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Connecting the dots in the classroom 

click to enlarge Chris Edwards relaxes in the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, where he'll speak Friday, Dec. 7 about his new book, 'Teaching Genius.' - MARK LEE
  • Chris Edwards relaxes in the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, where he'll speak Friday, Dec. 7 about his new book, 'Teaching Genius.'
  • Mark Lee

Start with one dot. Say, the fact that, unlike most mammals, humans can sweat through their skin in a remarkable display of effective cooling. Then add a few more data points: The fact that humans can rotate their shoulders. That, unlike extinct hominoids, we have a nuchal ligament linking head to spine so that our heads remain steady while running. That human anatomy includes large muscles in the thighs and rear end, and that we boast Achilles tendons and big knee joints.

Now, try to draw connections, convergences, similarities. And thus you have, in action, the Connect the Dots teaching method, which lays the framework for "eureka" moments for students charged with connecting one dot of information to another. It's the brainchild of Chris Edwards, a social studies teacher at Fishers High School, and is the basis of his new book, Teaching Genius: Redefining Education with Lessons from Science and Philosophy.

The 35-year-old Edwards - who will speak about his book Friday at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library - was a renowned essayist and successful teacher long before his toddler son, Ben, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. But he credits the doctors who saved Ben's life with refocusing his own life. Teaching Genius is dedicated to the specialists that saved Ben's brain, and targeted to those who recognize that teachers can save brains, too.

Ben is alive, according to Edwards, because brain scientists built upon each others' findings - in neurosurgery and physics and oncology - until they could zap tumors without destroying cognition and personality. Edwards is utterly convinced that the future of education also depends on piggybacking ideas from various disciplines. The result would be schools full of research-based bridge builders (teachers) and future geniuses (students). The first step in that process, he humbly suggests, is reading his book.

At Fishers High School, where the faculty book club is reading his book, he requires students to link research from math, physics, and history, so that they might better understand Isaac Newton's work on gravity and what he meant with his famous "shoulders of giants" principle: "If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

Newton and other mental giants of yesteryear provide Edwards with dots of data that become the bridges his students need to think deeply. "Interconnectedness of knowledge is key," Edwards explained from his classroom last week. Heraclitus said it this way 2,500 years ago: "Those who love wisdom must be inquirers into many things indeed."

For Michael Shermer, editor of the magazine Skeptic, which has published work by Edwards, new knowledge requires "patternicity," finding constellations in the informational sky. According to Shermer, Edwards has written "wonderful articles for us, and he's a leader in the skeptics movement."

Abe Lincoln is one of Edwards's favorite dot connectors (and he recommends Steven Spielberg's Lincoln film). So are Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist/cosmologist, and Jared Diamond, the scientist best known for his book Guns, Germs, and Steel. Edwards has delved deeply in the informational sky, as the 74 references at the back of Teaching Genius attest, and he firmly believes that all secondary teachers should likewise immerse in research, putting aside coaching and the myriad distractions that overburden today's educators.

Not that Edwards fits the stereotype of a head-in-the-clouds thinker. As a teenager, he played basketball for Tri-West High School in Hendricks County and can recall games against Brad Stevens, now Butler University's coach. Edwards graduated as an education major from Indiana University, where he wrote for the Indiana Daily Student and met his wife.

Their older son, Blake, is in first grade, making his dad proud by immersing in reading. During the time that Ben's prognosis was sketchy, Edwards threw himself into writing Teaching Genius, consolidating ideas from the 10 essays he published in academic journals and two books on philosophy. Edwards, who holds a doctorate degree in education, currently writes a blog for Riley Hospital. Links to his other publications can be found at teachinggeniusrowman.org.

Confessing that he gets obsessive about research, writing, and teaching, Edwards says he thrives on reading about the "really cool stuff that really intelligent people are doing" and then figuring out how to present such stuff to teenagers. The dots that he asks students to connect don't often come from "dry" social studies textbooks, but from 1,200 pages of his own research. He knows that tomorrow's geniuses will emerge from schools that focus not on test data, but on critical thinking. "How do we get those interesting insights into the classroom?" Edwards asked. "The only way is to redefine the teacher and what a teacher does."

Teachers should make kids feel confused, make them read, make them open to the ways that minds are changed, Edwards said. He loves to rock teenage worlds by introducing students to 1950s research on indigenous people in Brazil to whom memory - those pictures in our brains that represent what has already occurred - represents not the past, but the future. To these isolated Brazilians, life ends after people get tired of chasing the opposite sex and only want to play until they can't speak or hardly do anything anymore. According to tribal culture, people die peacefully after shrinking so small that they fit into their mother's abdomens. Then they dissolve.

Once students try to wrap their minds around that, Edwards said, they have more insight into other paradigm shifts that make social studies so much fun to teach. Edwards asks teenagers to figure out why ancient Rome produced so few mathematicians (answer: "lousy Roman numerals") and why the Muslim system of algebra revolutionized the field of math. "The future belongs to people who can bring information together from various disciplines in a way that makes sense," Edwards said.

For the crowd that he'll address Friday night, Edwards will likely open with the dot-connecting curriculum he offers on Parent Night at Fishers High School. He might introduce the origin of explosives in China as a method of producing fireworks, not weaponry. Edwards will lead his audience through dot after dot until they understand that various influences, from Galileo's research on ballistics to the design of church bells, combined with fireworks to revolutionize warfare.

Can you connect the dots to see how an inverted church bell became a weapon of mass destruction? Linking such connections across disciplines is called consilience, and Edwards is sure that consilience is key to teaching genius.

Ready to test your consilience? Simply connect the dots supplied at the beginning of this article. Sweat allows humans to endure in a foot race after other mammals overheat and stop running. A steady head and strong legs also helped early humans keep up with prey. Rotating shoulders allowed them to throw rocks, darts, and spears with great accuracy at exhausted, overheated animals. If you've connected the dots, you'll understand why mammoths and massive prehistoric animals vanished from North America shortly after humans migrated here.

"Education is literally the process of civilizing the hunter-gatherer brain," said Edwards. Infuse enough high schools with research into the history of philosophy and the history of science, Edwards predicted, and geniuses will inevitably connect the dots. Educators will no longer be asked to coach. Instead, they will be encouraged to read widely and seek patterns so that their students will do the same.

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