Monday, November 04, 2013

Encouraging the mind to putter

If Maleska were still alive I might buy the printed version of the New York Times.  When I used to buy the paper version it was my habit to do the crossword puzzle.  There was a certain thrill from working it and a satisfaction from completing it, even if the main reason was to take a break from doing real work.

Having written that first sentence I found myself curious about whether I now have access to the Times crossword online, since I have a paid subscription to the online newspaper.  Checking it out, it appears that there are a couple of Classic Crossword Puzzles that are freely available, but the daily one requires an additional subscription.

My habit in gathering information of this sort is to continue on the sojourn, even if means losing the trend of thought in the writing, until I have reached a kind of conclusion.  So I do one of the classic puzzles and I find that after a fashion I can complete it, though the puzzle was created by Will Shortz, not Maleska.  At the beginning while doing it, I'm negatively disposed to its design.  Too many of the clues seemed to simply require knowledge of trivia.  They don't ask you to be clever.  Then a funny thing started to happen.  There were many clues that I couldn't make heads or tails of.  But after a couple letters of a word got filled in that started to change.  The clue made sense and I could fill in the rest of the letters.  I got the first theme expression that way.  Then much of the rest of the puzzle became an iterative process where for a few clues I'd know the answer right off the bat but for the rest the answer became apparent only as some letters got filled in first.  Then it occurred to me that this was the same sort of feeling I had when doing a Maleska puzzle.  I suppose that is why it's a classic.

I then asked myself whether learning to do the Times crossword produced some larger life lesson, in addition to the obvious entertainment while doing.  I'm not going to answer that question just yet.  But I will observe here that the Times Crossword is a kind of mental puttering.  You get better at doing it with practice.  There may be an addictive aspect that is not altogether healthful.  On the positive side, there is a figuring it out as a you go rather than knowing it all ahead of time.

* * * * *

For the last three years or so as I've done some teaching part time, the big meta question that I have yet to be able to answer is about habits of mind in the students I teach.  My mental habits are reasonably productive.  I produce a fairly large volume of tolerable quality writing, mainly for the hell of it.  Can I get my students to develop similar habits in their own thinking, even if their thinking doesn't manifest in writing?   Much of what I do in the pre-write phase is to putter around with ideas I'm exposed to.  And with technology as it is now, more  pre-writing can happen in the midst of composing a piece at the keyboard.  Can I get my students to likewise engage themselves in thoughtful puttering around?

The jury is still out on this one.  But I want to note first that students tend to procrastinate on assigned course work.  Procrastination and puttering are like oil and water.  My simple model of procrastination is that we all do it, mainly when we have obligations that we don't like to do.  I procrastinate plenty.  But I also putter plenty.  Puttering with ideas is fun for me.

So the real question is: could students find puttering with ideas a pleasurable thing to do, if they gave it half a chance?

Some years ago I wrote a post: How do students play at their schoolwork?  The operative segment in that piece is quoted below.  

To get a better feel why, consider the following problem.

A father and his young son are at a beach that abuts the ocean. They are staring out at the water and see several large vessels, some near to shore, others further out. After a fashion the son asks the dad, “Looking straight out there on the horizon in any direction, how far is it to the point where the ocean touches the sky?” The father responds, “You know, I’m taller than you, just about twice your height. So I see a different point on the horizon than you do where the ocean and sky touch, even if we follow the exact same line. In fact I probably see out twice as far as you.”

Is the father right? And in either case just how far is it to that particular point on the horizon?

I’m not going to answer that one. Instead, let me say there are those type of people (I’m one of them) who find the challenge of this sort of problem fun, as is using the appropriate math to solve the problem. And there are other people who would find spending time on something like this more painful than going to the dentist. Among the engineering students, there are many of the first type of person. Among the business students, there are mostly the second type. The problem itself has absolutely nothing to do with economics, but identifying types this way would go very far in predicting whether the individual valued and felt they learned anything from my intermediate microeconomics course.

My conjecture is that if one sorted types this way then lecture on a “math oriented” course such as intermediate microeconomics would be a fine way to teach, presuming there are only the engineering types in the class. This is pretty much for the reasons Barbara identified. They are self-directed in the learning. They do play with the material and make it for their own in that fashion. And the lecture for them serves as new stimuli, a source of yet other problems that they haven’t yet considered but are eager to solve.

In that piece I referred to the mental activity as play with the material.  Others might call it creativity.  Still others might call it taking an inquiry-based approach.  In this piece I've abandoned the word play in favor of the word putter.  Here's why. 

As part of our common cultural heritage, everybody needs to know the pony joke.  Most of the students I see are pessimists about their own learning.  The don't feel competent to self-direct their learning in areas where they first get exposure from their professors.  They memorize instead.  This puts school outside of what these students consider fun.  School is work, not play.  These students are frightened about the possibility of abandoning their tried and true approach and would not enjoy it if they were forced into doing so.

Puttering is a less threatening concept.  It doesn't have to be fun.  Nor does it have to ultimately be productive.  For the lucky ones who give it a try, it will turn out to be a both.

* * * * *

One reason I have students blog is that it gives them a place where they can putter if they so choose.  Some do.  Others are much more perfunctory in making their posts.  Still others are diligent but very straightforward.  They tend not to try things that are out of the box.

Tomorrow in class we are going to discuss Bolman and Deal Chapter 7 on how to encourage employees to be more productive, taking a human resources perspective, and Chapter 13 on essentially the same question, but from a symbolic perspective where the focus is to elevate the human spirit.  With the latter, the play-work distinction becomes blurred, if it doesn't disappear altogether.

My plan is to get at this indirectly by first asking the students what they enjoy doing outside of class.  (In earlier discussions one student said she enjoyed cooking, another said he enjoyed going to avant-garde movies.  So I will try to extend the list of examples.)  I will then ask them both about whether there is learning by doing in things they enjoy and if those things demand a lot of concentration on their part.   Then I will ask whether school could be designed so that it is enjoyable in this sense.  And I will ask whether that is how school is for them now.  This should get them ready to talk about Bolman and Deal.

* * * * *

Let me return to crossword puzzles, but also consider playing chess and playing bridge.  Then add to that pleasure reading.  These are all activities that can stretch the mind and as such are both work and play, even if at the level I did them it was more play than work. Each teaches the participant to make connections of a sort and to figure out what is going on.  There is something of a mystery.  Solve it!  That becomes the imperative.

I don't know if kids today have other games that perform an equivalent function.  I stopped playing video games so long ago that I can't say whether the current genre does much in this dimension or not.  My sense is that most students are not stimulated today in a similar way as I was when I learned to love Maleska.

Here is one final thought on puttering.  Students are taught that there are right answers to questions.  They might learn, instead, that there are tentative conclusions that can be sharpened by getting a deeper understanding of the issues.  But they can't reach that point unless they putter and thereby discover for themselves that the tentative conclusion is inadequate in some cases. 

In the meantime I suppose I'll continue to putter with my teaching approach and my students will continue to be mildly dismayed that the world of school in which they live and the world in which I'm asking them to enter barely overlap. 

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