On Minds and Water Puddles

TLTCon is just over two weeks away, and I want to draw your attention to an important concept that Roediger highlights in the last chapter of Make It Stick called “generation.” I’ve referred to it in conversations as the “generating effect.” I most recently discussed it in a writing workshop for faculty on the Pomodoro Technique. One of the tricks I suggest for staying focused is creating a triangular card with “Generate,” “Outline,” and “Edit” written on the individual sides. As silly as it seems, seeing “Generate” written on the prompter keeps me focused on simply getting thoughts out.

Pomodoro Technique aside, I have noticed there is a residual effect of this practice. I will be busy doing something else hours after trying to work through a textual problem in Plato, Epictetus, or Galen, and a potential solution surfaces. Think of it like a dolphin’s dorsal fin that you might see while relaxing at Isle of Palms: you’re not expecting it, but it’s suddenly visible.

Make It Stick validates my experience. They cite John McPhee who describes generation in this manner:

In short, you may actually be writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty four hours a day—yes, while you sleep—but only if some sort of draft or earlier version exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun.

I remember the generating effect most clearly in February 2015. I had spent the hours of 4-6 am on my dissertation’s second chapter and struggled with reconciling Plato and Aristotle’s similar but unique descriptions of how our imagination works. I was befuddled. So, I headed out on a three-mile run that took me past Kinnick Stadium and the University of Iowa hospital to the Iowa River. Snow lay thick on the banks, and the temperature was below 0. Lights from the Iowa River Corridor glinted from a thousand icy boughs. It was chilly but mesmerizing. Somehow, between the onramp to the green bridge and the art building reading Vita brevis ars longa est, a solution emerged. Clearly. Quietly. Resolutely. Like a friend stepping out from a crowd.

It happens frequently enough for me to believe that the temperature and brilliance of that wintry morning were not the causes.

The writers of Make It Stick argue, however, that the generating effect also occurs with learning. The key, they insist, is that learning has to be understood as engagement (222). The process demands that we confront the issue head on, wrestling with the problem as an opponent, and then give the solution time to emerge. Here’s how they understand the generating effect:

Struggling with the puzzle stirs your creative juices, sets the mind to looking for parallels and metaphors from elsewhere in your experience, knowledge that can be transferred and applied here. It makes you hungry for the solution. And the solution, when you arrive at it, becomes more deeply embedded with your prior knowledge and abilities than anything pasted onto the surface of your brain by PowerPoint.

Thinking about learning in this manner makes me wonder if our minds aren’t more like water puddles. Figuring out problems means we step into the problem, stamp about in it, and stir up the bottom. The solution will come, but we may have to give the contents time to settle before we can see it clearly.

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