By Angela Kohnen and Wendy Saul, authors of the new book Thinking Like a Generalist: Skills for Making Sense of a Complex World
Even before the schoolhouse doors were shuttered Jeanette Smith’s 6th grade ELA students had a lot of questions: “Will coronavirus come here?” “Are we in danger?” “What will happen next?” Even more worrying to Jeanette, some were eagerly sharing “facts”: “Take Vitamin C—then you can’t get it.” “It’s really no big deal—you should be more worried about the flu.”
The importance of the questions.
Their questions were important, Ms. Smith knew, but she felt unprepared to answer them—and scared to let her limited class time slip away. Each day she spent a few minutes debunking the most alarming rumors, but otherwise she turned back to the curriculum. After all, she already had more to cover than she could ever get to.
Now, sheltered at home and working largely online with her students, Jeanette is reconsidering her approach. Like many teachers, she is concerned about preparing pupils to advance academically—and dreads the idea of their next ELA teacher knocking on her door in September and asking why the new 7th graders can’t seem to identify the author’s purpose or use evidence in their writing. She is proud when the 7th grade social studies teacher regularly comments, “I can always tell which students had your class—they are so good at close reading!”
The importance of the answers.
But this virus has teachers everywhere thinking about life outside of school, life beyond school. At the same time we imagine an uncertain future, we seek to find better ways to respond to the critically important, teachable moments uncertainty provides. In the past, most of us have taught a standard curriculum and hoped that the lessons learned could be applied to personal questions both large and small. Like Ms. Smith, we have sought to squeeze in a few student queries and curiosities by offering up answers rather than trying to teach students how to find and assess current, changing information that affects their lives, especially when answers to their queries are not clear and cannot be determined from the text set on the shelf.
The importance of the effort.
To understand the importance of the effort, just think about what you learned in school and its relevance and accuracy today: the food pyramid has been reconceived, Wikipedia has come into its own, and the Web has been shown to have a very dark side. Surely this generation has been exposed to the term “fake news” and online education has taken on new meaning. Gene therapy and Mars exploration were not part of the curriculum 10 or 15 years ago. We don’t even need to go back that far. Think about how much the world has changed since fall 2019! Our point is this: it’s impossible to predict, let alone teach, everything students will need in order to navigate a world of information 10 or 15 years hence. What are we teaching today that students will be able to use years after they leave our classrooms? What dispositions and skills will help students make sense of their real questions in a complex world of information?
Like Ms. Smith and the many teachers with whom we have worked over the years, you may see the value in bringing authentic queries and information into your classroom, but are nervous about how to get started. In Thinking Like a Generalist: Strategies for Navigating a Complex World, we share what we have learned through our work in classrooms to help address this question: How might we help our students to become “generalists,” people who are capable of accessing, evaluating, and understanding information from a range of experts in order to make sense of their authentic questions and curiosities.
The importance of thinking like a generalist.
We began by looking at the generalists are all around us—journalists, librarians, children’s book authors and asked about their core identities. What are their ways of being, knowing, and doing that help them thrive where others get overwhelmed or misled? Generalists are: curious, open-minded, skeptical, and persistent. When they are faced with a question or unfamiliar information, they know how to begin learning more; they recognize good sources of information and know when more than one source is needed; they can find guides to help them navigate the most confusing terrain; they’re able to compare information sources to one another and to read with (to comprehend) and against (to critique) texts of all kinds.
In Thinking Like a Generalist, you’ll learn how to act as a generalist yourself—and you’ll meet great teachers who have found ways to make generalist thinking and literacy a part of their curriculum.
To learn more about how to think like a generalist, keep an eye out later this month for a podcast interview with Angela and Wendy. You can subscribe to Teacher's Corner where ever you listen to podcasts, or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
About the authors
Angela M. Kohnen is an Assistant Professor of Literacy Education at the University of Florida. Prior to earning her doctorate at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, she taught English Language Arts in the St. Louis area. She loves working with students at all levels to explore questions of genuine curiosity.
Wendy Saul, formerly the Allen B. and Helen S. Shopmaker Chair of Education and International Studies at the University of Missouri-St Louis – is now retired but still spends countless hours thinking with her former students and colleagues about generalist literacy; connections between science, reading and writing; and active learning and critical thinking in under-resourced countries, both here and abroad.