Blog Post

Ken Wissoker's Talk on Global Knowledge and Creative Thinking: From Pedagogy to Scholarship

On October 31, 2015, Ken Wissoker, Editorial Director at Duke University Press, gave one of the two keynote addresses at The Classroom Re-Imagined, a conference of over 800 educators from all over Malaysia convened by Leaps of Knowledge (FrogAsia) in Kuala Lumpur.   Following is a transcript of his talk making connections between what happens in the K-12 classroom and the most serious scholarly research (and vice versa).



I’m honored and a bit humbled to be speaking to you all today.  As you have heard I’m an editor, publishing books by scholars around the world.  I am not a teacher, or an expert on schools.  But I am very lucky, since I deal with the scholars who once upon a time were the best students, the students who have been most successful.  Not perhaps successful in the way their parents might have hoped – as doctors or lawyers – but successful at school.  If you are a professor at a university, something about school grabbed you.  And probably there was a person who grabbed you too—and that person was probably a teacher who saw your spark, who recognized your intelligence and your original habits of mind. 

            As Editorial Director at a scholarly press, it is my job to look at proposals and manuscripts from Professors around the world and think about which of these will make the most impact.  The subject of the studies we publish might be large and philosophical, or it might be a small topic that turns out to open out a whole field.  For example, we could learn about globalization in the abstract, or through a study of hip hop music in Japan.  In either, I’m looking for innovative thinking that will be influential.  I am looking for books that will make everyone who reads them think differently.


Where does that kind of thinking come from?  How do we encourage it in our classrooms?  Your students don’t have to become professors to profit from the same kind of creative thinking that characterizes the books I publish.  This is the kind of creative ongoing learning that can benefit every student and every classroom.  It is the kind of ongoing learning that we all need to practice in every day life outside of school too.


At a time when so many of the facts that were formally the basis of education are easily learned from one’s phone, the emphasis must fall back onto what to do with those facts and on how to ask the questions that change which facts are important.  We must learn to read closely and critically, in order to be good citizens in a society where the facts will constantly change, where the information keeps expanding more and more rapidly.   When we ask where does innovation happen in a society, whether at a local level – in a classroom or a neighborhood – or at a national or international scale in a corporation or an NGO – it comes in some way from thinking outside the box, from creative thinking.  Innovation comes from being able to imagine a solution to a problem that no one has thought about yet.  Or innovation comes from figuring out how to implement a solution that may have seemed impossible just a short while ago.  That kind of innovative thinking is just as valuable for an engineer as it is for a medical researcher.  It is just as valuable for someone trying to improve housing or trying to reimagine the classroom in order to improve education.


Where does creative thinking come from?  In the authors I publish I find that one place creative thinking comes from is an opportunity to see from multiple perspectives.  The same phenomena are seen or heard or understood differently around the world, and by different people in the same country. 


Think about a piece of music.  Some people will hear the rhythm, others mostly the melody; some judge the harmony, some remember the words.  The same song will sound differently here than it might in India or in Australia.  It will fit into a different history, a different landscape of other songs, different musical traditions, different practices and different kinds of expertise.  It will sound familiar or unfamiliar, original or derivative, depending on how it fits into each cultural place.   If you wanted to think about the song in the fullest way, one might bring together listeners who heard it in very different ways.  Their conversation might be far more interesting than a set of experts with all the same background, arguing over the same details.  


In a connected classroom, students could share their own music—and their musical expertise.  They could communicate what they hear when they listen—and what they hear differently. 


Similarly, the history of photography is different if you tell the story of it in Indonesia than it would for Korea.  I happen to be publishing books on exactly these subjects.  One of these, Karen Strassler’s Refractive Visions:  Popular Photography and National Modernity in Java, won three major prizes—one in cultural anthropology, one in Southeast Asian Studies, and one in visual anthropology.  This book is about vernacular photography in Indonesia—photo contests in the 1950s, photographs of student activists, Chinese photo studios during colonial times.  One could easily imagine Malaysian photo albums from different generations that told their own stories.  What a great classroom project that would be!   To have students collect family photos and build a cultural history from their own family history and, together, make a collective history.   It could even become a global, cultural story—a connected learning project--where students around the world used an online platform to make a collective photo album from vernacular photographs.  Students could discover connections—and, equally important, they could discover differences.  They could do research. They could decide what was distinctive.  They could build a collaborative and complex history from their personal research, their different stories, their wealth of varied evidence, and their collaborative goal of discovery.


And one of those students might someday become a college professor and perhaps a scholar with a manuscript to submit to me!


The history your students might tell from their own histories of photographs will be different than a history of photography that assumes all the important things happened in England or France or the United States.  It’s not solely a matter of whose history counts (though that is very important).  It is through the multiple histories we see the different possibilities of understanding what we might have assumed was the same art form, the same technology, or the same social process. 


When Professor Davidson encourages student-centered learning, where the students projects drive the class, it’s these kind of investigations that she is encouraging.  What does each student with their own background and way of thinking contribute to the class as a whole?  How can that be valued, channeled and encouraged, so they go on to continue learning long after the class is finished?


Learning facts for a test is important for passing the test of course—but only works as long as the facts hold.  This week someone asked me how many people live in New York City, where we live.  I realized I once had learned that fact, maybe for a class, but my knowledge was a decade or so out of date.  Useless.  If I need to know, I can go and look it up.  When we measure learning by testing, we are too frequently looking for the mastery of a set of facts.  Which will change.  What we want to be doing is encouraging the thinking that moves along with the facts and is able to interpret new circumstances.  Because they always arrive.


The greatest scholars I know share an ability to take ideas and areas of learning that most people – even most other scholars -- would think disparate and to put them together in a new way.  How could we do that in a classroom project? 


One example that I learned from Cathy was about a group of Los Angeles students that wanted to do an environmental project. This was a group of students and professors from a very poor school district and they decided to measure the quality of the air in a number of spaces around their own neighborhood and then around the city in general.   They began looking for where there were toxic chemicals that might be unsafe.  It turned out that at the Walt Disney concert hall downtown, where the Los Angeles Symphony played, there was more toxic matter inside the auditorium itself than in the parking garage nearby.  Everyone would have thought with car exhaust and bad Los Angeles smog that the garage would have been worse, but no, it was the concert hall from all the toxic chemicals in the industrial cleaning materials and from the perfume and cosmetics and dry-cleaned fabrics we wear than it was in the parking garage!   It’s easy to see what the students might learn in this kind of exercise.  They learn how to measure toxic chemicals and to use the devices that measure them.  They learn what the chemicals are. They learn how to protect themselves and to exercise caution, sometimes in places they did not even know to be afraid of before.   Some of them were probably in a concert hall for the first time (even if they learned it was a dangerous place).  They needed to work as a team to get permission to do the study in the first place. So they also learned about rules for research, government policy, bureaucracies, rules.  They learned experimental methods.   And then they achieved memorable results. Because the results were so surprising, they took the next step of communicating it in press releases published in several newspapers so they also learned communication and public speaking and public relations skills. I’m talking about them here today in Kuala Lumpur.  This happened to 12 year olds in Los Angeles five or six years ago.  I am sure they still remember everything about the process.  I am sure they have never forgotten. 


And what they learned continues to influence people—including, I hope, here, in this audience.  How many of them would remember what they were supposed to memorize that same week for one of their school tests?  How many of them would say that what they memorized had as big an impact on society on this experiment that they conducted?   The research they did changed their lives—and maybe other lives too.  There is even an amazing postscript to this story.  The professor who helped them to do this testing later worked with a company to build a small device that can be put into any business or home to test pollution levels.  It also gives advice when the levels are high:  it might tell you something simple like open a window—or close a window.  Or buy a big leafy plant to help with carbon dioxide.   Just this year, a major manufacturer bought the device and will be marketing it soon.   A great outcome for what was already an inspiring story. 


One of the wonderful things about this example is the way it shows how encouraging creative thinking does not mean abandoning standards for good, smart work.  It’s easy to see that the planning and discussion of the project would take more research and a higher standard than learning some equivalent information from a textbook.  If some of the students thought the parking garage was still more dangerous, they could make their argument – which would mean more research – and would result in everyone having a more complicated view of the issue.


I was in high school a long time ago now, in the early 1970s.  It was right around the time that hand-held calculators became commercially available.  They were expensive, but some people in my class had parents who were scientists or engineers and they had them.  Our teacher was teaching us trigonometry and how to use a slide rule, in probably the same way they had been teaching it since they started at the school. The kids with calculators could figure out all the sine problems with ease, and showed the rest of us how to do it.  What was the purpose of using the slide rule then?  Why would we need to know that?  The teaching had failed to keep up with the technology.  What we needed to learn was trigonometry, not a way of doing it we would never use.


This is an easy example because it depends on a technology.  A great work of literature or an important piece of history is not going to be superseded in the same way.  But there are always new histories and new novels; one learns about new cultures or sees art one has never imagined.  For each of these one needs the flexible tools; the way to see and understand that is not tied to knowing one set of objects but is open to all the worlds’ futures.  This can begin in our own classrooms.  And it begins by thinking differently.   Thank you.


1 comment

This is a great perspective.  In the elementary classroom we can't always expect kids to come with different contributions or even a framework for abstract concepts.  Just like the LA students you mentioned had to apply the idea of environment to their immediate surroundings to gain insight, we have to take things like 'citizenship' and 'community' and make them relevant to our individual classrooms if we want young learners to seek them in the bigger world.