Teaching Associative Thought

Preparation time in class with students: 15 minutes
Student homework exercises: 1-2 hours

These exercises improve critical thinking by facilitating associative thought, or the mental zig-zag leaping from idea to idea that is key to purposeful brainstorming. By studying the visual images in these exercises and by clicking on and following the keyword links found on each page, students are introduced in a self-determined but structured way to the values, worldview and mentalities of the past. At the same time, they are given guidance that encourages their abilities to see patterns and to make creative connections across different historical concepts and artistic media - in short, to brainstorm.

These exercises help students:

  • to practice close reading skills with visual primary sources
  • to compare themes within and between civilizations
  • to create their own narrative without jeopardizing the importance of historical chronology or lineality
  • to play in a sophisticated way with fundamental historical concepts
  • to acquire information literacy - that is, to understand the internet as a distinct medium whose functioning shapes what and how knowledge happens

The exercises here make use of the Web site's structure as a vertical portal. After reviewing the page that introduces the exercises themselves (Visual Primary Sources Exercise 1 or Visual Primary Sources Exercise 2) users will turn to the main page for a civilization (Islamic Pictures or European Pictures). On this page, instructors and students will find a single image, some introductory remarks and links to seven other pages. On each of these pages is a single image and accompanying text. Below that text on each page is a series of three keywords, constructed as hypertext links.

These keywords are designed to clarify the image, introduce and explain related concepts or evoke new but related ideas. By clicking on a keyword link, users are taken to a page for that keyword, which itself has its own picture, descriptive accompanying text and yet another set of (different) keyword links. From any page, then, one can traverse the site by clicking on named images and their associated keyword terms. Users can go forward and back, take another turn, retrace their steps or leap wildly about. Users also can regain their bearings by returning to the main page or syllabus by clicking on the footers found on every page.

Experiencing the site in this way allows students to create their own narratives within a defined set of terms and associations. That defining structure is the result of the information architecture of the Web site itself, and helps keep students from going too far afield. By clicking and studying the pages, all students are exposed to the same materials, but the actual route that each student takes and the narrative each tells is the result of his or her own interests and imagination. Serendipity here, then, is controlled but not suppressed. And the associations one makes allow both for the creative experiencing of the site itself and for facilitating brainstorming-style connections. Step-by-step instructions are below.

  1. Before the first assignment, instructors may want to ask students to run off and bring to class for next time: How to Prepare Visual Primary Sources.

  2. In class, review the guide(s) with students in detail. These guides direct student activities, thinking and note taking. Instructors with classroom internet access might well want to take time to access the appropriate exercises site (either Visual Primary Sources Exercise 1 or Visual Primary Sources Exercise 2) and the pictures main page that accompanies each exercise page (Islamic Pictures or European Pictures, again, whichever is appropriate).

    In class, instructors can demonstrate both how to take notes using the guide and how to use the site to follow the keyword footers. It is important to show students that by moving through the Web site, they are slowly constructing a narrative. As they click on the different keywords, they are building up historical and conceptual maps of understanding. They are instructed in the exercise to follow their own imaginations but to keep track of their routes and to be self-reflective about the insights they have gained.

  3. After students have had time to go through the exercise, instructors may want to lead a class discussion wherein students compare narratives or even just offer different suggestions/readings of particular keywords.

    I had students discuss what themes they thought were important for the civilization in question, based on their new maps or narrative sets of visual images. (See History 110B Syllabus) They also discussed how those themes were different from the impressions they had gotten from their first viewing of the images. Later, we compared medieval Islamic and European civilizations by comparing clarified themes and associations.

    On another occasion, students used the Web site exercise to help them find categories of analysis for a paper that compared visual and textual primary sources within a civilization - but the categories of analysis and criteria for analysis came as a result of the brainstorming qualities of this exercise.

  4. For comments on how this worked in practice and padagogical considerations see my Reflective Essay.