Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Tangents and Divergent Thinking

Late in J.D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield meets up with his favorite teacher, "old Mr. Antolini." Holden has just flunked out of school, again, and Mr. Antolini starts to question him about why that is happening. Revealingly, Holden starts to tell a story about his "Oral Expression" class
"where each boy in class has to get up in class and make a speech. You know. Spontaneous and all. And if the boy digresses at all, you're supposed to yell 'Digression!' at him as fast as you can. It just about drive me crazy. I got an F in it... That digression business got on my nerves. I don't know. The trouble with me is, I like it when somebody digresses. It's more interesting and all."
Holden tries to explain to Mr. Antolini that his teacher, Mr. Vinson,
would keep telling you to unify and simplify all the time. Some things you just can't do that to. I mean you can't hardly ever simplify and unify something just because somebody wants you to. You don't know this guy, Mr. Vinson. I mean he was very intelligent and all, but you could tell he didn't have too much brains.
At the same time that I was first teaching Catcher, I was team-teaching a course with two friends, Ted and Rick, called "Utopias." (I usually took this opportunity to work on designing what I thought would be a Utopian school, called, of course, "Noplace.") But after constructing this wonderful syllabus with great readings that needed to be un-packed and discussed and synthesized we found that our classes started to run amuck. The problem was that there were too many ideas being put forth, and too much chaos resulted. We weren't covering all the material we were supposed to cover. So, we invented a structure I still use to this day, "The Tangent Board." The tangent board was where ideas that were not exactly on topic went to reside.

Tangents are woefully misunderstood in our culture, and there are solid cultural reasons for this. Free associate tangent in your mind for a second. What did you come up with? Probably not what is drawn here--unless you teach mathematics.

What you might have thought would have been closer to what the dictionary uses, "divergent or digressive, as from a subject under consideration" or "tending to digress or to reply to questions obliquely." I worry that when I start covering material that I am actually being a bit like Mr. Vinson--I mean I am intelligent and all, but I don't have too many brains. The "tangent board" helps because it allows for lots of "divergent thinking." I worry that I am too biased toward convergent thinking, and that I force my students to get to some solutions that are "on point." But if you look at a tangent like the on above it isn't really off topic, it is lightly touching it and connecting it to some other point that we can't see. The challenge seems to me to be how to combine convergent and divergent thinking into one process. How do you think that might be done? How do you do it in your classrooms or in your life? I think we are well-equipped to teach techniques of convergence, I want to open up this space up to look for techniques of divergence. What do you think?

I will offer one idea that might lead to some others--metaphor. The root of the word, "to transfer," gives a clue as to why it is so important for experience-based learning. Metaphors are used when we are confronted with unknown and we have to relate it to something that we do know. It is a form of connection and synthesis. Anytime I am transferring something from one domain to another, I know I am in the presence of a powerful learning technique. This is why I think the "tangent board" came from that interdisciplinary class with multiple teachers. We built a structure that was all about connection as much as it was about analysis. All three of us were trained to be convergent thinkers in our disciplines, but together we started transferring ideas and techniques so fast that we would often hit what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would call "flow."

How could I incorporate "metaphor" in a more formal way into my life? The next course I taught after Utopias was team-taught with an artist, Hodo, called "Metaphors We Live By" which used George Lakoff's book by the same name as a jumping off point for trying to name those metaphors for ourselves. That was a start, but it isolated the idea; I want to try to figure out how to incorporate metaphor and other forms of transfer as an integral part of what we think of as thinking and learning.

One final thought that gives me a fair amount of hope is that these kinds of issues are starting to make the mainstream press. One of the main stories in Newsweek while I was in Israel was about the "Crisis in Creativity." As you read this article ( I really recommend it), notice what they are saying about divergent and convergent thinking--gives one hope that we might, as Holden says, "have some brains as well as being intelligent."

1 comment:

  1. Michael Soguero, the director of Eagle Rock School's Professional Development Center, and found of an NYC public school, The Bronx Guild, is a huge advocate of project-based learning.

    His initial vision of Eagle Rock School (he was a founding faculty member) was to simply have a major project that the whole "class" (used more like cohort that came in that year) would work on.

    The faculty designed their curriculum based around the project of building a playground - because surely this would hit on a number of issues that needed to be integrated, and it also tapped into that child-like brain which is so creative. I mean, just ask any grown adult to design a playground of their dreams, and I am sure you could get a good insight into how creative they are. Then throw in actually building it, and you have got a lot of other skills that come into play.

    The natural consequence of project-based learning is that you have to have a good project in mind, and it there is no escaping the huge amount of resources you need to have at hand if you are actually making something. But I would safely assume you see the Neighborhood study as one of those kinds of projects that gets at divergent and convergent thinking all in one.

    And, for good ole nostalgia, I loved remembering the tangent board. I hadn't thought about that in years. I think I dominated that thing in my day.