By Wendy Trevor, PhD
Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning and Assessment (CETLA)
Office of Student and Faculty Services
Last term we considered how we might individualize our approach to teaching and how this might impact student engagement and retention. This term we explore the idea of promoting “outside of the box” thinking.
Intuitively, we know what is meant by “thinking outside of the box”; it has become a cliché for creativity in problem-solving. In the online learning environment it takes shape when we generate questions that expand a learner’s view beyond the bounds imposed by conventional wisdom or thinking so that novel ways to consider and apply course content may flourish. Fostering this “practice” in the online classroom can have long-term positive professional and personal implications for our learners.
This is a collaborative process between instructor and learner. It requires attentive and engaged instructors willing to challenge learners’ preconceived notions, ideas and even long-held beliefs about the world. It also necessitates learner willingness, which can be the greatest stumbling block to true learning and moving outside of that comfortable “box” of entrenched beliefs. We know however, that the rewards can be truly “transformative.”
While in some ways this may seem a difficult proposition, especially with respect to adult learners who Knowles (in McGrath, 2009, p. 101) has noted use life experiences to further their learning, it can also prove very successful given their desire for understanding the relevance and applicability of their learning.
To encourage this, at the start of a course it can be helpful to let learners know why expanding views that may be distorted or limiting is an important part of the learning process. Perhaps reminding them of social (and even technological changes) that have arisen because individuals dared to dream and “think big,” challenging societal norms and conventions. Ask learners to bring open-minds and a willingness to examine the limitations of their current and initial views and explain the value to be had in engaging with diverse opinions. I let my learners know that I see our work together as embarking on a journey in which each traveler is willing to have their viewpoints interrogated rather than their beliefs reinforced. I also acknowledge that it can be uncomfortable at first, but that the rewards are worth it!
I try to model what online exchanges look like that do this well, adhering to the rules of netiquette and collegial inquiry. This requires active facilitation in discussions, identifying opportunities to bring two or more learners with divergent views into conversation with one another. It also requires some finesse, because we don’t want to promote unhealthy debate or rivalries by siding with one learner’s point of view over another, but rather, foster intrinsic value in the process of exchange and contemplation. As Fleith (2000) proposed “in a climate in which fear, one right answer, little acceptance for a variety of students products, extreme levels of competition, and many extrinsic rewards are predominant, it is difficult to foster high levels of creativity” (in Nyarko et al, 2013, p. 67). So we need to monitor closely how these exchanges are working and be ready to intervene, redirect or remind when necessary.
Through our comments in the discussion during the week and feedback when grading we can encourage reflection and further thinking. I like to suggest alternatives to learners by affirming I have listened to their point of view first and then offering other possibilities: “Okay, so you’re saying x, now, is it also possible that y also has some relevance here?” Listening to what students are not saying—reading between the lines—and asking for clarity to help them tease out the nuances whilst provoking gently and supportively allows for a safe place for learners to test and explore alternative points of view. If successful, our learners will come to see the value in a range of opinions and creative approaches.
What is so wonderful about working with adult learners is the fact that they bring so much of their life and work experiences with them to their study. Building upon this, higher education offers an opportunity to help them consider the way they interpret existing and new experiences and information, and posits a more wide-ranging approach.
In “Perspective Transformation” Jack Mezirow (in Cranton, 2014, p. 3) described the idea of ‘transformation of perspective’ and the ten phases of the process:
- Experiencing a disorienting dilemma
- Undergoing self-examination
- Conducting a critical assessment of internalized assumptions and feeling a sense of alienation from traditional social expectations
- Relating discontent to the similar experiences of others–recognizing that the problem is shared
- Exploring options for new ways of acting
- Building competence and self–confidence in new roles
- Planning a course of action
- Acquiring the knowledge and skills for implementing a new course of action
- Trying out new roles and assessing them
- Reintegrating into society with the other perspective
With this in mind, we can see how encouraging and supporting unbridled, respectful and creative thought can have positive consequences for an individual, and serve as a take-away for our learners—for life.
Please share your tips for helping learners broaden their perspectives. I will gather them and post in CETLA so that all of our teaching colleagues may benefit. Thank you.
Kroth, M. S., & Cranton, P. (2014). Stories of Transformative Learning. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers
McGrath, V. 2009. Reviewing the evidence on how adult students learn: an examination of Knowles’ model of andragogy. The Irish Journal of Adult and Community Education, 99-110.
Nyarko, K et al. (2013). Teachers’ promotion of creativity in basic schools. American Journal of Social and Management Sciences, 4(2), 63-70.
Image Credit: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Blend / Learning Pictures / Universal Images Group