Engaging, Thinking, Transfer, and Assimilation – More from Visual Meetings

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about the “imagine” step in the four step model David Sibbet describes in his new book, Visual Meetings. I noted that Sibbet’s first step, which involves having meeting participants make visible their expectations and goals for a meeting, reminded me of the idea of a “private universe,” the idea that our students walk into class each with a unique set of prior experiences and knowledge. Since good teaching helps students build on their existing mental models of the world, making our students’ private universes a bit more public can be very helpful.

Sibbet’s second step is “engage.” As he writes, “No one can make connections and see patterns until he or she has some chunks of information to work with!” It’s in this step that meeting participants engage with relevant and potentially relevant information, making sense of individual elements. Sibbet likens his approach to the “discovery-based learning” that educator John Dewey described. That is, Sibbet believes that having meeting participants “paying attention, feeling excited, and actually participating in sharing information,” not sitting through rounds of death by PowerPoint. Sibbet uses visual tools for this, asking participants to draw what their thinking. He notes that it’s not the quality of the drawing that counts, it’s the act of sharing that has power.

The next step in Sibbet’s model is “think.” This is the pattern-finding, sense-making, connection-spotting step in which meeting participants take the ideas surfaced in the previous step and start making something of them. Here’s where Sibbet breaks out the visual tools I most frequently think about for educational settings: maps, flowcharts, and such. Sibbet points out that if you start seeing connections among ideas in your mind, you need to represent them visually in order to share them with others. I made a similar point in my workshop the other week on visual thinking. Cognitive science tells us that experts have sophisticated mental models of their domains, but they often have trouble expressing those models in ways that students can understand. Visual tools like concept maps and flowcharts can help.

Reading this reminded me of Harvard physics professor (and Peer Instruction author) Eric Mazur’s description of learning in his discipline has having two steps: the transfer of information and the assimilation of information. Traditionally, the transfer step happens during class, when instructors lecture and students take notes. (Mazur likes to describe this as a process by which information is transferred from the professor’s notes to the students’ without passing through the minds of either!) The assimilation step happens after class, as students struggle to make sense of course content while working through homework problems.

Mazur argues that since the assimilation step is the more challenging of the two, that step should take place during class when the instructor and fellow students are around to help. He has his students read their textbooks before class (transfer) and work collaboratively through conceptual understanding questions during class (assimilation). This model is sometimes called the inverted classroom, sometimes flip teaching. In the “Confessions of a Converted Lecturer” video below, Mazur talks about his approach to teaching. It’s a long video, but well worth watching if you haven’t heard Mazur speak.

I see parallels between Sibbet’s engage-think sequence and Mazur’s transfer-assimilate sequence. The first step of each involves getting some ideas on the table, so to speak, and the second step involves making sense of those ideas. I’m looking forward to the visual thinking activities that Sibbet recommends for engaging and thinking, because I believe they will have potential in and out of the classroom.

That potential will only be fulfilled, however, if we instructors believe that our students have something to bring to the learning experience. Sibbet’s “engage” step involves having people share their ideas and their understandings of information shared with the group. If we think of this step as more of a literal “transfer” of information from one source (the textbook, the instructor) to our students, then we’ll miss this aspect of Sibbet’s approach. (I don’t think Mazur thinks of transfer in this way, but the “open head, pour in knowledge” notion of learning is fairly widespread in academia.) In other words, if we don’t acknowledge the “private universe” idea I mentioned earlier and the idea that knowledge is constructed, not received, we won’t be able to engage our students with our course content in the way that I think Sibbet uses the term “engage.”

Not only do we instructors have to believe that our students aren’t just blank slates waiting to have information transferred in, our students will need to believe that, too. If they don’t, then they’ll wait patiently for us to pour information in their heads, until they realize that’s not what we’re going to do, at which point they’ll probably start grumbling–or worse. Convincing our students that they’re best served by actually sharing their own ideas and perspectives might be even harder than convincing ourselves. When our students enter college, they often quickly see themselves as the object of their education, not as actors in that education. Asking students to “engage” runs counter to this perception, and instructors who do so often take some heat from their students.

Image: “No Dumping,” Jason L. Parks, Flickr (CC)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *