20 Minutes Smarter: Using Stations for Critical Thinking

Like others, I use a template to put together my course outline. It saves time, and it has a nice design (or so I think). It also has standard language about submission policies and academic integrity and laptops and mobile phones in the classroom.

The technology policy usually says something stern about how you don’t need an internet-connected computer for any purpose, and shouldn’t use one for anything in class beyond note-taking. Stay focused, be mindful, eat your proverbial vegetables.

But this time it’s different:

You will make frequent and extensive use of your laptop computer and mobile phone in this class, to annotate texts and pose questions and make preliminary research inquiries — particularly when we are watching films and clips together. But you must at all times be willing to share your screen with others in your groups, and often with the whole class. Please keep your Facebook trolling and Buzzfeed fixes to designated stations and/or break times. You owe it to yourself, and your colleagues, to stay focused on the material at hand.

(I had to add the last part, which says, “Look, I know there are a thousand temptations out there – but let’s agree to concentrate on the task at hand.”)

What task is that, you wonder? Nothing less than the habits of research, or the gathering and wondering stages of literary and film criticism: noticing details, wondering about them, annotating texts, asking questions, and beginning to formulate some answers. Too often, in our principled resistance to digital distractions, we tend to forget that these devices are also platforms for students’ progress from novices to experts.

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That’s what I’m teaching in English 311 (Shakespeare and the Screen) this term. Here are three of my learning outcomes, addressed to students (“you will…”):

  • describe and evaluate your critical reading and viewing habits of capturing information, ideas, and questions, and turning them into knowledgeable arguments;
  • reflect on the merits of focused attention to detail and quiet reflection in an age of distraction;
  • collaborate with your peers to share inquiries, to create knowledge, to capture your interpretations in a film, and to develop your observational and critical skills.

So how will I actually do all these things, let alone assess them? You really have to asess outcomes – that is, grade them – or they’re empty words, mere aspirations.

Start with outcome #1: capturing ideas, and making arguments. (The others, focusing and collaborating, derive from the first.) How do we do it in a classroom?

The answer is to focus on the process of inquiry, rather than its outcome. You make novices into experts by working through the messy stages of critical thinking, not just by showing them its polished results.

It begins with looking at something – a text, a film – and noticing details. You write down some of those details, and record your first impressions and questions about them. You annotate the margins of your book, you look up words in the dictionary or references in the encyclopedia (and yes, Wikipedia is perfectly legitimate). You cluster and summarize your notes into more complicated notes, as you start to build an argument or line of inquiry. Then you talk with other people about their notes and questions, their research process, their inquiries and arguments. Then you go back to the text, or film – or you read a secondary text, or watch another film – and repeat the process.

In other words, criticism is a process of acccumulation and judgement, of collecting and winnowing, of inquiring and focusing, and finally of summarizing your thoughts. You move from first impressions and hesitant queries (like “What’s Hamlet’s motive here?”) to more confident, complex arguments. The outcomes are different each time you do it, because they depend on what details you noticed and what questions occured to you, but the process is pretty much the same.

What does all that have to do with laptops in the classroom? I’m glad you asked.

In this course, as we watch films and read texts, we’re going to set up at least four stations in our classroom, something like this.

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Each station will be dedicated to a different activity in the critical process:

  1. Station 1 is for capturing text-based details and questions on paper, in the margins of your text, as you read what’s being performed. We’ll use a document camera to share these.
  2. Station 2 is for capturing text-based details and questions digitally. We’ll use the Lit Genius platform – for collaborative marginal annotations of our texts.
  3. Station 3 is for sharing time-sensitive details and initial questions on Twitter. We’ll use the #engl311 hashtag to post these.
  4. Station 4 is for sharing these details and questions on an anonymous platform, and for brainstorming summaries and next-level questions. It’s where we’ll throw around ideas and test them to see what works best. It’s important we feel free to share anything, so we’ll use an anonymous Google Doc to collect these summaries.
  5. Station 5 is for sharing our time- and text-based research inquiries. When a character refers to “Hecuba” or “Niobe” in Hamlet, or uses an unfamiliar word like “vouchsafe” or “wherefore,” budding experts want to understand them. So we look them up on Wikipedia or the Oxford English Dictionary. At this station, we’ll share our screens to a Solstice cart (like these ones), so other can benefit from our inquiries.
  6. Station 6 is for goofing off. Here, you can do whatever you want: take notes on a tablet or notebook, or check your Facebook, Buzzfeed, and TMZ to your heart’s content. No surveillance, no assigned tasks, no pressure. Hey: your attention is a valuable commodity, so pay it out wherever you want. That candy won’t crush itself.

But here’s the important part: whether you’re reading TMZ or the OED, every 20 minutes we’ll stop the music, turn the lights back on, and talk about what we did and why we did it. Never mind Hamlet’s motives; what were yours?

If we tuned out, that’s 20 minutes of eyeball-time and cognition we can’t get back. Just so long as we do it mindfully.

If we took some initial steps along the path of turning information into knowledge, or first impressions into second thoughts, or notes into prose, then we’re doing what readers and film critics have always done. And we’re just 20 minutes smarter.

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