Friday, September 13, 2013

Inviting metacognition through the back door

For my first lab of the year I threw my students a bit of a curve ball,  asking them to look below the surface of complex images, asking them to articulate less than obvious connections between art and science, and asking them to write and re-abstract their ideas by condensing sentences into short phrases and finally, a single word. 

What does this have to do with science? I wondered myself when I discussed my lesson plan with my rhetoric colleagues. Turns out they had done similar exercises with their students. Should I be teaching rhetoric instead of science?

My goal for this lab was to prepare student for the upcoming struggle with science ideas. Something that will unfold in the next few weeks as we tackle more complex and abstract ideas. I hope that this (and upcoming) labs will provide practice for taking on abstract and seemingly unrelated concepts. I hope that as students study for exams they will find themselves re-abstracting ideas from their careful notes, articulating the central ideas of the course. 

As students worked on their phones and laptops, independently and in groups, I took a few notes on their behaviors. Here's what I observed:

Problem solving

I think students have used technology intensively in other classes, though perhaps not as intensively as they did this week. There was sustained work with their devices over the two hours of lab. Minor technological problems were resolved through group work as students helped one another navigate.

Thinking about complexity, making unexpected connections, articulating, simplifying, and abstracting. Using precision language through tweets and other exercises, struggling with ideas and processes, working solo and together, these exercises were designed to invite metacognition in through the back door. 


  1. I had flashbacks to our class where Mike commented on the irony of us all sitting in a room together yet communicating via our phones and laptops. I think one of the edges to that particular exercise is that it can allow everyone to have an equal voice and turn if they so choose.

    When you add Twitter's character limit to the mix you force the writer to make choices and edit their comments. This can be both challenging and liberating. I don't mind the challenge and I like going through what I've written to see if I was able to relay what I really meant. Analyzing it and inevitably editing it help me hone in on what I think/ feel.

  2. Jen, I completely agree with you about the Twitter character limit struggle/blessing. I really labored with this format at the beginning of class - and not technologically. It seemed completely impossible to convey some of the complex ideas we were discussing in 140 characters. My first tweet in response to an article took me 20 minutes to write. Seriously. I kept running out of space, and having to edit, and then in the process of editing, I found myself tweaking what I wanted to say, and editing again... and again...

    After going through that process a few times, I realized that this must be an intentional device to get us to do just that. It takes discipline, intention, and clarity to distill your thoughts and it is so important. Rambling on, as I am prone to do (and am kind of doing here!) might help you circle around a central concept, but the more noise there is, the harder it will be to get down to the root of it. Thinking critically about what you really want to say, or rather what you want to convey, is a tough but crucial practice.

  3. I totally agree with Jen and Britta about the usefulness of Twitter. Although most professors see technological devices as distractions, which they certainly can be, I really enjoyed how your course forces us to engage with social networks, etc in a new way. It certainly is stressful to confine one's ideas/comments into short, straight-forward words/sentences but it really forces us to think about what it is that we are trying to say and how to quickly and properly convey that message. It also allows everyone to comment at the same time which is also good.

  4. This one’s hard to write about since I’m bias about Social Medias even though you guys make EXCELLENT points. So I will talk about the Zoomtools. It’s funny how I can take your last paragraph and describe our group’s process. We thought about one complex system made from three units, made all the units connect through one or two points, and had to articulate the rules we set for our mission to make sense. Then simplified the system so we could convey the core idea and be able to explain our abstract way of coming up with our final product. I felt as if it was in stages…individually, as a group, the audience, and then back to individual.

  5. During undergrad, I was instructed to write three project statements about the same project. The three statements included:

    1. One full page description (400-500 words)
    2. One paragraph description ( 75 - 100 words)
    3. One to two sentences describing the project (Elevator speech)

    It took me a bit of time to understand why we needed an elevator speech. It occurred to me that I needed an elevator speech when I tried to describe everything I do in my startup company while standing in line at a coffee shop. It was kind of funny because it took me forever to get to my main point which required us to just stand in the middle of the open until I finished my 'lecture'.

    To be honest, I still haven't nailed my elevator speech. It still takes me a couple minutes. But I think that character limits and mission statements are very important. To be able to sell an idea right away in a short amount of time can be a make or break when giving out a business card.

  6. I think that science forces us to use a process. By creating a process the individual would have to acknowledge and become aware with the how and why behind what they are doing. I would think that metacognition is already a part of everyday life in one way or another. It's just the tapping into it, understanding it and applying it to other aspects of our life that is the hard part. Small exercises that make us take a step back and take everything apart might be frustrating, tedious and seem pointless at sometimes. But once we get to the point of understanding the why and how the picture is much clearer and we realize that the process was important to bring us to that point of true understanding.

  7. Learning new methods and collaborate them with what you already know, I believe is part of metacongnition. For me personally it's been a challenge to incorporate social media with not only my social life but also education. It was a challenge using all of these social media tools, getting the hang of it. I'm use to working and interacting with people via that human touch not relying mainly on technology, but I do acknowledge the essence of using technology even if intensively. So I think I'm in that process of inviting metacongnition through my back door..

  8. Flashback attack! yes Jen, I remember that moment, I feel that by doing this we are all talking at the same time, so we all have a voice, when there is an open discussion we sometimes get so tangled up in our idea that we lose focus of the main point, so great on that one with twitter (limited characters) but one of the most important one for me is that everything is recorded in some way.. so you can aways go back to that opinion you had last week and see how it changed over time or why you were thinking that way..
    See how every opinion yours or others can be completely subjective when it comes to some personal opinion and I like that I can see each individual point of view.. more than just listening to it.. when you listen sometimes you miss this details because you are thinking of the topic to discuss..

  9. It is necessary to take a complex idea and reduce it to a word or phrase to truly get to the heart it. Only by getting to the core of an issue can a viable solution be formed. It is so easy to be bogged down by the barbie affect or frivolities.

  10. I think this activity is a great preparation for your first science class. The transition from high school to college is challenging, and professors don't ease their students into the material. Establishing connections is an easier way to learn the material, rather than just memorizing facts.

  11. This makes me think of the moment where we decided to look at the NorthPoint site by green spaces as opposed to the buildings. We had to refocus and simplify our ideas instead of focusing on the same stuff over and over again. I also find in my own life that I overcomplicate explaining and writing things out so the exercise of simplifying ideas is really helpful when conveying an idea.

  12. The key words that stick out to me in this post are "unexpected connections" and "simplifying". I remember trying wittle down to the basic concepts of chemistry courses in college and how studying material without doing this was so daunting. The same thing happened while brainstorming for Northpoint. I was overwhelmed by the amount of land development, technology, and construction needed to complete our ideas and only refocused my thoughts when we came together and reminded ourselves the original reason for this project: the people. Once we did this, a lot of our "complex" ideas became more simplified and manageable to design.

  13. This blog post reminds me of something that happened in my senior year of high school. I was sitting at the kitchen table studying for a chemistry test. My father (a chemistry professor) asked what I was doing when he saw a blank Periodic Table in front of me that I was starting to fill in (from memory). I said we were going to need to be able to fill one in for the test a test the next day. He did not even try to hide his feelings about the absurdity of such a test. He said that there’s never a time you can’t just look up and see a Periodic Table in a chemistry office or lab and that no one should be memorizing it. He then asked me what I understood about the layout and design of the Periodic Table and what the different columns meant and so forth. It was only through that evening’s conversation that I came to see the Periodic Table as an abstract masterpiece, a thing of meaning and beauty. I did not memorize the Periodic Table that night, but I learned some really central ideas and concepts in chemistry. (I don’t remember if I passed the test the next day.)

  14. I like to think that I had something to do with it when I tried to bring the team back to the focus of our project we were all getting frustrated with our sudden lack of progress after being so motivated the day before. I had been thinking about it but hadn't voiced it to the class, we needed to come back to the main concept green space, more poignantly green space for people. Without Sam's and Margaritas discussion sessions we may not have gotten back on track. Sometimes you just have to step back ad remind yourself why you are working on this problem and what is the one goal you are trying to achieve.

  15. For me, the utilization of blogs, computers, devices, and all the other electronic media has the opposite effect on creativity. I find that I don't have to think nearly as deeply or in as fully a quantitative mode when I have the internet to draw upon. I would prefer thinking outside the box with no props other than our ideas, our minds, a blank canvas, and some pencils.

    With that said, when you have a 7-person team and 1 week to work through a design, it does pay to have some of the resources we utilized. I just feel like everything is in a big rush all the time. And I am a Scientist, I know the value of all of the electronic tools available to us, we couldn't do what we do without them. Just wish that in an academic environment we could get the opportunity to create and think on our own once in a while. Just sayin,,,

  16. Complex ideas start by a single thought. To take a complex idea and start defragmenting its parts and abstracting the thought, is a way to learn and understand the core idea in a backwards process. When we separate the parts and visualize each part individually, we start to understand and see these ideas in a different way; we begin to see other possibilities within. Making things more complicated is always easy, but attempting to simplify and synthesize the core ideas is a more difficult task. This process is a valuable skill to apply in every design process and it helps us to stay on track when we do an investigation on any given idea. Asking questions such as: why? for what? or how? can facilitate the depuration of an hypothesis or design problem. The process of abstracting ideas prevents us from getting lost in the complexities. True genius is achieved with simplicity.

  17. I’ve often had the problem of starting with generalities and having difficulty drawing all of my thoughts into one single concept.

    Yet, a single word is a memorable thing.

    This is why when you are working developing a presentation, class, paper, essay, drawing, etc you can make it stronger by constantly checking to make sure your efforts reflect that single concept. If the idea is not being supported why are you focusing on it? Avoid diluting your conversation with extraneous information.

    On the front of Technology: yes we should be using it and growing with it. Every year technology advances. If we do not use it in the learning environment we miss out on huge opportunities of cooperation and awareness.

  18. It's interesting - when you have to come up with only a single word to describe something, you don't say the first word you think of. The request for a 'one word' description causes your brain to analyze every corner of whatever it is you're describing, in every perspective imaginable - searching for the word that would fully represent what you're trying to describe. Asking for a simple consideration requires an intense series of analysis.