Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Quest(ion)ing Disposition

In Steve Denning’s recent blog post, “Learning To Ask The Right Question,” he profiles both our recent book A New Culture of Learning and Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana’s new book Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions.

It is refreshing to see some of the core principles we outlined in NCL starting to catch on and be put into a framework that can easily be adopted for classroom use.  Something we saw early on was the power of questing in games like World of Warcraft to engage players in all kinds of imaginative and innovative techniques to discover, uncover, and engage with the world around them.  We called this the “questing disposition.”

How we build that concept, seemingly inherent in the gamer mentality, into workplaces, classrooms, and arc of life learning became the central theme of our book.

Rothstein and Santana’s book highlights one of our central ideas:  In a rapidly changing world, being able to ask the right questions is far more important than knowing answers.  Answers become obsolete with increasing speed in today’s culture.  But questions, especially when answered, lead us to better and more sophisticated questions, something which never loses value or becomes obsolete.

Over the past year, I have started putting some of the ideas we outlined in NCL into practice in my own classrooms.  The results have been startling to me.

Of my most important discoveries was how powerful it was to let students loose asking their own questions.  In my recent class on science fiction and visions of technology we had just read Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and I found myself with a problem.  I had been quizzing my students weekly to make sure they had been doing the readings and understanding the key points as they related to the class.

In this case however, I was stymied.  How was I going to come up with the right question to see if my students understood Dick’s point?  How would I boil down the essence the novel to a set of quiz questions?

As it turns out, I didn’t need to.  I engaged in an activity I have come to call “flipping the quiz.”  Instead of asking them for answers, I asked them for a question.  The quiz read as follows:

“If you wanted to see if someone understood the essence of this novel, what one question would you ask them?”

20 minutes later, I found myself playing referee among my students.  They each had very strong and forceful opinions about what was the best question.  And for the next two hours and twenty minutes, they argued and debated what the right question or questions were.  Some people ceded ground.  Others came to new understandings of the novel.  Some wound up agreeing to disagree.  But in the end, they all walked away with not only a deeper understanding of the text; they now had a personal investment in what it meant and how it related to their lives.

In that exercise, I found the freedom to let my students have a voice in what mattered to them.  I let go of some of my own presumptions about what “teaching” was (e.g. giving answers) and began understanding what “learning” was (finding the right questions).

At the end of the course, they asked to be allowed to write their own assignment for the course’s final project.  And while it did include some silliness (e.g. 10% of their grade was to be determined by the food they brought to their presentation), the other 90% spoke to the ability to connect the course material to their passions.

The students produced everything from high quality term papers to youtube videos to a script for a 3 act play that one of the student’s (a theater major) hoped to produce as part of her senior thesis.

What I saw and what I learned to trust about my students is that if you allow them to find their passions and to follow what matters most, they will rise to occasion and do much better work than if you follow the old strictures and precepts of traditional teaching.  I might even say that as a teacher I embraced by own questioning disposition.

What I am most proud of in my own teaching is that I got my students to connect their passions to learning and engage their imaginations to produce work that was far better than they could have otherwise.  Questions can do that.  Answers can’t.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Playing with Reality

Today's class was on the role of play and imagination.  Using Jane McGonigal's work on I Love Bees and A World Without Oil, the class worked in small groups to create their own ARG-inspired blogs.

These are the ideas they came up with:

Thursday, April 7, 2011


Today's class is on the film GATTACA, a sci-fi film about genetic manipulation and social and cultural inequality that results from genetics.  It has a very Francis Galton feel to it in my mind, a kind of cautionary tale against social darwinism.  My standard approach is to show the film and discuss it in relation to class readings (or as an illustration of them).  Today I am going to try a different tack.  Instead of discussing the film, I am going to have the students re-imagine the world of GATTACA and in doing so, they will be allowed to change 3 things about how the fictional world works.  Based on those changes in assumptions, they will re-write the ending to the film and describe how they see our potential future unfolding.

Here is the assignment as written:

A mysterious man appears before you and hands you a copy of the movie GATTACA and tells you that this is not a fictional film, but that he is a time traveler and it is a documentary from the future.  He tells you that a small band of renegade In Valids from the future have determined that the future of humankind can be changed by you and you alone.
In order to succeed you must take a page from Asimov’s book, but instead of the Three Laws of Robotics, you must write the Three Laws of Genetics.
What will they be and how will they prevent the kind of world that is the setting for GATTACA?

Friday, April 1, 2011

AIL Talk Today

Talking today (w/JSB) at the Annenberg Innovation Lab conference. We will be in conversation with our friend and colleague Anne Balsamo. Details, links, and possibly video to follow.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

From a colleague

So much of what we put in A New Culture of Learning turns out to be really easy to apply in the classroom.  It is just a matter of rethinking the space and putting a lot of already available resources to use.

I was thrilled to get a note from a colleague who had done just that:
Hi Doug- just wanted to say how much I love your new book- I read it in a single inspired sitting and immediately re-imagined my lecture that day - instead of mostly my material, I made the lecture into a collage of comments from the students weekly blog posts that turned the auditorium into one big discussion-- it energized the room and was best class we've had all semester.  so thanks
Feels good to know that this stuff works!

Final Project

Last week my students in COMM 339 made me an offer I couldn't resist.  They asked if they could write the "paper prompt" for their final class assignment.  I not only encouraged them to do so, I reserved the last half of class time today to allow them to work in small groups and then as a class to write their assignment.  One of the students then asked (in jest) if they could write the grading rubric as well.  I stunned them by saying yes.

The class is "Communication Technology and Culture" and has focused on the intersection of imagination and technology both through innovation and cultural visions of technology in science fiction.

The students designed a final assignment for the class that was based on many of the principles I had been talking about throughout the semester and provides them with a few options:  one is to "build your own world" another is to "invent and market a piece of fictional technology" and a third is to construct a vision of what the world looks like absent a piece of technology in widespread use today.

The place they struggled with the most was grading.  Even though they had asked to do it, they found it exceedingly difficult to create standards for evaluation that they all could agree on.  The one exception being that bringing food to their final presentation should merit some reward or extra credit.

The papers they wrote from their midterms on principles of remediation in the Frankenstein story were first rate and quite ambitious both in execution and imagination, so I am really looking forward to what they come up with.

I finally settled on the following standard for grading their projects:  I will evaluate them based on how well I feel their project truly captures their passion for the subject and relates it to the course material.

Where imaginations play, learning happens

At the encouragement of others, I am endeavoring to write a blog.  The goal is to try to capture, over time, the implementation of many of the idea from my new book (co-written with John Seely Brown) titled A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change in my classrooms and with my students at the college and graduate levels.  I hope to chronicle both the successes and some of the challenges faced by bringing these ideas of inquiry, collectives, play, embracing change, and indwelling to bear on issue that arise on the college classroom.

The blog title is drawn for the last line of our book, which we believe summarizes our philosophy learning:  "Where imaginations play, learning happens"