Writing Class Themes: Real-World Problem Solving

whenwillweusethisI don’t know about you, but I start planning for spring semester around the first of November. It’s a good time if you think about it — you know what’s not working this semester and you consider how to tweak it while it’s fresh on your mind. Since I’ll be teaching an extended inquiry project in spring, I’ve been tossing around themes that allow the class to conduct an overall inquiry while also pursuing their individual projects: Mythbusters and Money Matters were the two rising to the top … until …

On Thanksgiving day, I had the pleasure of being confined to a car for two hours with my 19-year-old son. We share a passionate curiosity and enjoy listening to podcasts together. This time we chose one of our favorites, You Are Not So Smart, the episode on “Drive, Motivation, and Crowd Control” — a great one! In this episode, host David McRaney interviews Daniel Pink, a researcher, writer, and host of the National Geographic series Crowd Control.

In the interview, Pink describes research revealing how companies can best motivate productivity. In a nutshell, he points out that for jobs requiring little to no cognitive effort, paying per piece is best, but for jobs or projects requiring cognition, the best motivators are 1) removing worries about money altogether by paying well, and 2) offering employees autonomy in completing the work, and 3) explaining the purpose and importance of the project/job to the employees.

Since this isn’t at all how the corporate world operates, McRaney asked Pink why this knowledge that could transform labor output, benefiting both owners and workers, hasn’t been implemented. Pink’s response struck a chord with me:

A lot of scientists, whether they are social scientists or whether they are physical scientists spend most of their time talking to each other … the psychologists don’t talk to the economists … both of them are studying behavior … but they rarely talk to each other. But even if you go into the Psychology Department, you’ll find that the social psychologists don’t talk to the developmental psychologists, and so it’s very siloed and very specialized and there’s this really great material that’s not getting out into, I think because of the structure of academe, it’s not getting out into the wider world.

To those of us in higher education, this is not a revelation. We discuss this quite often, but hearing a non-academic identify with such clarity a real-world implication of siloed disciplinary research made me wonder about what other problems we could solve with what we already know. My students synthesize their research as part of their extended inquiry projects, but if they’re synthesizing voices from the same discipline, can they really do anything other than regurgitate? How exciting would it be for students to replicate Pink’s interdisciplinary synthesis and solve a real-world problem or dilemma?

So, while I don’t yet have a name for my spring class theme, I want to replicate Pink’s approach of drawing connections that haven’t been made yet, research that incorporates voices from multiple fields of study with far-reaching implications. I have a few ideas for a class inquiry but welcome feedback. For one, I keep wondering why we hear about teen sleep-deprivation and its impact on academic performance yet my daughter’s high school bumped the morning bell up to 7:30 am just this past fall. Is the research not persuasive enough or are we favoring the schedules of parents to the detriment of our children? Or is it something else? It would be fun and enlightening to comb through the studies with my students and see what we come up with.

I’m super excited about this. Who knows, maybe the students coming through my course next spring can replicate this strategy as they move through their studies and ever so slightly shift the world of research into a more holistic approach. A teacher can dream, can’t she?

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Filed under first-year writing, FYC, Higher Ed, Inquiry, teaching, themes, Writing

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