A ‘Cognitive Surplus’ in the Bronx!

This week’s lesson in “Mapping The Futures” involved the complex topic known as “student-centered pedagogy”, an approach with which I have had no prior experience. Our colleagues Michelle, Hallie, and Danica did a rather incredible job of distilling this intense topic down to a few salient and understandable points. Of the three assigned readings, I decided to focus my momentary pedagogical energy on the revelatory ideas contained in “Project Classroom Makeover” from Professor Cathy Davidson’s terrific book, “Now You See It”. My Friday morning class at Lehman College, Anatomy & Physiology of the Speech Mechanism, is pretty chock-full of information, and with a weekly quiz to administer, questions to answer, directions to go over for our C-Box site and mapping assignment, an up-coming midterm (Oy!), and one more huge chapter to cover on the physiology of phonation (!), my time for implementing a student-centered pedagogy exercise was really limited.

(I have come to realize that a truly student-centered course must be designed that way from the get-go and one of my greatest challenges this semester has been making adjustments to a heavy science course that was pre-designed with little thought to the concepts and theories espoused by our “Mapping The Future” course. In other words, I feel like I’m trying to reroute a proverbial train that has already left the station!)

So here’s what we did…..

I stuck with the strategy I implemented for our ‘Assessment’ module and began with a very brief power point presentation (5 slides) to get the ball rolling. You can view the slides here:  Student-Centered Pedagogy

I decided to throw out the first challenge to myself. Was I willing to give up ‘control’ of what and how my students learned? This is a really tough one and a likely key to success with a student-centered approach. I had to be willing to ‘hold space’ for my students and allow them the room to grow in a way that would work for each of them individually. Was I willing to trust they each had an innate intellectual curiosity that would propel them to learn about the anatomy and physiology of the speech mechanism without explicit lecturing from me?

{Read Heather Plett’s wonderfully moving blog on ‘holding space’, shared by Cathy Davidson here:

The second slide introduced the concept of peer learning and allowed me to elaborate further on the concept of ‘crowdsourcing’, or the wisdom gained by outsourcing to the crowd. My third slide brought the concept of “cognitive surplus” into the discussion. This additional brain power was explained as a sort of exponential bonus that the group receives for pooling its intellectual resources. That is, we (the group) become MORE than the sum of our parts and we are able to accomplish things together that we most likely would never accomplish on our own.  This amazing ‘cognitive surplus’ occurs because of a process known as ‘collaboration by difference’, a concept that I absolutely love! This reinforces the idea that success is interwoven with and correlates directly with our ability to collaborate. That is, the complex challenges of our day will never be solved by individuals in isolation.

My fifth and final slide really says it all and becomes a rallying point for many students in the CUNY system. What an astonishingly powerful message: you have intellectual brilliance to share with the world regardless of your age, race, educational background, culture, or any other label that has been put on you and appears to have limited your choices in this lifetime. That is a really powerful concept.

So what possible student-centered activity could I possibly do in the remaining 10 minutes of class? Well, here’s what we did:

I called out the names of 5 random students, put an image of the larynx on the projector, and gave the students a task: Go in the hallway for 3 minutes and come up with a way to explain the anatomy and physiology of the larynx in any way that you want. Every one of the 5 of you must participate. The students left the room and got to work.

In the meantime, I asked the remaining 26 students how they thought that I could possibly re-imagine the second half of the semester in such a way as to include some student-centered techniques. Several ideas were brought up and the two that seemed to get the most attention were the following:

 1) During each class, allow students to break up into small groups of 4 or 5 to discuss a particular anatomy topic and then report back to the rest of the class.

2) Use posterboards to allow students to draw or color in anatomical parts to reinforce the understanding of what is where and what it does.

I agreed to re-think the second half of the semester in a way that would incorporate these activities into our class time and it was now time for our 5 intrepid laryngeal explorers to come back into the classroom and to teach us all about the workings of the larynx. And the most extraordinary thing happened….

The 5 students decided to contort their physical bodies into a living replica of the larynx. I was positively stunned. The first student got down on the floor and held her arms in a circle and said, “I’m the cricoid cartilage”. The second student then became the thyroid cartilage, the third the arytenoid cartilages, the fourth the epiglottis, and the fifth the hyoid bone.


I could not believe what I was seeing and experiencing and I think every student in the class felt the same way. There was just this enormous sense of amazement, awe, and laughter throughout the room. It was almost too good to be true. Had I really just experienced what it would be like to let go of control and let the students come up with their own model for learning? How could they possibly have come up with something so creative and stunning without my guidance? Was I witnessing a ‘cognitive surplus’ in action?

I believe that I was. This living model of the larynx was suddenly more brilliant than the 5 individuals who had assembled it and more brilliant than anyone else in the room had expected. And this cognitive surplus was the result of 3 minutes in the hallway?  Absolutely stunning. Now I’ve got to get to work on strategies for unleashing this jaw-dropping cognitive surplus in the Bronx.








The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
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New York, NY 10016-4309