Monday, December 24, 2012

What Is Writing?: Part 2

So in my last post, I told you that writing is a what and not a how, and I wouldn't be surprised if most of you didn't believe that assertion at all, which is not surprising in the least because our minds are not simply rational machines.  They take time to get used to an idea, to weigh it, kick it around, see if it works for us, and then decide if we are willing to accommodate it.  You may think I'm exaggerating.  I'm not.  Most recently, Howard Gardner, Kathryn Schulz, Dan Ariely, and Jonathan Haidt have written on exactly this topic.  But they are neither alone in their recent research nor is it really recent.  At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Niccollo Machiavelli advised the Prince similarly that people let go of old ideas and adopt new ones very slowly in general (although actions can be taken to slow down or speed up that process).  But that process is a good one.  It has definitely served our species.

It is because of the way our minds work that recognizing the what-ness of writing in addition to its how-ness is so important.

Recognizing the what-ness of writing allows us to search for which "what" our audience is expecting, and it allows us not only to give them what they expect but also to utilize the underlying mechanisms of cultural logic, as carried by diction, syntax, and rhetoric, to communicate with our audience in a form which they will understand and respond to in order to change the what that the writing currently is.  In other words, if we know what people expect, even if we don't agree, we can't get them to change their minds until we have shown them that we understand their point of view and saliently, coherently, and in a personally meaningful way demonstrate to them why they might want to reconsider their stance.  To draw a parallel to Nonviolent Communication (NVC), consider the essay question as the observation.  Consider the response of the writer as one's personal feelings regarding that observation.  Consider the needs as the underlying logic behind the feelings.  Now imagine that the audience has a very different response (feeling) toward the question (observation)--a different response (feeling) due to a different logic (need).  Now the writer, being in the subordinate role, cannot do one thing to sway that audience until he has empathized with the audience.  He needs to parrot back the audience's expected response (feelings) and an understanding of the audience's logic (needs) before he can go on to explain his own.  Only when he has demonstrated knowledge (and I use "knowledge" here in the sense of Bloom's taxonomy because this is not critical thinking.  It is merely knowledge and comprehension of an existing structure--one that is often largely undefined explicitly because teachers take common cultural ground for granted) of the existing mainstream thought can the writer move on toward influencing the direction of that thought.

Now, there are plenty of reasons that a writer will refuse to parrot back the mainstream idea.  I totally get that.  I am one of those writers.  I am one of those people.  And sometimes I can't keep my views back to save my life...and I'm just lucky it hasn't ever literally come to that because I would have a really hard time.  BUT my point here is very important:

There is a time and a place for dissent. 

It is there.  In every culture, there is some place, some space, for other views.  Now, there may be very small tolerance for such views.  The space for expressing them may not be in words or in visual symbols.  It may happen some other way.  But there is always space.  There is always a way for change, which is obvious because life is always changing.

The trick is finding it.  And I can show you where it is and isn't and have a few good ideas in creating a path for it in Western writing.

Up next:  What reading comprehension tells us about writing.

Friday, December 21, 2012

What Is Writing?: Part 1

Special thanks to Josette LeBlanc and her fabulous blog post, "Feedback in the Hallway," that inspired this series of posts on writing.

Most of us think of writing as a how, a series of skills which we teach our students to employ as a tool to express themselves in other situations.  I want to disillusion you.  Writing is not a how.  Writing, as we practice it and evaluate it in the West, is a what.

"What?!" you ask, both incredulous at my statement as well as repeating my assertion with an air of shock.  "What what is it?"

Writing, I tell you, is a measure of one's comprehension of a subject as judged by the readers of that writing.

How do I know reading is a measure of comprehension and not a skill when clearly we have courses and books, and indeed entire lives, thrown into the process of writing?

Why, my dear friend, you have just hit on the crux of the matter, the cause of all of the frustration surrounding this issue of writing!

I know because of the rubrics, both those stated explicitly as well as those implied.

Let's begin with those explicitly stated.  Most of us teach toward a test.  Two of the most common tests to teach toward are the SAT and/or the TOEFL (but it doesn't really matter which test you teach toward, the rubrics form a fair continuum of skills headed toward academic writing, which I will get into another time), so let's examine their rubrics (SAT Writing Rubric and TOEFL Writing Rubric) and how we know that the writing is actually judged as a measure of comprehension and not a skill. 

  1. Both rubrics immediately list point development as the very first criteria for scoring.  The SAT chooses the words "a point of view on the issue," "outstanding critical thinking," and "examples, reasons, and other evidence to support its position."  While they do include some how factors ("develops," "demonstrates," "using"), the emphasis is on the point and the logic behind it.  Similarly, the TOEFL immediately seizes upon the selection and correlation of "important information" and "relevant information."  The primary focus of scoring is clearly on content, not on style.
  2. The second point of both rubrics is organization, primarily order. Once again, organization is not so much a writing skill as it is a strategy of sorting information.  A measure of information sorting is a measure of content first and style second.
  3. The TOEFL rubric largely skips questions of language variety and artful usage, but the SAT rubric's us of adjectives to describe diction ("varied, accurate, and apt vocabulary" or "appropriate vocabulary" on the high end of diction and "inappropriate word choice" and "very limited vocabulary or incorrect word choice" on the lower end) and syntax ("meaningful variety in sentence structure") are telling.  Artistry must serve content.  The service to the content is what is being scored, not the artistry.
  4. The final portion of both rubrics is directed at grammatical errors.  Although both rubrics specify that high scoring essays should be nearly free from errors, the degree of error on low scoring essays demonstrates that it is not the error in and of itself that is the issue but the error's role in obscuring meaning that makes the error so grievous.  The SAT rubric specifies these errors as, "pervasive errors in grammar, usage, or mechanics that persistently interfere with meaning." The TOEFL, which naturally serves a testing audience of lower general ability, responds in more depth, noting errors that "persistently interfere with meaning at key junctures, or that would likely obscure understanding of key ideas for a reader not already familiar with the reading and the lecture" or responses in which "[t]he language level of the response is so low that it is difficult to derive meaning."
Very simply, the writing sections of both tests serve to measure a student's ability to comprehend and to respond with ideas.  It is not simply to write.

"But that's just academic writing," you might protest.

Hmmm... Okay.  Let's consider other forms of writing.  When is the last time you read a news story that wasn't first and foremost about facts (and spin on them, true, but facts primarily)?  When is the last time you continued reading a book in which you stridently didn't either agree or identify with the protagonist?  When did you last read an editorial that was beautifully written but somehow skipped the comment on an event?  There are indeed various styles and convention which we employ in writing to express our beliefs, but all of these beliefs are the main focus of the writing.  In the end, the writing is about the content.

"So what?" you might ask.  "We all have to write about something."

Aha!  But this something is exactly the point.  We keep teaching our students that they are scored on how they write about something, not on what they write about.  Unfortunately, psychologists have very, very, very clearly proven (although we all like to ignore it) that we as human beings are not objective in evaluating evidence.  We are not.  Period.  End of story.  The list of resources is too long to even list the ways in which this subjectivity is true.  In fact, our history of subjectivity is why we have developed entire fields of study, like statistics, and types of law, like the rules of evidence.

Instead of going into enormous detail about this evidence (this is a blog, not an academic journal), I will just note that some of the principles that I find most at work in my personal experiences with scoring objectivity are relations between belief and confirmation bias, correlations of in-group mentality as a reason to abandon further inquiry or entertain further consideration, different strategies of conclusion-drawing, and non-statistical confounding factors.  Why do these matter?  Because in order for a writer to be successful, she must recognize the operations of these subjective beliefs in order to capitalize or counter them.

The fact that we are approaching writing as a how rather than a what puts our students (and ourselves) at a distinct disadvantage.  First, this belief puts the emphasis unduly on the craft of writing rather on the skills of rhetoric which emphasize recognizing the qualities of one's audience.  And focusing on the audience is what will determine what types of belief and bias the writer is likely to face.  Knowing these predilections beforehand drastically increases the writer's capacity to challenge assumptions, address what the audience believes to be relevant concerns, and introduce enough evidence to make a dent in previously held notions (the old adage about needing to work twice as hard to be considered half as good holds psychological water).

This is the first post in a series of posts regarding unacknowledged aspects of writing, the ways that they are manifested, and how they can inform our teaching.  While I have not yet determined the order in which I will address these issues, future posts in this series will address how reading comprehension questions can and should inform our writing methods, how the various disciplines' differing grammatical rules and valuing of evidence reveal strongly different underlying ideologies (and what those mean to students), how writing rubrics work as a continuum, three unacknowledged truths about writing and some strategies to harness those truths for successful communication, and a discipline by discipline application of those strategies to show how they would work in practice (for writers) and in a classroom (for teachers).

Monday, December 3, 2012

Homework at My House (and Occasionally in My Classroom)...

Okay, without any nods to Macs or PCs, I just want to say that this video accurately records what often happens at my house during homework time (and occasionally in my classroom as well).

And whenever it happened in my classroom, I noticed two common issues that were always present in every case that I chose to reflect on:
  1. I had not included my students (and my children) in on goal-setting (hence, their goals were substantially different than mine).
  2. I had lost my sense of humor and ability to listen.
So I wanted to take a moment to share the importance of those two elements in teaching.

Not many teachers that I know include their students in goal-setting.  I have found this step, though, to be one of the single most crucial buy-ins for effort, behavior, and compliance, as well as an integral step in teaching students how to set their own paths for education.

Let me show you what I mean.

When we ran a study room, we had lessons that were an hour and twenty minutes long.  When I planned a lesson, I obviously included flex-time activities, but I tried to leave one quarter of the time open.  Then, after our small talk, I tried to tell the students, "Okay, we're going to be working on (top goal).  To achieve that goal, you need to know (list of skills required).  In this lesson, we will be covering (skills I intend to cover that day).  I'll be assessing your ability to accomplish those skills by (activity, worksheet, etc.). Is there anything else that you want to do today or that you think we should cover?"

Not every class would have something to add.  Many classes would ask for a game.  Some classes would ask for more practice on something or for work on another skill.  In every case, the students were urged to climb the ladder Bloom's Taxonomy:  knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation.  Of course, they didn't ascend it linearly.

Let me explain:
  • Whatever I planned to teach on the most basic level is knowledge.  Students come in knowing that they are expected to attain knowledge, particularly my Asian students who are adept at memorization.
  • My assessment of them most often includes the combination of knowledge (identifying what I have taught them) and comprehension (explaining what it means).
  • By identifying the top goal I have for the day (almost always a larger, concrete goal, like "arguing with your mother in English and winning the argument," not "persuasive speech"), I have given them a first example of application.  I haven't told them the technical word for what we're doing (yet), but I have told them how it can be used.  As we move along, I will prompt them on more uses.
  • When I give them the list of skills, I am helping analyze the top goal.  I am inviting them to analyze with me when I ask them what else they want to cover. 
  • Often times, what we will be covering is a review or modification of something that we used to attain a different top goal.  In these cases, we are actually also synthesizing a new top goal from component parts used in an old one.  
  • Drawing attention to this fact not only shows the students an example of synthesis, it also shows the value of the previous skill (evaluation).
Taking the time to invite my students into my goals accomplishes two great changes in me.  First, it opens the door for my listening.

As I invite students to participate in the goal-setting process, I am tuning into a reverse process of this hierarchy myself, learning not about my subject matter but about how they interact with what I am teaching.  By listening to their evaluations, I am able to understand what types of synthesis might be more beneficial to them (insults and rap/slam poetry are incredibly relevant to your average upper elementary school student, even though these topics are seldom in the curriculum). After I have taken the time to analyze what they have to say and how they want to use what we are learning, I find far more applications of greater relevance to them (defending themselves, making jokes, playing games, manipulating the situation to achieve what they want).  As I watch them interact and listen to their recommendations, I gain a knowledge of the things that are important to them and a comprehension of why that is so.

The second great change it makes in me is an openness to the unplanned, and, by association, the ability to laugh.

Now, I'm a control freak, and I am certainly not advocating tossing the lesson plan in the dumpster.  But I leave an open section in my lesson plans on purpose, a section that I am willing to cede a little control over.
When I forget to do that, I turn off my ears.  Even if I ask the students what they think, I have no space to deal with their questions.  That situation is simply a planned pause, a conscious decision not to listen and respond.  By listening, I exhibit care.  By handing over a little control, I demonstrate trust, my confidence in my students.

And that trust and confidence mean a lot to them.  Students very seldom get the chance to really chart the course of the lesson.  It's like a first driving lesson.  There's a tiny moment of awe when they take the wheel.  And there's a tiny bit of pride and nostalgia as I watch them.  It frees me a moment.

And that freedom opens me to laughter.  To me, laughter is the delight of surprise, the tickle of the unplanned, and unless you make a space for that to happen, you cut the laughter off.  When you cut the laughter off, you take the joy out of learning, and you turn into Mac the egg.

A famous physician, Dr. Francis W. Peabody, once said of medicine, "For the secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient" (as quoted in Jerry Weissman's Presentations in Action). The same is true of the student.
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