think about the box

We are taught to think inside the box. Then we are taught to think outside the box. What I want us to ask is, Who put the box there?  — Ellen Langer “On Becoming an Artist”, 2006

"Shipping Containers" Some rights reserved by racoles on flickr

Lateral and divergent thinking foster the conditions that facilitate creativity, to be sure.  But the old cliche of “thinking outside the box” is getting tired and I wonder if it doesn’t need some rest.  Besides, can you ever truly think outside the box? 

Wouldn’t it be more productive to think differently about the box — to acknowledge but query the constraints?  Take an ecological perspective — think about the role we play in creating and defining those constraints, both for ourselves and for others. 

In “Developing Leaders for a World of Uncertainty (Rotman Magazine, Fall 2010), Andrew Day and Kevin Power explore Ecological vs. Analytical Thinking:

  • Ecological thinking looks for patterns and interdependencies, while analytical thinking values historical data and analysis and identifies problems and solutions. 
  • Ecological thinking assumes complex, non-linear relationships as opposed to analytical thinking, which assumes cause, effect and linear relationships. 
  • The focus in on description rather than explanation with ecological thinking.  Analytical thinking reduces the phenomena down to individual issues.
  • Ecological thinking values curiosity, insight and intuition while analytical thinking seeks to restore or improve on the status quo.
  • Ecological thinking works creatively with paradox, uncertainty and contradiction, while analytical thinking seeks certainty and stability.
  • With ecological thinking, the focus is on WHAT, while the analytical perspective is focused on WHY.

I think that the ecological approach is one that offers our students greater opportunities to develop the skills and mindset necessary to thrive in our complex world.  What about you?

your brain on grade 8

Not everything that matters can be measured, and not everything that can be measured matters.     —  Elliot Eisner

Last Friday at W. Erskine Johnston PS we spent the day engaged in professional development around our School Improvement Plan.  Although we did devote a small part of our morning session to examining our latest EQAO scores, most of the day was spent looking at skills and aptitudes less easily measured, especially on a standardized test.  See my earlier post “nothing wrong with stilts” for a synopsis of the morning session for our Intermediate team.

After lunch we again divided up into our divisional teams for an activity around identifying those critical skills that we want all of our students to have by the time they reach the exit point for each division:  Grade 3 for primary, Grade 6 for junior and Grade 8 for intermediate.  After some initial brainstorming the teams split up and created “mind maps” to display our thinking.  Jen and I modeled one for the critical skills and aptitudes required for the Principal and Vice Principal role, and I will certainly post about that process in the future.  For now though, here is a short video highlighting some of the key skills the Intermediate division identified as crucial for our students heading to grade 9:

(Thanks to the kind folks at Thomas Tallis School (Tallis Labs) for the graphic organizer)

The process was fun and messy, with lots of play and energy. It was interesting to work together deciding which skills went where on the brain. We chose colours depending on a general feeling about the skill (purple for integrity, for example) and used plasticine and pipe cleaners to link related skills. As we wrapped up and prepared to join the other groups we all stepped back to look at our work and realized that we had not mentioned any specifically content-curriculum pieces. One of our team members reflected:

The curriculum isn’t really the important piece …  It is a means to this end.

I think that we all agreed that the content areas, while they are important, are the means through which we model and teach the skills that we feel our students need to be successful as they leave us and head to high school:  critical thinking skills, empathy, foresight, self-awareness and self-reflection, open-mindedness, etc…  The second part of the discussion, where we brainstorm the types of learning activities we need to provide to develop these skills and aptitudes, will be continued…

We are doing the same activity with our Grade 8 students next week. They will each create their own brain map and it will be very interesting to see how theirs compare to the one we created.  What skills would you add?

The Experience of Crowds

I came across this insightful little video created by Will Richardson to illustrate how social networking and web 2.0 tools have changed the way that current events stories break , become aggregated and refined using tools such as, in this case, twitter and flickr:

The News According to Twitter

“Playing around with here but also trying to capture what I think is an interesting shift in the way we learn about, gather and share news these days.”

The shift that Richardson identifies here has interesting and immediate implications for education, as well. We have already witnessed the emerging impact of The Wisdom of Crowds philosophy and its insistence on the development of sophisticated collaborative and critical thinking aptitudes. The shift here has more to do with the “experience of crowds”, if you will – multiple perspectives dialoging in real time to create a shared narrative of an event that is swiftly disseminated, even as the event itself continues to unfold and updates or revisions are being made to the emerging narrative.

The Experience of Crowds

The “Experience of Crowds” demands a further shift towards the increasingly imperative development of highly refined and rigorous skills in the area of synthesis.  Wrapped up in the unfolding events as narrated across a multitude of 1st person perspectives – eye witness accounts captured digitally – consumers must be open to accepting and digesting revision in real-time.

The skills and aptitudes required are, in my estimation, not novel to my students, for whom this shift might be, at best, unsurprising, considering their immersion within a world where their experiences have always been mediated and captured digitally.  It is, however, an important shift within myself as an educator, in order to ensure that I provide a learning environment that challenges my students to refine their synthesizing and critical thinking talents.  The old media literacy question “what is this text really saying to me?” proliferates and includes questions such as “What perspectives are emerging as this text unfolds?”, “How does the emergent nature of this text manipulate my understanding?”  and, to be sure, “What part of this text am I creating?”