Why We Must Break Concepts into Pieces, Let Ideas Linger

During an open house event April 7, I joined University of Massachusetts Boston’s Critical and Creative Thinking program in honoring the work and upcoming retirement of Dr. Carol Smith, a professor of psychology and pioneer in cognitive development, conceptual change and restructuring, and learning for deeper understandings.

UMass Boston faculty members described Smith’s decades of dedication, compassion and goodwill, as she navigated through transformative learning and problem solving, identifying what’s important to think about, as well as why and how. They explained her comfort in appreciating diverse perspectives, and her capacity to offer mixed observations.

“You can’t judge the power of an idea the moment you first think about it,” said Smith, facing a circle of colleagues and alumni, replying to inquiries citing her work. “You have to let it linger, so you can reflect on it and come back to it.”

As a Critical and Creative Thinking graduate student, I understand problem solving as a significant component of the program, but the retiring professor shook up its usual semantics with an analogical approach. She talked about puzzles.

“Get involved in puzzle solving,” said Smith, examining educator tactics. She stressed a need to avoid the verifying of ideas and help students discover connections.

“Get them to think about it, and care about it. … Take the time to puzzle about it, and see how complicated [ideas] are.”

In an article about the development of commonsense matter theories, and using analogical mappings, thought experiments and learning to measure for conceptual restructuring, Smith explains challenges to new and emerging understandings (Smith, 2007, p. 338):

“Conceptual restructuring accounts of conceptual change rest on the assumption that students have some initial commonsense theories in which their everyday explanatory concepts are embedded and play a role. These commonsense theories, although not self-consciously held, are assumed to be like scientific theories in consisting of inter-related concepts that resist change, that determine a concept’s core, and that support inference making, problem solving, belief formation, and explanation in a given domain.”

Offering an example during the open house, she discussed the restrictive concept of numbers, and how we might re-examine our relationship with that system of symbols, and how it might affect meanings and conclusions. We must improve our use of such systems, and our courage to create new systems in ways that help people better dissect ideas, she said.

“You have to go beyond initial ideas and challenge your thinking,” said Smith.

“Sometimes you have to be willing to say, ‘it might be the opposite of what I was thinking.’”

Discussing the importance of distributed knowledge, and valuing domain-specific knowledge, she asked, “Where do we go to get the pieces, the people with certain expertise, or relevance?f’”

Puzzles in Practice

As a digital communications specialist for a school district, I’ve recognized my own role as an educator, one that’s focused on our district’s patronage and stakeholders’ ability to learn. As teachers concentrate on student learning in primary and secondary schools, school communications teams must help families learn more about their children’s opportunities.

For my reflective practice work this semester, I’m studying how wikis might cultivate deeper understandings about our district. My project has evolved into a collaborative solution for an improved enrollment and district guide. It’s creating a comprehensive explanation of our schools and courses, and their individual investments. Furthermore, it’s encouraging our community to become partners in forming understandings and recognizing associations.

During the open house, Smith said, “Do more conceptual analyses, not just pick and choose ideas like a cafeteria – when something new comes out, now you’re learning.”

I’m discovering how an organizational wiki helps contributors consider how they fit into a system motivated by a common need, like a school district that must prepare children for lifetimes of opportunity. As people create and link topics, they see how each concept fits into that system. Moreover, they better understand how they fit into it, maybe as a teacher or volunteer, or an academic program manager influencing macro systems.

In many ways, the wiki is shattering the district into pieces for an emerging puzzle, calling for various needs in domain-specific and relevant knowledge. As pieces are placed, the puzzle expands by requiring more definitions of ideas, or redefining what already exists.

Works Cited

Smith, C. (2007). Bootstrapping Processes in the Development of Students’ Commonsense Matter Theories: Using Analogical Mappings, Thought Experiments, and Learning to Measure to Promote Conceptual Restructuring. Cognition and Instruction , 35 (4).

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