The eight of us sat on sofas clustered around a fireplace in the conference room. Beyond plate glass windows lay the verdant countryside of western Virginia—pine trees and Blue Ridge Mountains. A warm fire softly crackled in the background. The staff of Columbia Baptist Church had gathered, calendars and notepads in hand, to dream together about the new year. Our pastor, Neal Jones, had already planned the year's preaching emphasis around the themes of togetherness, mutual support, and the family of God. He captured the essence of the year in the term dynamic synergism—"many elements working together." Perhaps it was the synergistic effect of lush trees, mountain mist, warm fire, and close staff relationships that filled me with wonder. Even now I can with closed eyes travel back twenty years and still feel the impact of the term.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines synergism as an alloy of elements whose "combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects." The word comes from the Greek ergon, "to work," and syn-, "with," and literally means "to work together." The word dynamic comes from the Greek dynamis, "power," and refers to a "moving or driving force." A dynamic synergism is composed of elements that normally exist independent of one another. They push at each other, or escape to go their own way. Holding them together is difficult, but the resulting effect is powerful.
In a previous book, Created to Learn, I described three major learning theory systems: the behavioral (doing skillfully), the cognitive (understanding clearly), and the affective (experiencing and valuing personally). In introducing the Teachers' Triad, I wrote, "Educational problems do not fall neatly into any one system.... Effective teachers move freely from system to system, engaging learners where they are, helping them to master the subject and grow as a result."
But I would go farther now. The best teachers are like parallel processors who operate in all three systems simultaneously, conscious in-the-now of behaviors, concepts, and values. Dynamic synergists make the best teachers.
The diagram represents the three systems of learning. Each circle is independent of the others, and so their relationship to each other is variable. Each circle can be any size, representing varying degrees of importance. Here we see an ideal balance: all three circles are the same size, and all three intersect equally. I'll briefly define the elements, then describe the distortion in learning that's caused when we overemphasize any one of them. Finally, I'll describe the benefits of synergistic teaching.
The thinking circle represents the cognitive aspect of learning and includes such elements as knowing (recalling) facts, comprehending concepts, solving problems, analyzing case studies, writing conceptual essays, and judging situations by established criteria. Cognitive learning is objective, cerebral, logical, and rational. Without helping learners think clearly, we open them to confused frustration: "Whutduzallthisstuffmean?!"
How can we help our learners to think more clearly? We will do well if we focus on concepts more than words, ask questions rather than provide answers, pose problems rather than give reasons, and present examples rather than isolated facts. Let's look more closely at each of these.
Concepts vs. Words. I once asked a class to write down at least eight sentences using the word run. Here are some of their examples:
The word is singular: run. The meanings are multiple: move swiftly, manage, operate, and so forth. These meanings reflect the different concepts referenced by the word run.