Thinking about Thinking

[An edited version of this material was originally published in Symposium Magazine under the title “Slow and Fast Learning in the Digital Age]

penseur1-770x514“Meta-cognition,” or thinking about thinking, is one of the habits of mind[1] that I encourage my arts entrepreneurship students and coaching clients to practice as they examine their decision making processes.  Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking, Fast and Slow identifies two primary modes of cognition, which we can understand to be the intuitive (fast) and the rational (slow) or, put another way, the networked and the linear. How does the way we think affect what we think about? What we choose to teach and learn? And what education policies we adopt?  This post looks at the contrast between linear and networked thinking (or rational and intuitive thinking) and how that contrast impacts our approach to knowledge acquisition and knowledge sharing across three different higher education contexts: a professional development workshop at a large US university, a guest lecture at a university in Beijing, and the development and implementation of a new online course in arts management.

The way in which these two modes of thinking relate to academic disciplines and their epistemologies (ways of knowing) was made obvious to me while “lecturing” in a professional development workshop for graduate students of all disciplines.  I was asked to talk about “Teaching Effectively and Efficiently,” the subtext of which title is, “how can you teach well while maintaining time for your research agenda.”  I have participated in this program three times, each time following a material science colleague from the engineering faculty.  My colleague addressed the group of 15-20 PhD and MFA students with the aid of a PowerPoint presentation. Each slide was carefully organized with topic headings and three or four bullet points. He stood behind the table at the front of the room and described how he teaches, using a textbook, quizzes, and multiple-choice exams. He explained how he uses a real world example of the Hawaii Airlines crash of 1988 to explain key concepts of material science. There were no questions following his presentation. In contrast, when my turn came, I sat on the edge of the table rather than standing behind it and asked the students about themselves, their areas of study, and what they hoped to learn from that day’s session.  They wanted practical advice, which I gave by sharing several personal experiences, and asking them if they had had similar experiences. I connected an experience an engineering student shared with an analogous experience from an art student.  I could literally see students making connections with one another and the information.

On leaving the room, I realized that the difference in our delivery and our teaching style was both a disciplinary one and a cognitive one.  Material science has a basis in fixed knowledge. If a plane makes too many take offs and landings, its steel skin will fail. An engineer can calculate that failure point with a certain degree of accuracy.  Artistic creativity does not rely on such a fixed base of knowledge. Discoveries are made by intuition as much – or more – than by linear experimentation. The synthesis and application of knowledge via the Socratic method develops and uses the cognitive skills of instructor and students in ways that are not as applicable to disciplines that lead to one right answer.

Nowhere is the emphasis on “one right answer” more pronounced than in the Chinese system of education that culminates in that country’s National Higher Education Entrance Examination.  I lectured recently in Beijing to a group of education policy graduate students on the topic of creativity and pedagogies that support it. The irony of doing so escaped neither myself nor a visiting colleague from the University of Toronto who was not surprised that none of the students had had an arts experience. With an entire secondary education system geared toward test preparation, it is no wonder that the kind of creativity supported by network thinking and intuitive cognitive skills is not emphasized.   When I tried to engage the graduate students in a networked discussion, similar to that which I had led with the graduate students back home, I was met with silence (all the students speak and understand English reasonably well; so language alone was not the reason).  Questions followed my lecture, but they were about the empirical research on which my lecture was based rather than on the connectivity between the ideas presented.

I thought a lot about the concept of fixed knowledge and the value of open-ended questioning while developing an online course in arts management from the ground up.  The course designers pushed for multiple choice exams so that the assessments could be machine graded and the enrollment, therefore, unlimited by the need to have human evaluators (i.e. professors and teaching assistants). However, I want to give students opportunities to ask and answer questions, to help them learn to think both linearly and nonlinearly. In the unit of the course on strategic planning and when I lead strategic planning meetings, I emphasize the need to use both modes of thinking – to think synergistically and connectively in the brainstorming and idea generation phases of planning and linearly in the implementation phase. To execute this two-prong approach in the assessments for the online course, I settled on using a mix of linear problem-solving (e.g., analyzing budgets for specific information about an organization), fact-based multiple-choice questions, and open-ended writing prompts that require synthesis of reading materials with the students’ own experiences.  In the end, especially given the online method of delivery, the students were responsible for exercising their cognitive muscles across both platforms.  If grades are at all a measurement of learning, it would seem that the students who engaged with all of the material, who drew connections between the parts of the course content, and who also interacted with the instructor, learned more than those that did not.

A colleague who teaches online courses of 100-250 students remarked that he prefers teaching live to online because he likes to “talk, debate, and converse.” In a live class, he can stop and start video examples, discuss them interactively in the moment of teaching, and react immediately to student questions.  When I employ similar techniques in my live classes, including digressions and tangential content, I can, as in the professional development class, literally see students making connections within and across the network of ideas. The linearity of online teaching may encourage students to make similar types of connections, but as an instructor, I don’t see that until it is expressed in a writing assignment or project.  By then, the “thinking fast” moment, and the learning/teaching opportunity that comes with it, has passed.

Ultimately, to successfully navigate the world outside of the academy, one uses both types of thinking.  Within the academy, thinking about thinking not only affects the outputs we request of students, but the actual learning outcomes that result from the way we teach and evaluate.

[1] See Costa and Kallick (2008) Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind, 16 essential Characteristics for Success. 

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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2 Responses to Thinking about Thinking

  1. Pingback: Art Not Automated | Creative Infrastructure

  2. Pingback: When Either/Or Hits Close to Home | Creative Infrastructure

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