Monday, November 29, 2010

Creative thinking

This week Mikaela Huntzinger (CETL, UCDavis teaching hero) is leading a session on creativity: what do we really mean by it, how to cultivate it in learning environments, how to use writing exercises to get your creative juices flowing.

We started with some intro brainstorming: why do students think science is recitation or right/wrong? how can we enhance creative problem solving with the "right" learning environment? how can we use creativity to reach out to other disciplines? how do we foster creativity in writing?

What is creativity? Different fields may have different interpretations of what it means, so we brainstormed some definitions:

-balance of novelty within a framework, like cooking well without recipe
-combination of existing ideas into new ones, or applying existing knowledge to new contexts (synthesis)
- freedom with a purpose (more effective with some constraints rather than in a vacuum)
- making connections (easier if the parts of the systems are identified)
- flexibility to move between perspectives
-bringing self into task, self expression (ownership of a project)

How can we be more creative? Some tips:

- Relax! you cannot be creative if you are too tense/scared/stressed.
- Separate brainstorming from critiquing (coming up with 6 stupid ideas makes it more likely to come up with a 7th great idea, more effective than shooting down each stupid idea)
- Take the pressure away from yourself, e.g. by thinking that you are a conduit for creativity, instead of the generator of it.
- You need to invest time to get the creative outcome you are interested in. Great creative output is build with daily work.
- If brainstorming in writing, write continuously, don't pause. Keep your pen moving until your next thought comes up.

We did a guided activity to demonstrate the point. Here it is!

Write your question at top of page (e.g. which direction do I want my practice/research to go towards?). give yourself 30-40 min. Follow the principles above. This is just brainstorming. Guided Relaxation (~10 min). Start writing right after relaxation, i.e. you are still in a very relaxed mood. Can pause after 20 min and highlight ideas you like most. Then transfer them to next sheet and keep writing from there.

Suggested reference:

“The creative habit” by Twyla Tharp

Other good articles:

1. Teaching creativity and inventive problem-solving in science (DeHaan 2009):

2. Science as structured imagination (De Cruz and De Smedt 2010):π=2

3. Stimulating creativity: Teaching engineers to be innovators (Richards 1998):

4. Differential effects of divergent thinking, domain knowledge, and interest on creative performance in art and math (Jeon et al. 2011):

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Intrinsic Motivation and the Influence of Culture on Learning

This meeting was designed to get us thinking about our ability to create a culturally responsive environment that reaches out to diverse learners. The following questions are some prompts that we can use to get started:

1. Think of at least three experiences in your life in which you were highly motivated to learn. What were you interested in and why? Which people/teachers influenced you most during this time? What did these people do to ignite your passion?
We went on to consider the cultural foundations of motivation. The following reflections were used to help us start this process:

2. Contextualize your learning experience not only by what happen, but also the cultural environment in which is took place. In particular, compare and contrast your answers to the following two sets of questions.

I. What did you actually learn: What were you learning? Who were two major influences in this particular educational experience? On a scale of 1-100 how dedicated to your learning were you (1 = no motivation, 100 = extremely high)? How do you use the skills you attained during this time today?

II. How did the cultural perspective around you affect your learning: Where did the majority of your learning take place? In what language did you learn? How well did your teachers understand your cultural identity? How well did other people in your learning environment understand your culture (fellow students, friends, family, etc)?

In going through this exercise, do you feel you were extremely comfortable and supported in your learning? Were there other people who you identified with that helped support you as you continued in your education?

Now imagine a student in your class who does not identify with most of the students in class, who doesn’t have very similar experiences and whose social support network is far displaced from the educational environment. How can you as a teacher use the shared time and energy available to you to help this student proactively build a new support network and bring her own cultural identity into the learning process?

We went on to briefly list some simple ideas that we can implement to break down barriers to learning by introducing culture into the educational environment:

3. Can you think of any simple and effective ways to represent cultural diversity in your classroom and learning environment. Examples include:

Example 1: Playing warm up music in five minutes before class from all over the world.

Example 2: Have a sign: "I am interested in your culture" that is displayed in my office.

Example 3: Asking each student to teach me how to say hello in their native language and use this greeting in future lectures.

Example 4: Keep an Atlas on hand in office hours and have visitors show me where their family came from and tell me a little about what that place is like.

Example 5:Keep a publicly accessible list in your office. On this list, have your students suggest cultural foods they think you should try, as well as a small description where these food come from and a few places (locally) you might be able to find them. Make a commitment to try at least five of these in any given quarter and share your experiences with the class during warm up.

This discussion was meant to introduce this line of thinking to our participants. There is much to be said about the role of culture in learning (the culture of the individual students, the educators understanding of culture, and the learning culture of the institution). We as educators have the power and ability to help students create and understand. Being aware of these issues is one way to improve ourselves as we educate others. If you are interested in learning more about this topic, you might start with:

Creating Highly Motivating Classrooms for All Students: A Schoolwide Approach to Powerful Teaching with Diverse Learners by Margery Ginsberg and Raymond J. Wlodkowski

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Peer instruction: why and how?

Last monday we discussed student-centered learning, or more specifically peer instruction. We started by watching part of a talk by Eric Mazur (embedded below) recounting how he got "converted" to peer instruction, providing some data on how well it worked in his physics class, and showing an example of peer instruction activity. I'd encourage you to watch it all, it's informative and entertaining. Before meeting, we read a paper by Felder and Brent addressing the issue from another angle: what are the obstacles to implementing peer instruction (and some solutions)?

We divided into small groups and allowed ourselves to explore the topic from the angle that most interested us. Some points discussed include:
  • logistical issues: high noise background can leave out some students; having the right room to break into small groups helps (but it can work in "theater" rooms too)
  • students dislike the new method (at least at first): you can explain what you are doing and why it works, be clear on expectations, reassure them that with "unconventional" methods they'll be able to do good in conventional exams;
  • free-riders in group work: some use a peer evaluation form, but it doesn't seem to work well;
  • assigning readings before class meetings: can enforce via quiz, short writing in class, having questions about the reading in exams. It is more productive to use class time to discuss (e.g. you don't read Shakespeare in class)
  • teacher's fears: do I lose control? do I need to have several back-up plans depending on how the class session goes? what if students don't like it and give me poor evaluations?
It's a very broad subject, we'll probably discuss some aspects of it in the future! also check out other resources on this topic from a previous GTC post.