the educational technology journal

Vol 19|No 4|May-June 2010
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Studying Complex Concepts such as Beauty, Truth and Courage in Depth

By Jamie McKenzie, ©2010, all rights reserved.
About author

Sadly, we live in times when many people thirst for simple solutions to complex problems and elect politicians eager to give them what they seek. This thirst leads to misguided educational policies overemphasizing testing and experimental reform efforts. It leaves governments unable to regulate the banking industry in ways that make sense.

© Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.

Life presents baffling puzzles and mysteries that deserve careful thought and consideration, but many folk have neither the patience nor the skill to invest in such probing.

Unless we raise citizens who appreciate the value of entertaining complexity, the health of the democracy is threatened as voters swing from one scheme and schemer to another with the volatility of the stock markets. In Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, Chris Hedges suggests that the majority of citizens have substituted fantasy and entertainment for reality.

The Limitations
of Dictionary Learning

In George Orwell's 1984, the leaders hoped to reduce the vocabulary of the proles to fewer than one thousand words. In that way, they reasoned, the citizens would not be capable of crimethink.

crimestop - Orwell's definition: "The faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. In short....protective stupidity."

I grew up memorizing the meaning of words from dictionaries so I could score well on the SAT verbal test and gain entrance to Yale. My understanding of these words was meager. I could pick the right multiple choice and perform analogies, but my comprehension was superficial, at best.

There are dozens of concepts such as beauty, courage, truth, honor and originality that are deserving of a different approach — one that deepens and extends the students' understanding so they can appreciate more fully the nuances and rich possibilities of such words. This understanding will serve them well as they ponder great works of literature as well as the challenges of their own times.

Reproduced here from the Visual Thesaurus with permission from Thinkmap, Inc.

Limits of Dictionary Learning

  • A tendency to oversimplify
  • Compression
  • Memorization does not equate with understanding
  • Mystery requires more

Schools should prepare the young to value complexity and see its connection to understanding. This challenge is a matter of blending skill with attitude.

Schools should combat what I have called in the past "Mentalsoftness" — lazy, superficial thinking.


Prime Indicators of MentalSoftness™

Fondness for clichés and clichéd thinking - simple statements that are time worn, familiar and likely to carry surface appeal.
Reliance upon maxims - truisms, platitudes, banalities and hackneyed sayings - to handle demanding, complex situations requiring deep thought and careful consideration.
Appetite for bromides - the quick fix, the easy answer, the sugar coated pill, the great escape, the short cut, the template, the cheat sheet.
Preference for platitudes, near truths, slogans, jingles, catch phrases and buzzwords.
Vulnerability to propaganda, demagoguery and mass movements based on appeals to emotions, fears and prejudice.
Impatience with thorough and dispassionate analysis.
Eagerness to join some crowd or other - wear, do and think what is fashionable, cool, hip, fab, or the opposite or whatever . . .
Hunger for vivid and dramatic packaging.
Fascination with the story, the play, the drama, the show, the episode and the epic rather than the idea, the question, the argument, the premise, the logic or the substance. We're not talking good stories or story lines here. We're talking pulp fiction.
Fascination with cults, personalities, celebrities, chat, gossip, hype, speculation, buzz and blather.
MentalSoftness™ is a term coined by Jamie McKenzie in May, 2000. (See FNO, May, 2000, "Beyond Information Power.").
Some ideas and concepts take years to develop — even a lifetime!

Was Joan of Arc courageous?

A "yes" answer may seem easy, but the concept of courage becomes more complicated when we ask, "Which demanded more courage from Joan, leading troops in battle, facing the judges at her trial or enduring her punishment?"

It turns out there are many different kinds of courage.

Which of the images shown below from the sculptures outside the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham show the most courage?

As audiences have struggled with this question, differences are quick to surface, as one person sees the confrontation with police and dog daunting, while others vote for the conscious choice of jail requiring more courage. There is not a correct answer, obviously, but the process requires attention to definition.

Just what is courage? What are the signs? the traits? the degrees?

Orchestrating Provocative Lessons

The role of the teacher in such a unit is to orchestrate a series of learning experiences like the one above that begin to stretch the students' original thinking about the concept. After considering the Civil Rights images above, perhaps the teacher has the class view the Nike video below, asking, "How is the Nike view of courage different or similar to the types of courage we considered above?

“I got soul but I’m not a soldier!”

During these activities, students should be keeping track of their thoughts in some kind of journal, whether it be on a word processor or in mindmapping software. They will eventually accumulate several dozen statements that capture various aspects of courage.

Now that the students are intrigued, the teacher may send them to a quotation Web site such as ThinkExist.com to collect statements about courage by thinkers and famous people. In the diagram above, a student has found a quotation from Winston Churchill and has attached his name to the Quotations cluster.

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”

The teacher urges students to collect several dozen quotations with a special emphasis upon those that stretch their original thinking into new domains.

After collecting quotations, perhaps the teacher asks the students to collect photographs or paintings that show various types or aspects of courage. They go to Google Images and find quite a diverse collection.

Following this image collecting, the teacher asks the students to listen to "Courage is . . ." by the Strange Familiar at http://www.myspace.com/thestrangefamiliar and consider how the lyrics add to their understanding:

Courage is when you're afraid,
But you keep on moving anyway
Courage is when you're in pain,
But you keep on living anyway

Student Contributions

At some point the teacher invites students to add their own discoveries to the class experience.

"If you find a movie or newspaper article or song or photograph that would enrich our thinking about courage or some related word, bring it to class and share it with us."

Responding to this challenge, one student finds a chilling video on YouTube - Virginia Tech - Courage Under Fire.

This video keeps the class occupied for an entire period as students try to fathom the kind of spirit and life experience that would inspire the sacrifice made by Dr. Librescu.

Another student makes the class aware of a book and a movie, "The Sweet Hereafter" with a song by Sarah Polley covering The Tragically Hip's song — "Courage." This leads the class to get copies of Russell Bank's novel and to view the film.

Some students follow the lead of the Tragically Hip and read about Hugh MacLennan, the Canadian novelist and teacher to whom the song was dedicated.

Expanding the List of Related Words and Concepts

While the inquiry began with courage as the focus, the group has been collecting related words as they appear and has been seeking them out with tools like the Visual Thesaurus.

How does bravery differ from courage? If someone is fearless are they capable of courage?

Finding Poems with a Focus on Courage

The teacher acquaints the class with several online collections of poetry and asks each student to identify a favorite poem with a focus on courage. They may search for "courage" at http://poemhunter.com or at http://bartleby.com and they will find dozens of poems to consider. Alternatively, they may do a Google search for a courageous person from history like Dr. Martin Luther King and the word "poem" or "poetry." This search would lead them to the poem below . . .

In honor of Martin Luther King


    Some kings rule their kingdoms sitting down
    Surrounded by luxury, soft cushions and fans
    But this King stood strong
    stood proud
    stood tall

    When the driver told Rosa
    "Move to the back of the bus!"
    When the waiter told students
    "We don't serve your kind!"
    When the Mayor told voters
    "Your vote don't count!"
    And when the sheriff told marchers
    "Get off our streets!"
    using fire hoses, police dogs and cattle prods
    to move them along
    This King stood strong
    stood proud
    stood tall
    Speaking of peace
    of love
    and children
    hand in hand
    free at last
    free at last

    When some yelled for violence
    For angry revenge
    An eye for an eye
    And a tooth for a tooth
    He stood his ground
    Preaching peace

    And when some spit out hate
    He stood there smiling
    Spreading love
    Until it rolled like the sea across the land
    Sweeping away Jim Crow
    Breaking down the walls
    Ringing the bell
    For Freedom

    Standing on the mountain top
    They shot him
    Hoping to see him fall
    Hoping to put him away
    To bring him low

    But this King
    even in death
    even today
    stands strong
    stands proud
    stands tall
    And we remember

by Jamie McKenzie

© 1982, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.
This poem may be printed and shared by schools
without special permission and may be sent electronically
from individuals to other individuals. All other forms of
duplication, publishing and distribution require explicit
permission from the author.

Fixing the Dictionary

By the time students have devoted a week or more to the kind of learning outlined above, the dictionary definition of courage will strike most of them as superficial and inadequate. Challenged to improve upon the dictionary, they should have no trouble identifying aspects of courage that have been neglected or poorly stated. While the quality of definitions will vary from dictionary to dictionary, none is likely to satisfy.

Consider the following three . . .


There are a number of tasks that will challenge students to demonstrate their grasp of the concept's complexities.

  1. Rewrite one dictionary definition of courage, explaining below your new definition why you made the changes you did.
  2. Decide which of the following three people from history had to summon the most courage: Captain Bligh, Captain Cook or Captain Flinders. Give evidence to support your choice.
  3. When are regular people most likely to need courage in their own lives?
  4. Is courage something that can be developed, do you think? Give examples from literature or history.
  5. Having studied courage for several weeks, what stands out as the best example you discovered? Explain.

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