Thursday, January 29, 2009

OLA Super Conference

The first session I went to this morning was titled:
Nurturing Critical Thinking Through Brain Compatible Learning Environments

The presenter was Garfield Gini-Newman, Senior Consultant, The Critical Thinking Consortium.
He was good. It was a topic that interests me. I think I have been trying to develop critical thinking skills in the assignments I design for my students.
There were a few key points that I want to remember. One was the difference between 'research' and 'inquiry'. One is a gathering of facts while the other is more purposeful, requiring problem solving, decision making, and judgement.

When trying to determine the truth of a question you may have two pieces of evidence which contradict each other. However, not all pieces of evidence are equally valid.

To illustrate this point we were looking at a drawing of a farm scene. We were trying to determine when the scene was taking place. We knew the setting was Burnaby, B.C.. From the illustration we could see that the mountains were in the background, to the north. There were shadows on the east side of the house. This indicated to me that the scene was taking place in the afternoon. The shadow was not very long, so it was maybe 2 PM. Someone else suggested that it was in the morning because someone was feeding the chickens, and this is something that is usually done in the morning.

We had two pieces of 'evidence' to help establish the time. One was given more weight than the other. In fact, one -the position of the sun- trumped the other. Although chickens are usually fed in the morning there is nothing preventing one from feeding them in the afternoon - say scraps from lunch. Whereas the sun casting a shadow on the east side of a building necessarily means that it is in the west.

It kind of reminded me of Creationist arguments. They have 'evidence', it just doesn't stand up to real evidence.

We then talked about the difference between a 'Fixed Mind Set' and a 'Growth Mind Set'. Some students feel they are good or bad at something; that they have talent or they do not. They are 'fixed' in their thinking about themselves. Others see setbacks as challenges and view school as an opportunity to expand intelligence. There is good evidence that the plasticity of the brain allows for students to grow intellectually if they believe they can.

A lot of the inhibitions to learning come about because of emotional barriers.
Information coming into the brain gets processed through the amygdala. It is partly responsible for memory formation and emotional reactions. Emotion is a key gateway to learning.

During adolescence, teenage boys have amygdala bathed in testosterone. Although publicly aloof and 'cool' many teenage boys reveal a far deeper emotional side. One way to get at boys (and girls) is to approach subjects through the arts. Our emotional responses to art and literature is a key pathway to learning. This is something I have known and used for quite some time in my teaching practice. I believe the power of story is extremely useful in many different subject areas.
Daniel Pink was a keynote speaker a few years back who said something very similar.

Boys tend to read for purpose. Non-fiction is big but boys read novels too. Garfield told the amusing story of the one boy he knew who had read Twilight. He said he read it so he could talk to the girls about it.

There was a lot more ground covered. There were a lot of good practical tips. For example, if you write notes for students to copy, tell them that one of the points you made is not true. They then actually engage with the text written and it becomes a problem to solve. They try to establish criteria for evaluating the veracity of the statements.

I got a good idea out of this session that made it worth my time. I have been giving my students an art history research assignment for a few years now. I try to make it so that I do not get a boring recitation of dates and facts. I have had some success with this, and some failure. I thought of this today: I will have two students work together. They need to collaborate on the final presentation. The task will be to determine who is the better artist. Dali or Whistler? Picasso or Leonardo? Manet or Monet? We will establish criteria for determining this together. I think it will be fun. Does the fact that one of Jackson Pollack's paintings fetched the highest price ever for a painting mean he is the best painter ever? Does money determine worth? What makes a painting great? Who determines this and what criteria is used? Does the legacy or influence of an artist determine worth?
I'll flesh it out further with the students. One thing for sure is that they will not be able to just give a bio of the artist. They must think and think critically in order to complete the assignment successfully.
I am happy.

My next session was boring. Only a little interesting for me. It dealt with open access to academic papers and journals. The topic is of interest but it was highly technical and more suited for someone who wasn't me.

The highlight of the day was Richard Florida. He had way too many interesting things to say. Mayor David Miller introduced him. I don't know what to say because I do not want to reproduce his talk here and I don't want to leave anything out.
Here is a link to his site:
Creative Class

His main point was that the creative class is the way out of the world wide economic crisis. Investing in people is investing in the economy. People produce that which drives the economy.
He talked about Toronto as a city that has a vibrant economy because of its diversity and the acceptance of that diversity. He found that 'Bohemian-gay-artistic' neighbourhoods are ones that stimulate the economy. He was accused by some newspaper in the States of wishing to "undermine the tenets of Judeo-Christian society” because of his "gay agenda".

I'm not going to say any more about him other than to say he gave me a tremendous amount to think about. Maybe I'll write more later. But I still have two days of conference to go, and I'm not even done with today.

The last session of the day for me was A Thousand Words About Our Culture by Stephen Marche. He mainly talked about the book and how it was transforming but very slowly. He wondered if it would always be around. He was an extremely knowledgeable and intelligent speaker with a great deal of revelatory insights.

He entertained questions after the talk and I asked him to comment on the rise of the graphic novel. (I had borrowed a copy of Lynda Barry's What It Is? from the guys at The Beguiling to read while I was waiting for the Richard Florida talk. It is an absolutely amazing book. People must of thought I was crazy as I read it. One moment I was laughing out loud and then I'd turn the page and tear up.) He talked mainly about how authors had taken the idea of the book and tried to push the boundaries by using odd combinations of fonts, and cut-out pages, and pages that gradually changed colour, and other 'tricks'. I was wondering if he thought that perhaps graphic novels were a new direction for the novel. We talked about the acceptance of the graphic novel as a serious art form. He admitted a love of the graphic novel and then some other questions followed where he admitted he was not as expert in the field as those asking the questions.

All in all, it was a good day for me.

1 comment:

Sharon said...

Hey Frank,

Darn it all. I didn't know you had a blog. But now I do, so I shall be checking back once in awhile, and I will link it to mine. I'm not sure why, really, because I never write on my blog, and no one in their right mind goes to read a blog that no one blogs on. ;)

Interesting stuff in this post. It seems like a really good idea to write about talks and seminars as a way of remembering what you learned, and as a way of brainstorming into new ideas.