What sense can we make of the phrase “thinking with things?” On the face of it, it seems naive, even “primitive.” We think with our brains, of course, not with things. Or do we? Recent research studies–and a certain amount of common sense–reveal that we think with our bodies, not just our gray matter, and that we also “think with” our environment. In sensory deprivation experiments, people stop being able to think after a fairly short period of time.
This year I’m launching an exploration of the meaning and implications of thinking and learning with things. What role do the objects and qualities of our environment play in our ability to think and learn? What are the implications for what we do in higher education and beyond?
As a professor, I’ve watched how the classroom dynamics change when I introduce “things to think with.” The students become more engaged, create new and unexpected “constructions” (both physical and intellectual) and become “makers” rather than “consumers” of information and learning. For me, freeing my students to wrestle with things is also inviting them to wrestle with ideas, and for all the control I surrender, I get back so much in insight, engagement, and surprise. When I bring Lego into a learning environment, the air becomes charged, and fascinating things happen. This is true even when my learners are professors–in fact, they may feel the greatest “sensory deprivation” of all.