Dr. Pat Hoy
Dr. Hoy showed that thinking well is a universal skill that applies across disciplines, but added a perspective and structure that could lead to liberating students’ intelligence in our classes in line with Dr. Bowen’s arguments. First, he suggested that we must teach as if students matter. Second, we must ask students to be thoughtful rather than declarative by teaching them to stop and think first and then write about their ideas. To illustrate this, he asked the audience at his presentation to read a page and a half of text written by George Steiner about how to read text. First he asked each member of the audience to identify what s/he thought was the most meaningful sentence to him or her and underline it. He then asked several members of the audience to read the sentence they underlined. Then he asked each person to identify the sentence s/he believed was most important to the writer. Again, he asked several members of the audience to read that sentence aloud. Finally, he asked all to identify the sentence in the text that most accurately captured the meaning of the entire piece, and again asked some of the members to read the sentence aloud. No one read the same sentence twice in any of the three contexts.
Dr. Hoy made the point that we all filter text through our “ego eye,” our personal experiences and history leading to individual differences in interpretation, and that in the piece we read there was no single declarative sentence that explained its meaning. Nonetheless, there was a sense of meaning “hanging in the room” for all to be identified by being inferentially astute and capturing the sense of mystery floating up from the piece. The audience members (or students in a class) captured this sense of meaning and mystery about the reading in uniquely individual ways.
From a metacognitive point of view, Dr. Hoy suggested that creative and productive thinking follows an inductive process observed through different “eyes.” Most typically we observe facts through our “ego eye,” the perspective colored by our past experiences. The “ego eye” may not serve us well though, because it is likely to dismiss important facts and observations as irrelevant when they are not, as it is colored by our past experiences. Rather, he suggested, we should open our “slumbering eye” (call it anima, soul, imagination, subconscious perception or revelation) and dare to take risks by viewing evidence from this different perspective, thus increasing the probability of conceiving new ideas.
When observing with the “slumbering eye” conclusions can never be certain, because of the interplay of intuition, analysis, imagination, induction, and dialectical thinking. It allows us to converse with images and carry on subconscious sensing of something significant without knowing yet what that is. As the process continues and gains strength with additional information and thought, at some point ideas gain levels of consciousness that can be expressed in words.
Dr. Hoy starts this discovery process by asking students to deeply examine minute particulars (facts, evidence) and start writing about them in a first person story-telling format to have them thinking within and about this universe of details. Through personal story telling he encourages students to become careful readers and the careful reader, regardless of discipline or the type of text, engages in the complex business of dialoging with complex text, as opposed to cursory examinations often conducted by students. Careful readers understand that conceiving an idea is not a simple process, but an arduous energy-intensive personal effort dependent on commitment.
In the dialog with the text through our “slumbering eye” we conceive of fuzzy ideas that “float up” from the reading; emanate from between the lines. These fuzzy ideas then require translation and substantiation before we can produce a thoughtfully written product, whatever that product may be. The first step in learning the creative process therefore is for students to realize that they need to first collect evidence. The evidence that is gathered then must be carefully observed, followed by inductive reasoning and inferences from which ill-formed, fuzzy ideas arise that consolidate and lead to a thoughtful product.
This process, while admittedly risky because it may be outside accepted norm and the mainstream, can take us in new directions as it liberates the creative mind. Dr. Hoy suggested allowing students to tell stories about the “evidence” they read, saw, or heard, because story telling is what humans are born to do. He suggested asking students to write a personal story about a paper they read rather than a declarative summary of the facts, because it may help them open their “slumbering eye.” There are other options such as letting them write a letter to the author, the smartest person they know or even a fellow student to explain their thoughts about the reading. This exercise allows the student to express even fuzzy ideas they are not certain about, but writing in this context motivates them to move to clarity of thought. This can be done in any discipline on any topic. The story or letter then becomes the source of discussions with peers in the classroom that can lead to further insights and clarity.
Dr. Hoy also illustrated the process using a short film clip. The images shown in the film were treated as the “facts” or “evidence.” By asking the audience members what details they observed in the film he made them become more aware. Having generated a list of factual observations they could point to, allowed them to create an inventory of events they had seen. This inventory enabled them to move to inferences and create ideas and concepts not directly observable in the film. A prompt to help students do the same with a video clip could be “I observed that….., therefore …..”.
This list of observations (facts) also served to reduce the impact of the “ego eye” to some extent, because objective observations are not filtered through previous experiences. They are seen by all observers and can be verified with little disagreement. This objective observation exercise prevents the “ego eye” from relegating irrelevant everything that does not confirm previous experiences, and closing the mind to seeing new perspectives with the “slumbering eye.” According to Dr. Hoy, the greatest gift teachers can give students is helping them see with their “slumbering eye,” because that is how innovative and creative ideas arise. It works by liberating language not formerly known and seeing landscapes of the mind not formerly experienced. Allowing students to proceed with this exploration is challenging, because the process may lead them to places others may not agree with or perceive as conceptual mine fields not in keeping with the norms of the discipline. If students are encouraged to explore these uncharted paths, they need to be given the freedom to do so within the boundaries of the course but without stifling innovation and creativity.
Dr. Hoy commented that these various exercises (e.g. watching images without teacher commentary, writing letters to smartest person, telling a story about observations) during the early stages of the process provide the freedom students need to observe with their “slumbering eye” and unleash their innate creativity of thought. Students need to learn how to think creatively and not simply write declarative statements that often are copies of what already has been written. Rather than having students “complete the forms” that exist in every discipline and stifle innovative thinking, allow them to spend time in this creative space. He reemphasized that we cannot know if students can write clearly unless we allow them to write stories they care about in a personal narrative about passages they read, images they saw, reports they heard. The selected source material ensures they write within the constraints of the course.
Dr. Hoy emphasized that “nothing comes from nothing.” Asking students to regurgitate existing information does not lead to creativity and innovation; habitual thinking blocks the development of the mind. To prevent habitual or reproductive thinking, students must write in the first person using “familiar essays” that are close to their heart. In these essays they should be allowed to use relevant experiences of any kind in a self-organized sequence that is meaningful to them and provides evidence for new ideas. The process of conception serves to make sense of an idea. This process is unique to each and every student. When teachers seek conformity with personal perceptions they will receive the same product from all students and little creative and innovative thinking. Consequently, teachers’ filters, their “ego eyes,” may constrain students’ creative capabilities and innovative thoughts. Asking students to write about “fuzzy ideas” within the constraints of the class will help them gain clarity and allows to teacher to determine whether they thoroughly understand important concepts.
Students’ thought processes are guided by the facts observed and because of that do occur within the context of the assignment before them, but the aim is to help them realize that they can think independently rather than be limited to regurgitate existing material. Unleashing students’ creativity is not for creativity’s sake: it serves to expand the mind. Dr. Hoy emphasized that this is by no means an easy process and it requires massive work. Examples of previous writings produced by students can be very helpful in illustrating final outcomes that need to be achieved in a particular class. Thoughtfully creating a collection of examples that represent work by students at the beginning of the semester and at the end helps design the progressions and exercises students need to complete to successfully navigate the challenges associated with creative thinking and writing clearly. Simply requiring that students write a paper on a topic will not help them learn to think and write clearly in any discipline. Providing examples of work by other students may help them realize that their work must achieve higher levels of thought, creativity, and innovation than is commonly expected.
The pedagogical strategy to help student reach higher can be relatively simple:
- Students engage with several sources of information such as papers or sections of relevant text, observed images or film, podcast or video segments, lab demonstrations, etc. This is the pertinent evidence (content) selected by the teacher and the fundamental elements that set the context for the exercise.
- They write a personal story about each objective element the read, saw or listened to, drawing out the ideas that form in their minds. Again, each piece of evidence should be carefully selected to draw out students’ thoughts through their writing.
- Then they combine their writings into a synthesized version of the ideas that flowed forth from the various sources they examined and wrote about.
- Following the individual process, time must be allocated in class so students can read each other’s work and do something with it. For example, the readers could be asked to identify in the writing:
- What they believe is the most important sentence in the writing.
- What they believe the author thinks is the most important sentence.
- Which sentence best captures the essential meaning of the writing.
- Finally, they engage in discussions with their peers and the teacher about their ideas. Great things can happen at this stage because of the serious preparatory work.
These are thinking exercises that serve to make the fuzzy ideas that emanate from the evidence more concrete. The teacher can guide the process by carefully selecting and ordering the presentation of the evidence. As such, all the evidence constitutes an intellectual inductive puzzle that each student is allowed to solve through their own eyes within the context of the course and the constraints of the assignment.
Finally, students should be asked to collect all their work in a learning portfolio that documents their process and the products of their work. The learning portfolio becomes a vehicle for metacognitive reflection that allows students to analyze their learning process and gain greater insight into the workings of their mind. The learning portfolio will also help the teacher examine the learning process to gain a better understanding of how students develop their thinking. Analyses of the learning portfolio can then be used to revise the course.
Director, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning