Grazing the Net:Raising a Generation of Free Range Students - Part Two

by Jamie McKenzie

Copyright 1994 by Jamie McKenzie

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* Building and testing models

Model building is a form of synthesis which allows one to combine the keyelements of a process or a system in a simplified version which permits manipulation of variables in order to explore relationships. Both the NCTM standards and Project 2061 call for students to learn both model building and systems thinking because they offer such explanatory power. The Systems Thinking and Curriculum Innovation Network Project (STACIN) developed byETS, has been exploring the use of a software program called STELLA, asimulation-modeling package, for eight years with high schools and middle schools. An authentic outcome of an Internet research project might be the development of a model to show the interplay of key elements in the ecosystem of a timber wolf family.

* Creating fresh answers and insight (synthesis)

Smokestack schools often relied too heavily on the collection and rehashing of old insights. Students were too rarely challenged to develop their own fresh insights. Sorting and sifting through the data they have collected on the Net, they arrange the jigsaw pieces and fragments without ever being shown the picture. They are "on their own." Picture a student or a team of students actually manipulating their fragments to see what insights might leap forth. Software programs like the electronic thesaurus and various outlining and idea processing programs may help with the visualizing and thought play. To close the gap between information and insight, students are conjuring up new possibilities such as an array of strategies uniquely suited to protect and enhance the salmon harvest in their particular part of the Puget Sound.

There are at least three associated levels of thinking which must all occur at the same time in a dynamic, triple decker process which is a great deal like writing poetry or songs. All three levels operate concurrently and recursively (like the cat chasing its tail).

1. Envisioning

The top level involves conjuring and envisioning types of thought. The students conceive, conjecture, fancy, imagine, project and visualize. Envisioning is the top level because it lifts the product and outcome ofthe thinking beyond the past practice and old thinking. The thinker leaps out of the box of everyday, ho-hum thinking. Of course, grazing the Internet lends itself especially well to the encouragement of such flights of fancy. The Net provides the excursions, journeys, safaris, sallies, treks and spins trainers often employ to stimulate creative problem-solving in groups (Synectics). Envisioning is the source of originality. Identifying possibilities and exploring the unthinkable is basic to this level.

2. Inventing

The middle level requires translation of possibilities into actualities. The imaginative play of the top level must be grounded in reality. What might actually work? What is a sensible version of that possibility? Thisis the level at which innovation is born. The student concocts new solutions to problems or coins new ideas and general principles. The research team may hatch a whole new action plan, fabricating and formulating initiatives to clean up local streams. Perhaps the thinking may advance to the development and testing of prototypes before engineering a final product.

3. SCAMPERING and Rearranging

The foundation for the top two levels is the rearranging mentioned earlier in this article in the sections on sorting and analyzing data. One model for such synthesis is SCAMPER (Osborne), with each letter standing for a strategy. S=substitute. C=combine. A=adapt. M=modify, magnify, minify. P=Put to other uses. E=eliminate. R=reverse. For this level to producepowerful results, the other two levels must be operating concurrently, as they supply the pressure and cognitive dissonance which inspires creation. The student arranges, blends, combines, integrates, tests, and adjusts thethought fragments until new pictures emerge.

* Suggesting and testing hypotheses

"What if . . . " thinking helps to propel and inspire mindful, purposeful research through the Net. The student learns to brainstorm multiple explanations and possibilities and then sets out to see which have the mostexplanatory value.

* Opening one's mind

Fundamental to the creation of new knowledge and insight is the process of suspending bias, challenging assumptions and noting premises. The researcher understands that the final product of the search will be made upof three related elements: assumptions, evidence and logic. All three must be opened to careful review and examination.

(The next portion on open minds is adapted from Administrators at Risk:Tools and Technologies for Securing Your Future, McKenzie, NationalEducational Service, Bloomington, IN, 1993.)

What is an open mind? A mind which welcomes new ideas. A mind which invites new ideas in for a visit. A mind which introduces new ideas to the company which has already arrived. A mind which is most comfortable in mixed company. A mind which prizes silence and reflection. A mind which recognizes that later is often better than sooner. An open mind is somewhat like silly putty. Do you remember thatwonderful ball of clay-like substance that you could bounce, roll and applyto comics as a child?

An open mind is playful and willing to be silly because the best ideas often hide deep within our minds away from our watchful, judgmental selves. Although our personalities contain the conflicting voices of both a clownand a critic, the critic usually prevails in our culture. The critic's voice keeps warning us not to appear foolish in front of our peers, not to offer up any outrageous ideas, and yet that is precisely how we end up with the most inventive and imaginative solutions to problems. We need to learn how to lock up the critic at times so the clown can play without restraint. We must prevent our internal critic from blocking our own thinking or attacking the ideas of others.

An open mind can bounce around in what might often seem like a haphazard fashion. When building something new, we must be willing to entertain unusual combinations and connections. The human mind, at its best, is especially powerful in jumping intuitively to discover unusual relationships and possibilities. An open mind quickly picks up the good ideas of other people, much like silly putty copying the image from a page of colored comics. The open mind is always hungry, looking for some new thoughts to add to its collection. The open mind knows that its own thinking is almost always incomplete. An open mind takes pride in learning from others. It would rather listen than speak. It loves to ask questions like, "How did you come up with that idea? Can you tell me more about your thinking? How did you know that? What areyour premises? What evidence did you find?"

The open mind has "in-sight" - evaluating the quality of its own thinking to see gaps which might be filled. The open mind trains the clown and the critic to cooperate so that judgment and critique alternate with playful idea generation. Ideas have at least three major aspects which can usually be modified and improved:

1. Ideas are based upon premises of one kind or another. Many people come to their ideas (judgments or conclusions) without ever explicitly examining the premises which lie underneath those conclusions. Premises are basic beliefs which act for an idea as the foundation of a building or the roots of a tree. Collections of premises are often called assumptions or mind-sets (Drucker, 1992) or paradigms (Barker, 1992) or mental models (Senge, 1991). Sometimes our thinking comes to us already packaged without our even knowing which premises and assumptions lie below the surface, butan open mind knows that all such premises must be re-examined with some frequency to see if they are serving us well and truly match our basic belief systems.

2. Ideas are based upon evidence. Many of our ideas emerge from experience. We collect data, look for patterns and seek laws to help uspredict the future. Unfortunately, we all too often collect evidence electively. Once people begin to hold an idea, research has shown that they begin to screen out data which might create dissonance, evidence which might "call into question" the value of the idea. An open mind looks at thequality of its evidence with the same dispassionate attitude it applies to its premises and assumptions. Mindful of the three little pigs which built houses of straw, twigs and brick, the open mind seeks bricks and mortar which can withstand the huffing and puffing of the most aggressive wolf.

The open mind asks, "What evidence do I need to gather? Do I know enough? Has anything changed since I last gathered evidence? Is there new data? Is my data complete?"

3. Ideas are based upon logic. Our conclusions and ideasshould flow from logical connections between our premises and our evidence. The open mind keeps asking of its ideas, "Is this logical? Does this makesense? Does this follow from the evidence I gathered? Have I identifiedall the key factors?

* Seeing what's missing

At times, the enormity of the data cascading into our computers creates the false impression that we have fully explored some topic. Experience shows that even when we have mountains of data, we may have missed really important articles or data because we encountered one of the following problems:

1) Flawed search strategies. We pick the wrong search term, one notincluded in the keyword lexicon of the particular database. Hitting few articles, we conclude that little has been written on that topic. Perhaps if we replace "instructional technology" with "educational technology" we will hit a rich vein of literature. We learn to doubt the efficacy of our search words and check the lexicons.

2) Biased databases. Even though we would like to believe otherwise, some groups and some aspects of history are systematically avoided or ignored by data sources. I recently searched an electronic encyclopedia in preparation for a third grade unit on Native Americans and found that the word "broken" never occurred in the same article with the word "treaty." In reading some of the articles which held the word "treaty" I was struck by the carefully sanitized phrasing of how tribes were relocated. The trail of tears had been expunged from most tribal histories.

3) Overloaded databases. Conducting a Veronica search of Gopherspace with the search term "technology" I encountered thousands of articles. Scrolling through the first several hundred titles, I noted a huge number of articles about technology in the timber industry. Why did this particular group dominate the first part of the list? I hypothesized that because much research in this nation has been funded by government and industry, the files presently available in university libraries may be the result of such projects. A student team browsing such a list might think they had hit the "mother lode" of data on timber management, but they need to identify the source and know that balance can only be achieved by seeking what is missing. What data would emerge in a search of databases providedby environmental groups?

4) Wrong database. Even though gopher programs and knowbots are linking users to multiple data sources without requiring customized scanning, these programs do not offer access to all appropriate databases. They may give the false impression of comprehensive coverage while actually missing key sources.

* Recognizing anomaly

Cyberspace provides a rich offering of anomalies (American Heritage Dictionary: deviation from the normal or common order or form or rule; abnormality). These anomalies can be a great source of inspiration and invention during times of rapid change. They are outstanding events. They stand as extra-ordinary. They are, by definition, out of the box. They maybe glimpses of our futures. Students can be taught to seek, capture and examine such irregularities, remembering that penicillin was discovered because of a laboratory error that grew a mold by accident. The Internet may offer many powerful accidental discoveries.

Conclusion: Raising A Generation of Free Range Students

What is a "free range student?" It is simply a student fed on the wild grains and fragments available in the magical world made accessible by the Net. Just as some gourmets prefer free range chickens to their plump cousins raised on processed grains and feed heavily impregnated with hormones and chemicals, the theme of this article is the value of raising children to think, explore and make meaning of their worlds for themselves. No more second hand knowledge. No more sage on the stage. Students will learn to make sense out of nonsense and order out of chaos. They will ask essential questions and solve complex problems. They will join electronically with brothers and sisters around the globe to cast a spotlight on earth-threatening issues which deserve attention and action.

The Net offers amazing freedom of access to information. But Info-Heaven can quickly become Info-Hell if we do not equip our students with the reasoning and exploration skills required to cope with Info-Glut and Info-Tactics. To a large extent, the value of cyberspace resides in the minds of the voyagers.

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