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On “Big Ideas”, and how I can’t force students to adopt my values

Human Brain
“Fissures and convolutions of the human brain” from Wikimedia Commons

Over the Spring semester, I participated in a MOOC through MIT’s Media Lab called Learning Creative Learning. While I completed only a bit over half the course (but hey! apparently that’s normal!), I still got enough out of it that it shifted the way I think about teaching and learning and this whole thing we call education. (And I fully intend on completing all of the rest of the readings. The ones I read were pretty great and very applicable. Will report back on that hopefully soon…fingers crossed….)

In Week 4, we were introduced to the concept of “powerful ideas”, described as more fundamental — and more important and useful — for learners to grasp. In an example of a student learning the power of the idea of probability, Papert (2000) writes:

…I am willing to say that in the context of the kind of experience adumbrated here, the idea of probability derives its power from the following properties:

First and most essentially, the young user was able to use the idea to solve a real problem that had come directly out of a personal project. Thus it is directly experienced as powerful in its use.

Second, the use made of the idea is directly connected with other situations in the world. It leads to the understanding of a large class of phenomena. …. In short, the idea is powerful in its connections.

Third, the idea almost certainly has roots in intuitive knowledge the child has internalized over a long period…. It is powerful in its roots and it fits with personal identity. Using such knowledge is associated with a sense of personal power, absent from the use of knowledge that is experienced as coming from the outside, having qualities…I call dissociated and alienated. (p. 727)

So, powerful ideas have to be directly useful, able to be applied across disciplines, and intuitive and internalized. When I think about what “big ideas” transformed the way I see myself/the world/my education/my work, etc., this is the main one that comes to mind:

The concept of academic disciplines, and why they are useful to understand. This is what I wrote about in my reading reaction (ahh! homework!) to Papert’s article. The first semester of my high school Geometry class was totally painful. I hated it. I did not understand the purpose of proofs and preferred the tried and true method of memorizing formulas/laws. I was good at math! Why were they making me learn in this horrible way?? However, I had a breakthrough in the second semester of the class — I realized that basically what I was learning in Geometry was a new way of thinking. I started conceptualizing my education as providing me with different problem-solving methods, different ways of looking at the world; basically, the concept of academic disciplines and how they can be useful to me personally. To this day, I have this image in my mind of a toolbox containing tools from different disciplines that can be used to solve problems.

More specific to librarianship, I experienced a major philosophical shift after reading James Elmborg’s (2006) “Critical Information Literacy: Implications for Instructional Practice“. First off, the idea of librarians primarily as teachers. Secondly, the idea that teaching is an inherently political and inherently non-neutral. Lastly, the idea that information literacy cannot be seen as a merely a “set of acquired skills”, but as “…the comprehension of an entire system of thought and the ways that information flows in that system…[and] the capacity to critically evaluate the system itself.”

Although recognizing “big ideas” in my own learning and being capable of self-reflection as a learner is very important, how can we help our students learn the big ideas that will help them? In school, in work, in life? Most importantly, in life! And not necessarily what we as educators think are the “biggest of big ideas”, but what students find personally important and useful to them throughout their journeys as lifelong learners. As a new CSUSM faculty member, I think this will be my biggest challenge as an educator. How can I balance introducing students to “big ideas” while still teaching immediately-useable/applicable skills? If anyone here has any advice, it would be greatly appreciated! Maybe we can work together on putting together more pieces of this “big puzzle”.