Making Space for Connections

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

In The Prophet, Khalil Gibran describes the wise teacher as one who “does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.” If the teacher is “wise,” that is. Gibran’s point is the same one Jim Lang offers in his fourth chapter of Small Teaching called “Connections”: we can’t make the associations for students but only an environment where students can make them. Connections require deliberate processes and time. Busy-work doesn’t guarantee them nor does the darling of teaching, the flipped classroom. Teaching in earnest, it seems, begins at this connecting stage.

Here are three options to help students make connections according to Lang.

  • Organizational frameworks. Lang’s description of this section begins with an observation that instructors will often use boards—white boards, black boards, etc.—as places to write down a concept while they are lecturing. What Lang emphasizes, however, is the need for basic organizational space whether the board be physical, digital, or presentational. As evidence Lang discusses the case of a group of students who were given partial notes prior to a class and another group who were given full notes. The group with partial notes scored better in the end because they had a framework on which to fill in the details instead of trying to remember all of the notes without a framework.
  • The Minute Thesis. This option is particularly helpful at the end of the semester when an instructor is helping students synthesize the course content. The instructor makes two lists: one for sources and one for concepts/themes. A student comes forward and circles a theme and then draws lines from that theme to a couple of texts. Students take a minute—thus, the name—to write down an idea that makes a declarative statement about the way the theme connects the texts. When time is up, students can offer what they’ve created, enabling the instructor to correct misconceptions and students to learn from peers. It’s a process easily transferable to many disciplines.
  • Concept maps. Concept maps or mind maps can be created with paper or digitally. The purpose is to create a “visual representation of a knowledge domain.” The concept maps show relationships between concepts and distinguish concepts from others. In this way, concept maps hold ideas in tension, making way for meaningful, nuanced discussions.

As instructors, we can easily take for granted the links we make with the content we’re teaching. The mere mention of a word, a short passage, a diagram, or perhaps a question a student poses sends our brains into euphoric spasms that can morph into an article or even a book. The point, however, is that years of mucking about in our disciplines enable us to link seemingly disparate ideas. Connections take time and careful classroom crafting, but they’re exactly what we want our students to begin to do, if we’re wise.

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