About

charles

This weblog focuses on learning: learning in general, learning other languages, learning to write, and learning to use technology. (And at times, it digresses.) It explores these issues theoretically and pedagogically to understand learning better and to facilitate learning in my composition courses. A not-so-brief narrative of how I arrived at this blog and its interests follow.

While teaching writing (and reading) in an intensive preparatory program in Marmara University, Istanbul (1990-1994), I had puzzled over how my students were learning to write and correspondingly how I could improve my pedagogy. Despite my "ability" to teach, I wasn't sure how my students were improving their writing. After all, most students improve anything with sufficient study and practice. Were they improving because of my teaching practice? Because of their own practice? A mix of the two?

Eventually, I decided to return to the U.S. to pursue a doctorate degree in foreign language education at The University of Texas at Austin. Among the courses I took, several dealt with writing, and I studied the research on composition in school and in the workplace. Most of the research focused on process, product, or socialization, describing differences between “good” writers and “novices,” between native-speaker products and those of non-native speakers, and between newcomers and oldtimers in the workplace or a discipline.

However, although these theories offered descriptions of what good and novice writers did, they did not explain how novices became good writers, they did not directly address the nature of learning, and they did not help me analyze my teaching practice. Even the process research did not consider the processes of learning to write. Rather, it studied differences between experts and novices. It analyzed what experts do and asked novice writers to try to do the same, a sort of Here you are and There you need to be approach that notes the two ends but does not map out the crucial path of processes connecting them and through which good writers acquired their expertise.

Eventually I turned to fields other than writing and came across current theories that did address the nature of learning. Three of these were radical constructivism, sociocultural theory, and complexity theory.

These three theories focus on the nature of learning via different units of analysis. Radical constructivism emphasizes the individual as active constructor of meaning, and sociocultural theory stresses the socially mediated nature of learning. Complexity theory studies the dynamic processes, including those of learning, underlying all complex systems, and has the potential to tie individual and socially mediated learning not only to each other but to the processes of other complex systems, animate and inanimate. It made sense, at least to me, that using all three theories could give me complementary insights into understanding how students learned to write in a second language classroom.

Now, four years past the time of finishing my dissertation, I am an assistant professor of ESL writing at Kean University, Union, NJ, USA, and I've been here teaching first-year and second-year composition to non-native speakers of English—mostly immigrants who have attended U.S. public schools—since September, 2002. I am not sure that I am that much closer to understanding how people learn to write in another language or how they learn in general. But I am enjoying my attempts to reach that understanding.

Thus, as mentioned above, this weblog is about learning: learning in general, learning other languages, learning to write, learning to use technology, and so on. If you have similar interests and would like to contribute to my weblog, you can email me your comments, along with the bio/contact information you'd like to share.

Email: charles.p.nelson at gmail.com

Note: Because I first started blogging with another template, my posts on one of my two blogs before January 12, 2006 are at ESL Writing & Technology 2005