Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Possibility in the Gray

Lately I have been delving into exploring the power of positive emotions as well as cultivating meaningful experiences to engage kids in learning. Books like The Power of Mindful Learning, by Ellen Langer, Positivity, by Barbara Fredrickson, and Curious, by Todd Kashdan have renewed my interest in reflecting upon and re-framing what I do to help kids flourish in and out of the classroom.
One of the most powerful ideas to come out of this exploration is that being "open" matters.

We can get so much more out of an experience, whether it's learning new information, relating to a partner, or calming down a class of chatty, off-task learners by a simple mind shift. That mind shift involves being able to stay in the gray area, "Maybe I don't really know the answer right now." Often, being the thoughtful human creatures we are, we like to categorize things, act like we have all the answers, or at least believe that an "expert" has the answer when we don't. My question is : What happens if we allow ourselves to sit with the wonder of the gray, instead of resorting to the black and white mindset of : "right answer" vs. "wrong answer"?

We sometimes give our students "think time" and ask them to think before raising their hands to answer a question. Allowing ourselves to ponder different scenarios and come up with the "best answer" for right now can actually lead to a more developed, deeper understanding of a concept or situation. This meaningful reflection might, in turn, give us a variety of solutions and a flexibility in applying those answers in the future. What if what we learned actually might help us the next time we encounter such a situation? Isn't that what we want our learners to be able to do: generalize a critical thinking process to areas besides the specific lesson we just taught?

Well, it may sound quite simple, but reflecting and thoughtful exploration seem to run a bit counter to what many of us do at times, as we react instead of act. A myriad of emotions, such as fear, hurt, worry, or anxiety catapult us toward a path of mindless action, instead of stopping to consider our many options. While we could put ourselves in our partners shoes, we often don't; we assume that we know what they think and feel, attack out of hurt and fear. In this age of "instant thought moving to action", many of us simply get caught up in the moment and feel pressured to act. We live in a world that doesn't seem to want to wait for us. The over-stimulation of our surroundings with the multitude of media threaten to aid in our memory lapse. " I must make a decision now, or I might forget, or not have time later to answer this important question." I must post on my blog, tweet on my twitter, fret on facebook and say something important to make my mark on the world. Are we afraid that someone is going to win the race or take our place?

One common approach, reflected in all three of the books mentioned, is to ask open-ended questions when trying to elicit engagement. Ellen Langer demonstrated with her research that directing people to "notice more" when examining something they weren't previously interested in actually got them to take more time, notice more detail and actually report a higher level of positive experience in learning the new information or skill. Todd Kashdan gives many examples where being an open and "curious explorer" helps people combat the anxiety that often holds them back from attaining their goals and achieving meaningful lives. Barbara Fredrickson talks about the power of positive emotions and how being interested in exploring or even amused by something actually broadens your ability to think more creatively and flexibly.

What if, instead of asking a child why he acted a certain way, you expressed curiosity in what was happening? I often say to my students, "Wow, I am really confused about what is going on here." I express wonder and confusion when I want to get them to stop and think about their actions in the moment. Suddenly, before my eyes, they snap out of the off task behavior and get back to work. Now if that worked all the time, I would be set!

I guess all I'm saying... in a round-about way.. is to give yourself and your students the time to ponder. Don't always make up your mind. There isn't always an easy answer, quick-fix, instant message solution. In fact, the deepest and most profound discoveries come when we acknowledge what we don't know. Share that with your students. The teacher doesn't always have to be right. Teachers are learners too.


eric garfinkel said...

Spent the last few hours reading your amazing postings and as a father of four, I share your view about the importance of building on strengths and helping kids find their personal sparks. We have worked 2 years creating a virtual educational theme park (http://www.wonderrotunda.com/)designed to stimulate curiosity and help young people find their interests and passions. We finally launched the park on Tuesday, and I would be most interested in your thoughts about it. I would be delighted to send you a complimentary pass to the park, if you would like to take a closer look. Thanks,

Joan Young (aka Mancini) said...

Thanks Eric! I appreciate your comments and am looking forward to checking out your website. It's great to connect with like-minded people who are also dedicated to helping build on the strengths and passions kids have. Thanks again!

Geoff_9 said...

Great article!

For me, some of my "aha" moments of learning happen when I slow down and consider various viewpoints and alternatives.

Our binary "Yes/No", "Black/White" is too limiting.

I feel more people need to find comfort in the "unknown" and "not knowing all the answers."

I heard this once and thought you'd appreciate it:

+ + +

Creative thinking enters far more into problem formulation than it does into problem solving.

Problem formulation is the trickier part—and school is almost the only place where problems are all formulated for you.

How do you learn problem formulation in a conventional school?

We need far more exercises in problem formulation than problem solving.

Murray Gell-Mann
(Nobel Prize winning physicist