The irony was humming through my mind as we sat in a darkened room on a beautiful Sydney day – the first day of our NSW school holidays between terms 3 and 4 – to engage in professional development. The dedicated teachers who signed up were clearly there to learn and participated actively in all the sessions. The food was tasty and the ideas were too. This was a day with Jamie McKenzie EdD who came to Brigidine College, St Ives, to share some ideas with us and challenge our thinking around…well..thinking! I hoped that the participants found it a valuable use of their time and, looking around the room throughout the day, I’m quite confident they did.

Armed with the hashtag #IDL2012 and a running sheet, I introduced Jamie briefly and off we went. All 40 participants having brought their own devices – ranging from Apple to Samsung to Acer to Toshiba (isn’t it amazing how multi-hardware we can be when we just open the wireless up?) – and focusing more on what Jamie was saying about thinking, questioning and understanding than about whether you have “F4” on your keyboard.

The first session was titled Breaking The Code and involved an exploration of how to deconstruct various texts, including phrases and key terms, to develop multiliteracies (Emotional, Media, Organisational, Numerical, Artistic, Visual, Scientific, Environmental, Natural, Ethical, Socio-cultural and Text). Jamie’s argument is that culture, politics and society more generally is putting pressure on young people NOT to think deeply – to accept what is told to them and to believe it. We need to look beneath and between what is being told to us, even authority figures (even teachers!) to discover meaning and true purpose. By doing this, we are more able to act and react in a way that is based on evidence and fact rather than blind obedience.

A strategy to take away from this session is the use of visual thesaurus software such as www.visuwords.com that allow anyone to see the epistemology and related phrases of particular words. It is an interesting exercise in itself to type in words such as ‘inquiry’, ‘assess’, ‘understand’ or ‘debate’ to see what related words sprout from the central idea. Great discussions can be had (and wider vocabulary established) using such strategies.

The second session, Making The Case, involved an exploration of the ways we develop effective questions as teachers and how we teach students to develop their own deep and complex questions. To avoid a ‘cut and paste’ approach to learning, we need to start asking questions that are open-ended, contested and require a mixture of sound logic and evidence to persuade and prove points of argument.

A key takeaway from this session was that many times we launch into a research task with an assumption or position already established, rather than waiting for the evidence to point us in a particular direction. I will apply this thinking to my History Extension classes, where students complete a significant research component on a topic of their choosing. Using resources such as Jamie’s own http://questioning.org/rcycle.html and OWL’s Purdue Online Writing Lab for Argumentative Essays , students and teachers alike can develop a greater appreciation for the role of argumentation rather than regurgitation in extended writing tasks.

During the third session, Mother Of Invention, Jamie took us through some alternative ways of developing originality and creativity in the classroom when attempting synthesis. (A process that leads to original and novel ideas as well as products and performances). I’m very interested in this idea as a History and English teacher: what we are constantly trying to do is drag students away from the temptation to repeat what others have said – and in some cases they are actively encouraged to do so as was discussed at the workshop, some universities still want students to repeat the work of others rather than invent original thought.

Using metaphors to symbolise the ways in which we can attempt to synthesise, we thought about the process of ‘bettering’ information and not just in terms of factual accuracy but also in terms of its benefit to the world. We watched a parody of the quite famous ‘Dove evolution’ video and discussed/debated as to what level of thinking was displayed in the parody. I thought – as I do with most parody – that it is one of, if not THE, highest order of thinking to be able to effectively satirise an argument or idea and turn it on its head. When done well, parody can be more effective than any other kind of argument.

Finding the Right Stuff, the fourth session (just before lunch) was aimed at enabling teachers to more effectively navigate the ‘info-glut’ that is provided to us on the internet. Students usually jump straight in the deep end of research…or so we think. In fact, what usually happens for students (and, let’s face it, the rest of us) is that they do a basic Google search and choose a selection of sites from the first page or two as their bibliography.

We discussed the problems relating to this but also some potential solutions. The idea of the “hidden internet” or sites that exist but are not turned up on Google for a variety of reasons (usually to do with the fact that they don’t help Google sell you stuff) will host a large range of accurate and interesting information that is more reliable than much of the information on the smattering of sites offered by Google on specific topics. For more information on the “hidden internet”, take a look at this article.

Jamie argued that we need to find the ‘real people’ when looking at personalities from the present or the past, for example people like Matthew Flinders or James Cook. To do this, we must go deeper into the sea of information at our disposal than just the first few pages from a Google search. Using Advanced Search functions and other strategies, students and teachers will be able to find more academically rigorous and original information from which to base their assertions.

After a lovely lunch break spent sitting with new friends on the College green, we had one last experience with Jamie called Debunking the Myth. This was where we brought together the ideas of questioning and more critical information literacies and applied them to particular chunks of ‘knowledge’.

The highlight for me was, as a group, deconstructing an advertisement from Greenpeace that clearly had a strong message behind it about the impact of global corporations on the environment. We looked carefully at the information presented both textually and visually, the impact of the music and the casting, as well as the producer’s own biases and perspective in order to determine exactly what was being told to us and how big a grain of salt we should take with it.

Overall, I felt the day was quite worthwhile for those who attended. Even though some had already been to Jamie’s sessions before, it is clear that his ideas challenge what we do on a daily basis and push us to think whether our ‘standards’ and ‘syllabi’ are really preparing students effectively for a world full of persuasion, consumerism and power politics.

For more information on Jamie’s work, please go to http://fno.org and for more information on my school please visit http://www.brigidine.nsw.edu.au

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