Sunday, May 3, 2009

Idea Isolation

I have been waiting all year for this: digital dialogue. Finally, through our ed.VoiceThread postings (see below), students are beginning to see what it means to read-think-respond to each other. For the most part, we are not yet at the point of questioning, but if you follow the growth of student responses to the below threads, you will see that we are getting at dialogue.
Why do I make such a big thing about dialogue? Because most of my students live in a state of idea isolation. We teachers bemoan the lack of "intellectual depth" in this crop of students. I have been thinking a lot about this, comparing the deep thinkers with the surface thinkers. I have come to believe that a major factor in this divide is the degree to which students have practiced dialoguing about ideas - thinking in the public sphere. For the best thinkers, that sphere is "family." They live with educated talkers and spend good time talking when when not in school. For some, that sphere is GT, our gifted & talented program, which has a different classroom atmosphere, one that requires students to discuss ideas. For a few, that sphere is the "listening realm." These kids are not afraid of listening and not afraid to sit quietly, observe, and independently process what they hear and see. These are studiers of ideas - often, in our school, they are hunters and fishermen. They are capable of sustained internal dialogue, and they are wonderful and rare thinkers.

For the rest, ideas occur in isolation. Our kids do think. But they let go of most thoughts as quickly as they come. I contrast thinking to gossiping (about which they have a lot to say). I contrast thinking to responding - to goofy videos and "deep questions" (
What hair color do they put on bald men’s licenses?). Thinking requires dialogue for understanding. Gossiping and responding do not require understanding, and therefore do not require dialogue.

Most students get very little practice with dialogue about ideas. It is way too easy to get through a unit, class, or activity without thinking about it at all. And our students have learned how to be very successful at doing so. Because they have been rewarded for not thinking and not dialoguing.

So I have begun to create a classroom in which dialogue is essential for success. We write more about ideas than about anything else. We share on boards, in digital environments, and aloud. We read, view, talk, and listen "around an idea" rather than all confronting the same text (so that there is something to discuss). Students in my class must come out of their idea isolation in order to accomplish a learning task.

I have always done a fair amount of this, but I remain a relative novice. I am finding that it is hard to motivate most students to see the value of thinking. Next year, I will have younger students. I am sure that they will be more malleable. But I will need to get parents on board too. It would be great if there could be an evening discussion in each home about an idea - or even just about a vocabulary word. Logging this should be just as important as logging at-home reading.

And other teachers - it would be great to get them on board. It would be great to get these adults out of their own idea isolation - open those closed doors - expand discussions out of whispered conversations and into a transparent space - make it OK for students to be wrong or different or new about an idea. Unfortunately, this is going to be the harder sell.

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