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.

16 thoughts on “A Cognitive Surplus in the Bronx!”

  1. I too found their demonstration amazing! Seeing them discuss it and acting it out out a better picture in my head. Being one of the students in the room while they were out putting their work together I heard one of the students mention the poster boards where we can color in different parts, I instantly agreed! It would be a great idea, since we don’t have lab and we can’t get hands on practice with samples the color of pictures is the next best! I hope you consider it as a great possibility, Professor! (Even if you just upload images, you like and trust, to the Dropbox so we can print it and color on our own!)

    1. I wonder what will be the next hands on learning task he’ll ask us to do. Visual is so key to learning! Well a couple more weeks and we’re done…one thing is for sure I think I have a clue on how to better prepare myself for the final.

  2. I must say that my first and second quiz were not my best but as the weeks go by i’m always looking forward to this class. Never knew that A&P would be my favorite class…..

  3. I thought the student lead example was fantastic. I would have never thought to act out the components of the larynx. When I asked them to “show us how it works”, I bet it would have added a mind blowing addition to an already super creative presentation. I am always looking forward to class, you never know what you will see!!

  4. What the girls presented on Friday was awesome, it’s great to see how creative people can get when they work together. I’m excited to see what ideas the class comes up with for studying the new material for the second half of the semester. I can’t wait! Start brainstorming!

  5. Wow…am I really seeing my picture up? Oh well. lol Acting out the picture actually made me visualize it better. I actually look forward to the class even though I am struggling to retain the information. I picked up a few more techniques to help with the studying and hope and pray they work out for me.

  6. I definitely did not think our group’s presentation was going to head in the direction of “human larynx”, but I’m glad it did! I think we were all a bit apprehensive about standing in front of the class, explaining the different laryngeal structures. But once one of the ladies came up with the fantastic idea of becoming the larynx, we all eased up and had fun with it. I think it totally reflects the idea the professor was talking about: collaboration by difference!

  7. As we were sitting in class before the student-lead example, I was wondering what they would possibly come up with. I really thought each person from the group was going to stand up there and just talk about the workings of the larynx.
    I was in awe to see how creative the group was. It was so cool to see how they acted out a replica of the larynx using their own bodies! I would have never thought of that!
    Besides that awesome part of the class, I really appreciated when other fellow students shared their ideas on how to learn the picture examples provided in class (which we use on our quizzes). I thought it was a brilliant idea to color in the specific parts we are learning with different colors. That way we can differentiate each section better.
    Thanks to all so much, I will be studying the pictures this way from now on =).

    1. Coloring the different parts actually helped me to remember the parts on the exam. Now if only I could color everything I would probably retain it better. lol

  8. This collaborative activity looks amazing! First, the photo looks awe-some! and seems to have become part of the study guide, even better. Second, this group came up with something so mind blowing. I NEVER would have come up with an idea like that. I’m itching to work with a science professor on new teaching methods. Your students have inspired so many ideas I just want to share and test. Uhh, I think I want to teach a science course now–who am I?
    Also, the coloring in of the parts of the larynx was another great idea! It made me wonder if coming up with a children’s book–one that takes you through and simplistically explains the complex characteristics of these anatomical parts (with illustrations) would be another way of reinforcing the content for this course (or any science course).

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts A&P Lehman! Love reading your thoughts.
    Michelle KBCC

  9. Learning about the larynx the activity 5 students did in class was great. I am a visual learner it helped me alot to understand where all parts are located. its was just amazing to see with in 3 minutes students did great job to reprasent the larynx. Students were soo creative.

  10. I agree the presentation the girls made was fantastic! The professor was really in shock, it was like he couldn’t believe his eyes. I bet he was proud. That’s why I think that if he considers changing the class around and having group projects or activities, his jaw might drop AGAIN ! “)


  11. I was surprised when I saw their presentation. Honestly, the presentation was awesome and impressive. If I was them, I would just illustrate the function of the muscle verbally. I would put the words in sentences to explain. Obviously, what they did was fabulous. I believe what they did makes us easier to memorize.

  12. this human demonstration of the locations of parts of the larynx was AMAZING! I was just as shocked as everyone else in the class. its truly amazing how the 5 girls came up with a visual demonstration of the larynx parts, they did a great job. I personally do not like presenting in front of a class, I’m not a very good public speaker, I get very nervous. I agree with some of my classmates, I always look forward coming to class on Fridays! I think professor Lissemore is doing a great job!

  13. I could not believe that they thought of such a visual presentation! I definitely would not have thought of that… We have such creative students in our class! Learning anatomy has been made so easy this semester with all of the different activities we are doing. Having this blog is also awesome because it brings us together as a class to help each other out… Thank you to everyone who posts such helpful videos and information!! I’ll be sure to post whatever I find helpful also! 🙂

  14. Hi Everybody! Sorry I’m coming in late on this post, but I agree with you all. The visual representation of the five girls acting out the parts of the larynx was quite innovative and is an image that will stick with me throughout the course. I am often skeptical of unconventional methods of teaching, but the way that I learn is constantly tested and reshaped in this class. I am now aware that I respond well to visual stimulation and color. I had no idea that these methods resonated with my style of learning until this point. Now that our midterm is over, (whew!), I look forward to seeing what other new ways we can come up with to internalize this material! See you all Friday!

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