I was reading a book of essays the other day (this one, if you are interested.) In one essay the author, Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, compares the ideas of reproductive and productive thinking.
A person using reproductive thinking might start with the question “given this new problem to solve, how can I most closely reproduce solutions that have worked in the past?” A person thinking productively might start with “I want to achieve this goal. What things can I do with my current resources to produce this result?”
These aren’t really new ideas. And Pearl-McPhee never claims to be breaking new intellectual ground. Mostly, she seems relieved that the more highly valued productive thinking isn’t as foreign to her working process as she had originally thought when a friend introduced her to the ideas.
I have had these ideas rattling around in my head ever since reading the essay. I’m not really sure why.
I think I keep pondering them because I’m not quite ready to dismiss reproductive thinking as inferior. Or at least as generally unworthy.
Certainly, reproductive thinking can be linked to refusing to really try something new. I’ve had any number of disappointing conversations with people who want to use Carmen only to post Word documents – as if that massive multifunction system were merely a super-fancy copying machine. (See, you knew I’d get this blog post turned toward a Carmen topic eventually.)
But reproductive thinking can be useful as a way to try learn a new software program (“In the LMS I used at my last school, I could do X. Surely there is a way to make Carmen do that, too. Let me try looking here….”). And it is an effective troubleshooting strategy. (“The last time Carmen did something like this to me, we solved it by doing X. Maybe I should try doing X again to see if it works in other situations.”)
And reproductive thinking can be a way to try a few new things, and thus gain the experience and confidence to jump to some productive new solutions. A possible progression:
- Professor Jo decides to use Carmen Dropbox to collect text-heavy Word documents from her students.
- Originally, she prints all the papers out to grade them. Eventually, she starts grading digitally, using Word’s commenting and editing tools.
- She then realizes that the Carmen Dropbox would make it feasible assign projects that require students to produce and submit images, spreadsheets, presentations, and database files, along with Word documents.
- And then she get really excited and explores digital stories and collaborative ebooks and a whole range other digital possibilities to help her students engage with ideas productively!
I can imagine sequences that would take Professor Jo from posting Word files to flipping her classroom, or that start with Carmen’s Discussion tool and end up with Jo teaching her course using a HyFlex model with Adobe Connect, LectureTools, and a collaborative blog as the primary student output.
Anyway. It’s something to think about.