In my last post I mentioned that instead of teaching scientific "facts" to my undergraduates I encourage my students to think critically about abstractions. Abstractions like protein folding, membrane permeability, mycorrhizae, and ecosystem diversity. Pretty wide ranging stuff, all part of the backbone of evolutionary biology, and all of it hopelessly abstract to a second-year undergraduate.
Marching to the library this afternoon I got to thinking about how a year ago I was writing about the importance of taking a break. Suddenly now, halfway through my sabbatical, I find myself thinking and writing about teaching. A strange dialectic.
So what about critical thinking in a postliterate world? I've always been big on showing my students images. I learned to use powerpoint to my own purposes, no bullet points, no wordy outlines, mostly images. I found that my students used their cellphones to photograph me during my lectures. They would come in for office hours with a printed version of my lectures, highlighted by pictures of me next to a gigantic mitochondria or chlorophyll molecule. Wow. Images (with a side serving of words) as a way of learning. Maybe deep learning!
This brings me back to the "Man in the Holocene" exhibit at MIT. One of the artists featured there is the Futurist artist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, whose early 20th century work used mathematical symbols to evoke the sensations brought about through modern technology and science.
Thinking about Marinetti's work brought me back to my NEH trip this summer, where we learned that among royals of the Mexican central highlands, iconography evolved as a lingua franca to accommodate feasting and gift giving associated with ethnic intermarriage. Iconography and glyphic communication systems allowed diverse peoples to make meaningful, long lasting, and politically potent contact with one another.
We discussed this in the perspective not of a prehistoric, non-literate cultural milieu, but in the context of an advanced, highly refined set of human interactions that had cast aside the written word in favor of images.
So here we are in this century in this world cascading toward an international, intercultural, postliterate system of communication. How can we harness this cultural trend to make our teaching and learning environment more effective?