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Learning, Stagnation, and the Power of the Unexpected, OR How to Use Rocks in Your Literature Class

June 20, 2012

A Teaching Moment:

In about my second year as a college instructor, I had a revelation.  I was teaching “composition and literature,” a survey course designed to help students learn analytical skills while acquiring an overview of (mostly American) literature.  As you might guess, this is a required course, a filler of a particular line on the degree audit.  And as in any required freshman course, I would have to sell some basic ideas long before we could get to writing about the “meanings” of the texts.

In fact, the first job was to convince the students that there were meanings in the texts at all.  Why does a summary not capture everything that’s “happening” in the story?  Why can’t we just read it and take a quiz?  What I came to realize from listening to students’ complaints was that they believed that there were some subjects that were factual, that made sense, that were completely described by their surfaces, like science — and there were others that looked for stuff that wasn’t there.  Like literature.  So my job changed: I didn’t have to help them figure out which meanings were in the text, but to convince them that there were meanings there at all.

So on the third day of class, I brought a large quartz rock into the classroom and plunked it down on the desk.  “Okay,” I said to them, “what can we learn by looking at this rock?”  I got the basic answers: it’s white, it’s about the size of a football, etc.  By then I was getting very odd looks.  They thought I was crazy.

But then I asked them, “Right, then, that’s what we see.  What does a geologist see in the rock?”  I drew the rock on the board and began listing their answers with arrows to the rock.  And a wonderful thing happened: they stopped grinning in disbelief at one another and started getting excited.  Wait a minute, they were thinking: there’s more there than meets the eye.  Score.

They thought of a lot of great answers.  Geologists might see the age of the rock, they might know what animals lived at a particular time in history, they might see evidence of climate, they might know the chemical and physical make-up.  Then I threw them another curve: what might an artist see?  (A medium, a subject, a color.)  And another: what might a CEO see?  (A profitable product to be made, a paperweight, a logo.)  The answers didn’t have to be right, just interesting.

Finally, we swerved back to literature.  Now they got it: people who are experts in a particular area, who have a particular point of view, a particular training, see things others don’t in what appear to be simple, mundane objects.  Now they turned to the literature like sleuths, like geologists, like artists.  This was the power of disrupting their normal thinking patterns, introducing something strange and then making links between strangeness, oddity, newness and the thing they thought they understood so well they were bored by it.

I only later learned that listing new ways of seeing something and making unusual connections are two of the elements of the most respected “creativity intelligence test,” the Guilford test (see a description and list of questions here).  All I knew at the time was that before my students would understand the value of, for example, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” they would need to believe that there is more to the world than the surface, that it is the job of a valuable expert in any field to see that depth.  They would need to be more creative with their eyes, their ears, their senses.

Takeaway for Managers:

There are really three lessons here for managers, all of which I had to learn in order to get to the “what do we see in the rock” activity.

The first was to listen carefully to complaints.  Obviously, all managers listen to their people, but what I learned from my students was that complaints, specifically, should be telling a teacher or manager not what is wrong with the lives, jobs, or work of the students or employees, but what is wrong, structurally, with the situation.  The problem in my class was not that my students didn’t care (as I was more than once assured was the problem by other professors), but that they didn’t know how to see.  They were telling me that; I just needed to listen.

The second lesson is to at least occasionally do something unexpected, something that apparently has nothing to do with the work you are all doing together.  Then make your people find out the connections.  Their creativity and enthusiasm will leap the restraining walls built by habit, and you’ll get a lot of new ideas.

Finally, the third lesson is to elicit, not explain.  I’ll be posting more about this in the future, but it’s a key element of good teaching because it is not about teaching–it’s about learning.  That’s the shift in thinking to be made when you move toward teaching-inspired management: it’s not about you and your teaching skills or your brilliant lecture or explanation or presentation.  It’s about them and their learning.  So give them something and let them learn about it through their own eyes and ears and imaginations (alone, in groups, in the meeting or before, it doesn’t matter).  Then guide them to the lesson you want them to get.

In every obvious or apparent sense of the words, a rock is a strange and inappropriate prop for a literature class–and this is what makes it valuable.  Find your rock. 

  1. Prof2161 permalink

    A very interesting topic, thank you. I had never quite imagined the similarities between teaching/managing quite like this. I was especially interested in your approach to listening. It seems so basic: the students/employees offer criticisms or complaints, and the teacher/manager translates those into what is actually being said (i.e. we don’t see what you see/understand how you understand). As a teacher myself, I face this quite often, but I know that I struggle to differentiate between the complaints of “path of least resistance” students, and legitimate breakdowns between teacher and student. It is especially difficult to make this distinction when in the classroom, in the middle of a lessons plan, and facing push back. What suggestions might you have for this dilemma?

    • Hmmm. That’s an interesting question. Complaints are a sticky subject because they’re used for so many purposes: for bonding (complaining without really meaning much, just saying “hey, I get you”), to avoid work (as you mentioned), and to voice legitimate issues that may well go beyond the individual. After many years of hand-wringing over this on my own part, I finally had a realization that has shifted the focus for me. The realization, which is kind of obvious but nonetheless perspective-changing, was that there was nothing I could do about the complainers who were wasting my time, that the only possible action I could take was to change my OWN actions. I can’t change them. I can only change what I do. So for example, when a student asks what seems like a pointless question, or a way to waste a few minutes, or a sign that they weren’t listening, I might say, “Okay, tell you what. Everybody get out a piece of paper and write down a question you have about this assignment.” That way, I can find out whether everyone except the one complainer gets it (in which case I can help that person after class), or whether there’s some larger set of questions I haven’t answered. Anonymity in asking questions–on a piece of paper without a name, for example–can let students ask what they think are “dumb” questions and lets you in on what you’re not saying clearly. That’s as far as I’ve gotten with this one! I’d love to hear your (or anyone else’s) experiences on this question.

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