Boosting Student Engagement with Transcontextual Thinking Activities

You don’t have to be a Vegas comedian to get your students laughing and thinking.

In The Highly Engaged Classroom, Dr. Robert Marzano states that the use of humor in the classroom can boost attention. Neuroscientific research has shown that there are many ways to make people smile, and one technique has been found that requires virtually no comedic talent to pull off. 

According to research conducted by Dr. Dario Nardi, humans often respond (without intention) with smiling and/or laughter when engaging in transcontextual thinking activities (you can see Dr. Nardi’s complete presentation on the Neuroscience of Personality here). Transcontextual thinking can be defined as presenting seemingly unrelated concepts, which are then quickly amalgamated and processed in the brain, and it often produces creative and entertaining results. Stimulating this type of thinking helps engage students (Design Question 5).

As an example, let’s imagine a history teacher who has successfully introduced her students to information about Abraham Lincoln. The teacher could hold up a pair of scissors and a blank sheet of paper and say, “Which one of these would Abraham Lincoln want to be friends with?”

Clearly, there is no direct connection between Lincoln, scissors, and a blank sheet of paper, but the process of trying to connect these disparate concepts produces a rapid process in the brain. When measured by an EEG, such activities create a ‘Christmas Tree’ response, with multiple areas of the brain lighting up; a far different and less explosive response is seen with traditional presentation of connected facts.

Transcontextual thinking activities should be used sparingly; be careful not to have extended sessions. Transcontextual thinking, due to its whole brain stimulating effects, is quite taxing on the brain (particularly among highly creative students) and can lead to mental exhaustion and burnout. However, transcontextual thinking activities are a great way to explore your students’ grasp of newly-presented information (Design Question 2), as well as operating as a launching pad for the generation of hypotheses (Design Question 4). For example, in our history teacher example, she could have the students explain, discuss, and debate their choices.

Perhaps Lincoln would like to be friends with the sheet of paper. He was far more interested in writing history and envisioning possibilities than cutting things into pieces.

Editor’s note: We conducted this experiment with our own staff, and all responded with smiling and laughter. Try it!Do you have your own strategies for generating engagement? Share them in the comments area below.

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