Jeff King, Exec. Dir., Center for Excellence in Transformative Teaching & Learning, University of Central Oklahoma
The ease of access to information possessed by the average American student of almost any age today would be unimaginable to teachers only three decades ago. Not only do learners have easy access, they also have access to an amount of high-quality information that is, simply put, astounding.
Yet students today often see themselves as mere consumers of this information. “Google, copy, cut, paste = done” might be the mantra for far too many students who have ready access to search engines. Smartphones, tablets, laptops, or the desktop at the school or local library all are superhighways capable of unloading a tractor-trailer load of information in a heart beat.
Creativity, on the other hand, can be fed by information that is instantly accessible, but it cannot arise from that information, no matter the amount or the speed with which it is gathered. Indeed, for the creative thought to occur, the absence of information input is frequently necessary. One has to attend to her own thoughts, her own impulses, her own uniqueness in order for something new — not merely reproduced — to be born.
And therein lies the dilemma for teachers today: how can they help students to learn when and how to step back, to disengage from the information/entertainment stream, and then to use the information which has been selected and curated so that students transcend consumption and actually move to creation?
At least part of the solution lies in helping students understand and appreciate how important it is to cultivate the ability to attend to their own thoughts — to tune out on occasion so they can tune in. Without the ability to do this, students could metaphorically “die of consumption.”
Before tuberculosis was so named, those who died of its ravages were said to have died of consumption because it seemed that the disease had consumed them from within; they literally wasted away. Information can also be consuming — it consumes attention:
. . . in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it. (Simon, 1971, pp. 40-41)
So said Nobel Memorial Prize recipient Herbert Simon, an early thinker in the field of attention economics. With only a limited ability to attend to a given amount of information, students must first learn their information saturation point, and then they must back away from that precipice in order to nourish the mental, emotional, motivational, and inspirational abilities they possess in order to prime their creative pumps.
Enter the contemplative pedagogy movement, which recognizes the need for teachers and schools to help students learn to attend internally, to become aware of their thoughts, feelings, and emotions. (Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching has created a nice introduction to contemplative pedagogy.)
One means of creating a contemplative classroom has been developed by Leonard Riskin, who uses the acronym, STOCK, to help explain the process. As a teacher of law classes related to mediation, Riskin wants his students to learn how to focus on both parties in a mediation, how to generate novel solutions which serve the process as well as the humans involved.
STOCK stands for students stopping what they’re doing; taking a slow, deep breath; observing how their bodies feel, what their emotional state is, what they have been thinking; considering their intention for the rest of the class period (what do they want to accomplish, what will they do to accomplish their intention); and then keeping on with the class activity (Larkin-Wong, 2012).
University of Central Oklahoma faculty member Dr. Christy Vincent has been using the STOCK process in some of her Mass Communications classes to good effect. Students are very appreciative of the chance to, for only 45 seconds, sit quietly to take STOCK. One of Dr. Vincent’s students characterized the benefit she derived from the process as helping her to “pay attention to her intention” — something she said pays dividends for getting more out of the class and de-stressing so that she is better able to be fully present with the class, the material, the instructor, and her classmates. Dr. Vincent’s students take STOCK two or three times per class, so this is not a difficult or time-consuming activity which detracts from course content.
If anything, the focus inward helps students to pay attention better, to relax so the creative juices flow in a more natural manner, and to self-regulate as learners to a greater degree.
The age of information overload doesn’t have to result in students as consumers instead of creators. Educators can be intentional in creating learning environments that allow for and nurture creativity.
Larkin-Wong, K. (2012). A newbie’s impression: One student’s mindfulness lessons. Journal of Legal Education, 61(4), 665-673. Available: http://www.swlaw.edu/pdfs/jle/jle614larkinwong.pdf
Simon, H. (1971). Designing organizations for an information-rich world. In Greenberger, M. (Ed.)., Computers, communication, and the public interest. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press.