Digital Humanities Abstracts

“A ToolBook Application: Using Computer Puzzles To Teach Critical-Thinking Skills”
Alfred Benney Fairfield University

The Problem

Students come to American Universities with critical skills that are inadequate for college-level scholarship. It is essential not only for their studies, but for their lives and careers that they learn to do analysis - to get a clear understanding of the data before they begin to form their opinions about it. In the preface to their book, Asking the Right Questions, Neil Browne and Stuart Keeley make the following observation: “. . . we were dismayed at the degree to which students and acquaintances showed an increasing dependence on "experts" - textbook writers, teachers, lawyers, politicians, journalists, and TV commentators. As the complexity of the world seems to grow at an accelerating rate, there is a greater tendency to become passive absorbers of information, uncritically accepting what is seen and heard.” ° Humanities courses have a distinct advantage in providing an educational environment for teaching analysis or some form of critical thinking. The subject is fuzzy and represents the way most humans interact with their world and with one another. Because of this, analytic skills learned in this environment have applications in a variety of people-oriented careers such as teaching, politics, business, mediation/negotiation, criminal law, etc., as well as the obvious uses for personal relationships and communication. Moreover, in today's world, there is increased pressure to evaluate education with a "bottom line" mentality. Pressure is on teachers and students alike to treat education as if it were only training to function in society. The common comment to students "Oh, what are you going to do with your degree?" illustrates normative thinking in American society. Unfortunately this has led to two sorts of fallacies:
  • 1. Humanities courses have little value because their main focus is not a hands-on application;
  • 2. In this so-called "Information Age" education is reduced to "getting the answers to the questions."
In the second case, the fallacy is of course, that the questions are apparent; that there is no skill involved in exploring the problem; and that there is no need to understand nor evaluate the problem before we apply solutions (that are expected to bring instantaneous results). In the first case, the fallacy is that we have lost sight of what humanities education really is. Without making this the focus of this exercise, let me suggest that one way of thinking about this is that humanities courses explore the messy business of learning how to analyze and evaluate the questions that concern human beings.

The Approach

Gerald Bracey, reporting on the 1991 meeting of the American Psychological Association, points out that technology has not paid attention to the most recent findings of cognitive psychology. “. . . cognitive psychologists . . . have come to believe that `metacognition' plays an enormous role in learning. In general, metacognition refers to thinking about your own thinking, regulating it, and directing it according to the changing conditions of your environment.” ° At Fairfield University, I introduce my students to the question of analysis and problem solving by using in class a puzzle exercise which I designed using ToolBook. By displaying a series of puzzles, I am able to elicit immediate and direct response from nearly every student in the class and by interrupting the process at strategic points can call attention to what it is that they are doing as they attempt to solve these problems (metacognition). It is easy to demonstrate, for example, how such things as assumptions, artificial boundaries, distractions, patterns, lack of information and failure to see the problem prevent us from accurately analyzing a problem.° In this exercise, the puzzles are presented on a large screen projection system and both the type of puzzle as well as the timing of the presentation is in my control; my objective is:
  • 1. To involve the class/audience in responding to the problem;
  • 2. to create a competitive environment that rewards those who have solutions, but keeps those who fail anonymous;
  • 3. to pattern student thinking so that they discover how distractions, artificial boundaries etc. inhibit their ability to "think";
  • 4. and to explore with them just what they/their minds are doing when they are solving/trying to solve these relatively simple problems.

The "Technique"

It is important to understand that this is not a tutorial which simply presents Puzzles (ideas/concepts) to the students. Rather it is the use of technology to create a public event that involves the class in a common enterprise. The teacher is most assuredly a guide in this enterprise. Because of the nature of hypertext, it is possible to organize the structure of the program based on the interaction of the students. The teacher must learn how to use this strategy to effect the desired outcomes. Milton Glick and others points out "that it is not what the teacher does but what he or she gets the students to do that results in learning." ° The use of the CRT to create an interactive information environment provides what I would call "appropriate use," because it ". . . gives the . . . [teacher] the ability to access and manipulate not just information products (such as text, graphics, video), but information processes as well."°

The Payoff

Presenting this project at a poster session makes it possible to discuss this educational strategy with participants from a variety of disciplines as well as to demonstrate the actual use of the puzzles to simulate a classroom situation. In this setting it is also easier to respond to specific questions about the authoring system (ToolBook 3.0a) as well as the design of the "books" used. It also becomes possible to tailor the presentation to the various needs of the participants.