Imagination + Private Universes + Expectations + Motivation + Visual Meetings

Okay, so I didn’t finish David Sibbet’s new book Visual Meetings over winter break. But I did read a couple of chapters! I thought I’d share a few thoughts on what I read, particularly an interesting group cognition model Sibbet describes in Chapter 1. (See my earlier post for a few observations from Sibbet’s introduction.)

Sibbet structures his book and his graphical facilitation work around a four-step cycle: Imagine, engage, think, and enact. Sibbet cites the work of Colin Ware at the Data Visualization Research Lab at the University of New Hampshire. Ware’s work indicates that the imagine-engage-think-enact cycle describes how we all “think visually.” Sibbet argues that it’s a useful structure for facilitating group meetings. He also says that “some would call this a cycle of learning,” and I would agree. It’s very similar, for instance, to the Kolb Learning Cycle. Here are some thoughts on how the first step in this cycle, imagine, might play out in a college teaching context…

Sibbet’s first step is to have participants share their expectations for a meeting. What is the meeting’s purpose? Sibbet writes, “Imagining purpose happens in the privacy of your imagination.” This line reminded me of “A Private Universe,” a short documentary that makes the point that each student comes to a learning experience with a unique mix of prior knowledge and experience. Effective instruction, according to the cognitive science summarized in the National Research Council’s How People Learn, seeks to surface students’ “private universes” and teach in ways that are responsive to students’ prior knowledge and experience. Students don’t just insert new information in their heads as it’s given to them; they make sense of new information in light of their existing mental models of how the world works. As teachers, we’ll have more success in helping students refine and improve those mental models if we have a sense of what they are when students enter our classrooms.

Given the importance of surfacing students’ “private universes” at the start of a learning experience, I’m looking forward to reading more about the visual tools Sibbet uses to do this with his clients. Not only might these tools help students call to mind their personal “private universes” and share them with their instructor, these tools might also help instructors create a shared sense of purpose among students. I’m reminded of Michael Wesch’s digital ethnography course in which students spend the first three weeks exploring the topic and deciding what they want to study during the rest of the course. More often, instructors decide the objectives and purpose of a course for the students, instead of involving students in setting the agenda. Sibbet would see value in the Wesch approach. Sibbet writes,

“In my experience, visualizing meeting purposes and objectives is one of the most helpful things you can do to make a meeting work. And getting people involved early in talking about expectations and hoped-for outcomes is even more effective.”

Edward Deci’s classic work on motivation tells us that people (including students!) are motivated by a desire for autonomy. Walking into a meeting and saying, “Okay, folks, here’s what we’re going to do” undercuts that desire, as does walking into a classroom on the first day of class and dictating to students the agenda for the semester. Moreover, instructors and students often have very different expectations for a course, even when the instructor has tried to clarify his or her expectations up front, and these differences in expectations can lead to all kinds of difficulties down the road. Spending time creating a shared set of expectations for a course and giving students an active role in creating those expectations has the potential to create a more meaningful learning experience all around.

What if more courses had exploration periods like Wesch’s course in which students developed for themselves an agenda for the course? Might the visual tools in Sibbet’s book give instructors useful options for facilitating these exploration periods? We’ll see!

Image: “Design is a good idea,” Dirk Dallas, Flickr (CC)

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