Research Cycle

 Vol 4|No 4|April|2008
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The April Issue

The Thinker in Residence Programme

Reflections from the Visitor - Jamie McKenzie

What a remarkable way to spend a week.

Five days of meeting with staff and students in what were often free ranging discussions of what it means to be a thinker. For my part, I began by stating my belief that every person in the school could be a thinker if she or he chose to be one.

At the same time, I warned that some folks (like the one on the cover of my book on the left) have graduated from the very best schools without ever learning to be thinkers in the full sense of the word.

What are the traits that distinguish a thinker from a non-thinker? We spent lots of time exploring that question and wondering how a school might best nurture the development of such thinkers.

Note: The photograph of Terry Allen's Corporate Head is reproduced on the book cover with the permission of the artist but is copyrighted.

With the New Zealand Curriculum's renewed emphasis upon thinking, the visit and the week seemed timely. Key sections of that curriculum state the following goals:

Students who are competent thinkers and problem-solvers actively seek, use, and create knowledge. They reflect on their own learning, draw on personal knowledge and intuitions, ask questions, and challenge the basis of assumptions and perceptions.

When meeting with students, we explored a single concept in more depth than is often typical of classroom discourse. We took the concept of beauty and both extended and deepened our grasp of what it might mean in our lives. The more we explored, the more complex our understanding. Rather than compressing and simplifying, we entertained the possibility that some concepts such as truth, beauty, friendship, courage and honor might be worthy of prolonged inquiry. The girls considered the many facets of thinking shown in the diagram below and played with them to see how they might cast light on the concept at hand.

Provoking Deep Thought

We began with ten photographs from a Seattle folk festival.

"Which of these photographs expresses or shows the most beauty?"

They were displayed on a large screen, one at a time, and then each girl was asked to write down their choice and several reasons why they had picked the particular photograph. Their choices were spread across half a dozen pictures and the resulting discussion was quite spirited.

A Matter of Definitions and Quotations

After this discussion I asked the girls to jot down quick early definitions of what they thought beauty means. We moved on to consider what famous thinkers, authors and celebrities have said or written about beauty and the girls were again asked to make and defend a choice.

Which of these quotations at does the best job of capturing the meaning of beauty or adds the most to your understanding of the concept?

Again the choices were quite spread out across the quotations we considered and the complexity of the concept became evident to everyone.

There was no simple definition available that would be satisfying or come close to capturing the many different meanings and layers of meaning that the group had already identified.

Inner beauty.
Outer beauty.
Natural beauty.
Artistic beauty.

The list grew and the cluster diagram we started early in the discussion became increasingly complicated.

At this point, the group took a look at a definition of beauty offered by the dictionary on my laptop and critiqued it, considering its strengths and weaknesses:

noun ( pl. -ties)
1 a combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, esp. the sight : I was struck by her beauty | an area of outstanding natural beauty.
• a combination of qualities that pleases the intellect or moral sense.
• [as adj. ] denoting something intended to make a woman more attractive : beauty products | beauty treatment.
2 a beautiful or pleasing thing or person, in particular
• a beautiful woman.
• an excellent specimen or example of something : the fish was a beauty, around 14 pounds.
• ( the beauties of) the pleasing or attractive features of something : the beauties of the Pennsylvania mountains.
• [in sing. ] the best feature or advantage of something : the beauty of keeping cats is that they don't tie you down.
New Oxford American Dictionary

The girls were quick to suggest aspects of beauty that the definition failed to honor as each seemed to feel their personal definitions encompassed more than the dictionary.

More Insights from New Zealand Art and Photography

Exceptional digital archives at the National Museum and the National Library offered several more opportunities for the girls to extend their understanding of beauty.

We compared photographs from each source and again the group was quite divided when faced with a half dozen choices.

Insights from Advertising

A series of videos from Dove moved our inquiry over to focus on the "beauty industry." The series is designed to counter many of the damaging messages aimed at women, and the girls were asked to consider what new questions these videos provoked about beauty.

"Dove Onslaught" available at
the Dove Self-Esteem Fund
and reproduced here with permission from Dove.

Dove Onslaught and Dove Evolution are slick but powerful.

  • Did these videos shift or deepen your understanding of beauty?
  • Why do you suppose Dove is doing this? Do you trust their intentions?

To further deepen the girls' appreciation of the concepts, they viewed Slob Evolution, a clever parody of Dove Evolution showing a good looking young man who smokes, drinks and eats his way into an unattractive state worsened by PhotoShopping.

These videos set the stage for the questioning activities that ended the first session. Rather than tying up the activity in a neat bundle, we finished by listing questions still needing attention.

Questions for a Life?

The girls in one group came up with the following questions:

  • If people have good lives and people who love them, why do they think they need to change their appearance?
  • Did you inherit or earn your beauty?
  • What's the point of looking good when on the inside you're feeling ugly?
  • How can I change to become beautiful on the inside?
  • How can your inner beauty be shown to the world without hurting other people?

We did not have time to make a list of questions to go along with "What choices must I make?" but it was clear to the girls that questions of beauty would be with them for many years.


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