I used to think…but now I think…

dvd_jacket_206How can we help students reflect on their own thinking? How can we make their thinking — and their learning — visible to them? These questions are at the heart of engaged teaching, and I’ve been using some resources from Harvard’s Visible Thinking Routines in an effort to help students do this work.

The routine I want to write about here can be thought of as a template for thinking — a way to help students organize their ideas in a way that promotes reflection and introspection. It asks students to write (or to talk) using the following structure: I used to think….but now I think…

Using this thinking routine at the end of class serves two purposes: one, it asks students to reflect and recall the work that they’ve done that day, consolidating it before they move on to a new subject (and to their cell phones on the walk to their next class). As such, it’s a good way for them to try and piece together what the most important ideas of the day were. The second purpose is for me: these reflections give me a good sense of where the students are as a class, and whether my teaching goals align with what they actually learned.

I wanted to share some student reflections from our recent work on gender and advertising. I was particularly heartened by their replies: they show the ways in which a thoughtful text (or film, in the case of Jean Kibourne’s documentary) can inspire reflection and deepened self-knowledge. Here are some of their insights:

“I used to think that beauty standards are attainable if one puts in enough effort. Now I think that a lot of idealized bodies for women are a result of genetics, and that only 5% of women actually have these ideal body types. (I thought this was an interesting statistic.)”

“I used to think that ads were dated and didn’t matter any more. Now I think that I am affected by advertising in subconscious ways and that it affects my self-esteem.”

“I used to think that because of our school’s standards for feminism that I should be ashamed to be a feminist. But now I think that I can be a feminist because I believe in the equality of the sexes.”

“I used to think that we needed to sexualize men in order to equalize the sexualization of women, but now I think that we should stop both and reform the advertisement system.”

“I used to think that women and men had pretty similar problems about being sexualized in the media. Now I think that while men are still sexualized, it does not affect their everyday life in the same way.”

“I used to think that advertising is merely a reflection of the social dynamics within society. Now, I understand that it truly shapes these social dynamics. Moreover, these limiting ideas present themselves in the confinement of half our human potential.”

This was quite a heartening collection of reflections to receive. The students had good insight into central ideas from the film: the ways in which advertising shapes (and distorts) our sense of normalcy; the way in which unrealistic ideals are put in front of us to engender longing and dissatisfaction; the ways in which girls and women are sexualized and targeted by ads in ways that boys and men simply are not.

I also asked the students to write a question they had. Most of their questions centered on agency and change: What can be done? What can I do? Can anything be done? I’d like to pick up this topic in more detail in future posts, but for now I’d offer a couple thoughts. It strikes me as a moral imperative to help inspire a sense of agency in students: we cannot just bring them to a new understanding of the world and then leave them there, confused and uncertain. I’d argue that we need to help students understand the complex nature of entrenched problems and give them meaningful avenues for engagement with the world that align with their own values.

This sense of agency seems to require a couple additional components: there must be what Freire referred to as critical consciousness — a deepened understanding of the way things actually work, a partial (at least) removal of the false consciousness and delusion that prevent us from seeing how things actually exist. Beyond that, I’d argue that there must also be a heightened sense of introspection — an ability to better understand one’s own inner life and world, perhaps through tools such as mindfulness and contemplation.

There’s more to say. Stay tuned! As ever, I’d also welcome any thoughts or suggestions in the comments below.

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