Thursday, January 30, 2014

Zoom!

Container ship unloading at the Port of Charleston (January 2013)

“I’d always thought of Charleston as a single location in space,” wrote one student after our short visit. “Now I see it as part of a global dynamic.” The Charleston trip occupied 48 hours in the January-term project I co-taught with Jennifer Dillenger, a recent MBA and director of The Space at Wofford. Our topic for January: the BRICS nations, home to 3 billion people and enormous projected economic growth. In truth, the BRICS topic was a tool we used to cultivate important skills, like scalar thinking, and dispositions, like the willingness to “learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

A “method of Google Earth-style reasoning” is how Bennett, et.al., defined scalar thinking a little over a year ago in Liberal Education. I’ve loved the turn of phrase ever since I heard it. (As a rule, I like new-to-me turns of phrase because they shift my perspective enough to help me think in new ways.) So far, in three classes where we’ve read the article on “An Education for the 21st Century,” my students like the phrase, too.

Doing scalar thinking with students in the BRICS Initiative proved the hard work of learning (and teaching) can also be enormous fun. (Read more about the Initiative in my October guest blog for The Space.) In the Idea Lab, student teams covered the wall with enormous parallel timelines for each BRICS nation. Then they researched a commodity and wove its cultivation and trade through nations and to Europe and the United States. We zoomed in on the Silk Road, which students vaguely recalled from high school social studies, and we saw it in a new light when we discussed supply chains, ancient and modern. We zoomed out to talk about the Atlantic slave trade, then zoomed in on Charleston, where we visited a tea plantation, the port, and a former rice plantation, which prospered with the skilled labor of slaves from the Rice Coast of Africa. Our last class project was an “avatar” challenge (original spark here), in which students received a first name and demographic data we provided, then did research to build a story in the voice of their assigned avatar, each a resident of Rio de Janeiro. The next day in class, Jennifer and I gave them a scenario, a major supply chain disruption (an oil supply disruption), and as they reacted to it as avatars, they began to imagine how our global connectedness can unleash havoc and open opportunity in locally profound ways. Zoom in on empathy, another must-have global citizenship disposition.

Our students—and we instructors—thrived in a space where theoretical, big-picture ideas of business and the humanities converged in the practical, where the nearby became situated in three-dimensional spaces, where we learned more about ourselves-in-the-world as we zoomed in and out each day. We learned, unlearned, and relearned, both about the systems humans invented (like supply chains and higher education) and the ones they didn’t (the physical world), as well as about ourselves in a multi-polar world (and classroom!). What have you unlearned lately?