Freshmen: Step #1 to better thinking?

I'm in Prof. Brad Hokanson's Storytelling and Narrative class in the College of Design, and the 18 freshmen with me are about to put some of their old habits behind them.

They've come to learn how to communicate more effectively by crafting a narrative rather than just spewing facts. They'll learn how to structure knowledge in a way that makes it easier to learn, to remember and to communicate.

That could be a particular challenge for the Class of 2014 -- members of a generation used to bullet points, quantification of knowledge and a system that teaches to the test.

"They're going to have to shift their modes of thinking," Hokanson said.

The course sounds like a combination of creative writing, critical thinking and public speaking. Even though it's in the College of Design -- after all, much of design is about telling a story or setting a mood -- it could be useful to anyone making a business pitch or trying to sell another person on an idea. Today's class has a wide draw, including those majoring in biology, journalism, education and psychology.

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Under the guidance of Hokanson and adjunct Steve Peters, they start off by getting to know each other and then telling the class about about another student -- including one little-known fact about the person.

(One male student was told by celebrity Sharon Osbourne that he was "too innocent for Hollywood." One female student admitted to owning a light saber. A third said she'd been struck by lightning.)

Sounds like a conventional ice-breaker technique, but we're taking baby steps here. Later on they'll go on field trips to places that Hokanson said will stretch their communication skills.

After class, Hokanson says this bunch is more talkative than past groups, though it's still too early to make much of an assessment. A few have already exhibited two signs that he thinks might be typical for this generation: a great concern with grades and a reliance on learning through repetition. (Students of this generation also seem to show an uneasiness with subjective grading and a need for specific, fact-based answers, he said.)

Yet "higher thinking is not about (learning) facts," he said.

What some need help with is the next step: organizing those facts. (The same holds true with their computer skills, he said. A number of them are whizzes at finding information. But organizing their files? That's another thing.)

By taking facts and crafting a narrative, they'll supposedly understand their meaning and remembering the overall message better.

"They'll apply (the technique) in their own way," he said.