Kicking things off here in Richmond, VA. we have our first keynote, Gardner Campbell. The presentation began with a video montage featuring (among other things) a young Bob Dylan; quotes and graphs about different educational models; sections of It’s a Wonderful Life; Indie music; and end scenes from One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.
We were then introduced to Robert Wagner Dodge, a ‘smokejumper‘ who escaped a raging forest fire by acting rather counter intuitively. He lit a fire in front of him, reasoning that once the smaller fire had burned out he could shelter in the ashes. None of his companions would follow him, and they perished. Campbell refers to this kind of learning as ‘insight’.
‘Insight’ is a term that has grown in use as civilisation has become more complex. There are many synonyms for insight (both formal and informal) and the word is used in many ways. We normally understand it as:
- an accurate and deep understanding of a person or thing
- the capacity to gain an accurate and deep understanding of a person or thing
- a breakthrough in understanding one’s own mental illness
Insight-oriented psychotherapy relies on conversation between therapist and patient. (It can be contrasted with biomedical approaches that place the emphasis on medication.)
The question is posed: why do insights come to us in the way they do? A typical process might look like this:
- Mental block/Impasse
- Problem is somehow solved; a solution presents itself
- Feeling of certainty – the Eureka!
The solution can’t be forced or rushed. What happens in this *space*? From cognitive science there is a suggestion that certain regions of the right hemisphere of the brain become unusually active before an insight is reached (a related area is related to appreciation of jokes). Gamma wave activity (the highest electrical frequency of the brain) spikes at this moment.
Campbell invites us to think about these kinds of ‘Eureka!’ moments in the context of formal education. We make novel neuro-chemical connections between existing parts of our knowledge. This goes beyond the classroom: the pattern of making new connections prepares us for some fresh insight where we generalise about categories of our understanding. Campbell employs a couple of quotes from Bruner to support the idea that this way of understanding learning is unlike traditional pedagogy.
Trying to force an insight can actually prevent the birth of an insight. This is a counter-intuitive outcome: we learn by avoiding the learning activity (or at least waiting until the appropriate psychological state is arrived at).
Campbell refers to some students essays on their responses to The Eureka Hunt. Rather than thinking about it for themselves, many obviously just searched online for ‘the right answer’. Their goal was evidently just to ‘succeed’ rather than authentically engage with the text. There is a whole industry devoted to mantras of student ‘success’. Campbell invites us to question this idea of ‘student success’. Some of the claims associated with it (“4 deadly mantras of student success”) include:
- “Students don’t do optional” – life will be a matter of conformity, not the exercise of freedom – why encourage it now?
- “Define more pathways” – restriction of unique pathways, enforced rubrics
- “We need to graduate more students” – Campbell suggests that students in fact graduate themselves
- “Our students are our products” – !
Such approaches, it is contended, do not encourage the right kind of insights. Essentially they all treat the learner as passive in their own education. An open, Connectivist course for AAC&U faculty and collaborators will explore these issues from January 2017.