becomes a concrete refrence point that I can go to in making requests for a higher level of engagement with the material.  "Remember that exercise we did the first week with the photos?" I'll say.  "Let's do that with these four texts. See any interesting patterns or connections?"

 I also make a big, big deal of it when someone does this during a class discussion.  Last week, for instance, one of the students in my first-year honors seminar made an interesting connection between the character of God in Paradise Lost and King Lear. I melodramatically paused and said, "There, right there!  That's the exactly of thinking I want to see in your papers."  For the first time she had abandoned plugging and chugging.  Something new, interesting and startling had been brought into existence.

Students don't do this work very well at first. Their connections are often a little forced and superficial, but that's okay. They have to start somewhere.  And at least they are moving in my direction . The important thing is that they can see that this kind of thinking is very different from parroting back the "right" answer.

An old professor once told me that students will try to do whatever you ask of them so long as you break it down and tell them as clearly as possible what you want. 


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