January

Recently I read someone opposing the use of the five-paragraph essay in teaching writing on two points. One was that "professional writers" didn't use it to organize their ideas. Another implied that extensive reading would be sufficient for people to know how to organize their ideas in a written form.

On point one, professionals in any field do not use the same techniques as beginners. Can you imagine a research chemist or physicist thinking in the same terms as students in first-year introductory courses? The differences between professionals and novices, however, do not speak to the process of learning to become a professional. Whether the five-paragraph essay can be useful in learning to become a professional writer requires more evidence than claims based on irrelevant observations.

With respect to extensive reading, I can imagine some transfer to writing. But there's two problems with this assumption. One is that all, or at least most, students read widely. In today's electronic world, that claim is unlikely. Even if it were true, it's been shown quite convincingly that expertise in one area does not transfer to other areas (see Philip Ross's review on The Expert Mind (Scientific American). Speaking of my own experience, even after I had been in college for 9 years, my writing was terrible, or so one of my professors suggested one day. Why? Because my writing had been limited mostly to lab reports and translations of dead texts (i.e., Latin, Greek, and Hebrew). but had done little writing outside of lab reports and translations of dead texts. The following semester, I took a course called "Advanced Expository Writing." I had to write 12 essays that semester along with editing every classmate's essay. That intensive writing and editing course improved my writing considerably.

Now, that course didn't mention the 5-paragraph essay. It was a few years later when I began to teach writing in Turkey, that is, teaching the 5-paragraph essay, that I became aware of notions like thesis statement, topic sentence, coherence, and unity of thought. Those notions have also improved my writing. At least others seem to consider my writing clear and well-organized.

Writing is learned much like playing basketball. Both require practice--not watching or reading the work of others. And coaching (i.e., teaching) can help focus one's attention on elements needing work, thus facilitating the learning process faster than otherwise.

I don't know whether teaching the 5-paragraph essay is the best way, or a good way, of teaching writing. Even so, the concepts accompanying it are useful in focusing students' attention on elements of writing, and most beginners would be better off writing a five-paragraph essay than a five-chapter dissertation. As their experience grows, I would expect the type of writing they do to mature, too. Perhaps the five-paragraph essay has a role to play at beginning levels. Perhaps only its attendant concepts. Perhaps not at all. Regardless of our position, we should move past initial emotional reactions toward evidence-supported reasoning.



curiosity

Why do babies and young children seem to lose much of their curiosity in school? One reason, I believe, is that school undermines their autonomy and competence, which, according to self-determination theory, decreases intrinsic motivation and curiosity.

Kashdan and Fincham's book chapter, "Facilitating Curiosity: A Social and Self-Regulatory Perspective for Scientifically Based Interventions" (pdf), states that curiosity accounts for about "10% of the variance in achievement and performance outcomes." That's quite a bit. In their conclusion, they write,

Central to developing successful curiosity interventions is the enhancement of task curiosity, such as positive affect, feelings of self-determination, performance enhancement, and the acquisition of skill and knowledge.

One implication I take away from what the authors are saying is that we need to move away from breadth and more to depth. Constant cramming of meaningless facts doesn't give the time needed to develop competence in an area outside of memorization and grades. And constant cramming is usually a result of teacher-directed instead of student-initiated activity. Not that teachers don't need to direct at times and not that "knowledge" is not necessary. Rather, to nurture curiosity, students need the time to delve into concepts and practices so that their competence can develop, and they need to exercise self-determination by having a voice in course objectives and activity.

Much of what teachers need to do is to create environments that stimulate curiosity, the development of competence, and "authentic" self-determination. Rather than memorize ideas to be regurgitated on exams, students need "idea environments" in which they play with ideas, bounce them back and forth among themselves and others, and actually use them.

Related post: Engagement and Flow



Although comments may be appropriate for some purposes, for classes, it is better to use comment-disabled blogs. Students, when commenting upon a classmate's blog, tend to give supportive comments, such as "I agree!" without following them with some substance. When responding to a classmate from their own blog, students can acquire habits of citing others, summarizing/paraphrasing classmates' points, and writing more substantive contributions to a class conversation. In addition, when all are using RSS feeds (and news readers, such as bloglines), students can see how many others write and respond, and learn from them.



HonestyHonesty

These posters are the work of J. Nathan Mathias with the help of Hannah Scott. Along with the other ones they created for Elizabethtown College, they are the most original and beautiful academic integrity posters I have ever seen.



I outright LOATHE blogs that don’t permit comments.
—Chris Brogan

Is a blog without comments a blog? According to many, no. Chris Brogan (at Lifehack.org) SHOUTS:

I outright LOATHE blogs that don’t permit comments. It’s the opposite of a blog. As Shel Israel said the day before yesterday (if not further back), “It has been the dialog vs. the monologue.”

While not shouting, Michael Arrington (TechCrunch) is just as adamant:

I believe the term “blog” means more than an online journal. I believe a blog is a conversation. People go to blogs to read AND write, not just consume. We’ve allowed comments here on TechCrunch since it started. At times, user comments can be painful to deal with. But they also keep the writer honest, and make the content vastly more interesting.

Should the definitions of “blog” be revised to exclude journals that do not allow reader comments? Yeah, absolutely.

Like Brogan, Arrington believes that the conversation must be limited to one writing space, at least if you want to consider it a blogging conversation. But is it so? Brogan's claim, for instance, implies that the monologuers live in a cave, never reading what others are saying, never responding to the web conversation on their own blog. Arrington suggests that disabling comments somehow prevents others from writing on their own blogs and that enabling comments acts as some sort of anti-dishonesty ointment. Now, they're not actually saying it that way, but it seems to be a logical conclusion of their claims. Plus, they don't seem to consider what other types of conversations are available to bloggers besides comment-enabled ones. George Siemens (Connectivism) does:

Dialogue does not need to be direct in order to be effective. Dialogue of greatest value is what I call parallel, or dialogue of awareness. At this level, the comments and views of others are within our cognitive network (i.e. we know they exist) and their influence weighs in our reasoning and thought formation. It's the same way we come to know people. We have a sense of how a colleague or family member will react to something we say or do because we function with an awareness of their views, personality, and character. This is not to say that we lose our identity in consideration of others. We affirm the value and individuality of others not by changing our mind sets to reflect theirs, but rather by creating our world views with an understanding of the world views of others.

Hmm. Reminds me of the greater processing power of computers in parallel.

blogging should not become ... "more a medium of exchange than reflection."

By "effective," Siemens, like myself, is thinking in terms of learning. From an educator's perspective, blogging should not become, as Joshua Marshall wrote, "more a medium of exchange than reflection." I've posted on this issue before, too, also noting the value of parallel conversations in preventing confirmation bias and in promoting a "measured pace of weblog response" (Mark Bernstein)—not to mention that "blog comments seem to bring out the worst in people" (Matt Linderman).

The fact is, far too many people comment simply to talk, to "twitter", as Kathy Sierra put it, not so much to learn from others or to make the conversation worthwhile. Listen to Allen Stern's (CenterNetworks) trackback post:

For example, Seth Godin has comments off. So I read his posts, I may have good insight or reaction, but I can go nowhere with it. Instead it is almost like attending a seminar in that we listen to what he has to say, grab our coat and head back home. I want a chance for Seth to hear my thoughts and views just as I hear his.

Note that I and everyone else who read Stern's post were able to hear his "thoughts and views." The problem is that Stern wants Seth to hear them, to have his opinion at a level equal to Godin's. Excluding comments is seen as excluding equality and the desired social relationship (see "The Social Nature of Blog Comments"). But why should it be seen this way?

What is making the conversation "vastly more interesting" apparently isn't the content, but simply the feel-good socializing taking place among "peers." When I counted, out of the 58 comments on Brogan's post, perhaps 20% of them said something that added "content." Out of the 141 on Arrington's (not including trackback, which have a higher percentage of "content"), it seemed to be a little more than 20%. (I stopped counting quickly as my eyes glazed over.) Now, a few of the 20% were very good. Still, most comments were simply thanks, pats on the back, or repetition of something already said, without reference to others in the "conversation." As Dave Winer (comment #116 on Arrington's post) said:

Dave, I don’t see much moderation here, nor do I see much conversation. Most people state their point of view without relating it to what other people said.

Now, if the purpose of the comments is simply to socialize, then comments are fine. And I can think of other purposes for which comments might work well. The "context, the author, the audience, and the subject all" do affect the nature and quality of comments. But far too often, it seems that if the purpose is to add content to the conversation, then comments don't work well.

Most people who support comments claim they do so because they want a conversation or dialogue. Where's the conversation when the overwhelming majority of commenters add nothing to the conversation? Where's the dialogue when most do not relate their comments to others'. Just imagine the following face-to-face "conversation" between two friends:

Friend 1: What'd you think of the movie Aragon ?

Friend 2: I got the new MacPro yesterday.

Friend 1: The special effects were great.

Friend 2: It's much more user-friendly than my PC was.

Why not rethink how we should conduct our conversations? Just as weblogs have taken us past the simple broadcasts of websites, other tools such as RSS, trackback, and search engines can take us past the simple monologues found in comment sections. From Siemens again:

The space of dialogue has changed. Instead of a physical or even virtual space (newspaper, TV, radio, classroom, or discussion forum), the connections we form have now become the space. The connection is the space. In direct dialogue we still hold control of voice (through filtering and silencing)...because the ownership of the space rests in the hands of one individual (or a particular group of people). In parallel dialogue, we separate the control of the space from the conversation. The separation of space from dialogue allows each individual to form the connections they find of interest. The formation of their network results in the creation of their own space - a space not held or controlled by others.

It's not an issue of "the dialog vs. the monologue." It's the multilog vs. the dialog.

Obviously, my post here is an example of how the "space of dialogue has changed." It's not a "monologue" because it's a response to and drawing upon the writing of quite a few other bloggers. And it need not be limited to just this website. Others who come here to "read" can "write" on their own blogs, continuing the "conversation." It's not an issue of "the dialog vs. the monologue." It's the multilog vs. the dialog.

Instead of fixating on old forms of conversation, why not have our forms of conversation evolve along with the new tools available? Why not move beyond impoverished conversations full of empty comments to rich conversations across the blogosphere? Not that there aren't empty blog posts in the blogosphere, but rather we can select the nodes we wish to create networks of conversations rich in content. Responding to a commenter, Brogan said,

It's all a matter of what you want.

What evidence is there that a direct conversation is generally more effective than a parallel one?

For myself, a rich conversation is what I want. For those who feel the old ways are better, What evidence is there that a direct conversation is generally more effective than a parallel one?

For related posts on commenting, see my website with links to my earlier posts on commenting and Mark Bernstein's many posts on this issue as follows:

Update: For a balanced, pro-comment perspective, read "Blogging Basics: The Convenience of Comments" (Nongeek Perspective).



It is not that students cannot learn, it is that they do not wish to.
—Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Have you ever noticed that second thoughts are often better than first ones? In my previous post, my first thoughts were to tie engagment to autonomy and time on task. Two days later, on my desk staring at me was psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience". "Flow" fits the notion of engagement better. From the book, flow is

the state in whch people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.

Most of us have had that "involved" moment happen, when we concentrated our attention so intensely on solving a problem, reading a book, climbing a mountain, on some task, that we lost track of time and when we became aware of our surroundings, a few hours or more had passed by as if they were minutes. Such "flow", according to Csikszentmihalyi, is "optimal experience" that leads to happiness and creativity.

Flow occurs when certain conditions are met, four of which are

  1. clear goals
  2. immediate feedback
  3. focused attention
  4. tasks that challenge (without frustrating) one's skills

Csikszentmihalyi's diagram of item #4 (this representation was created by Wesley Fryer) shows why flow should be taken into consideration when designing class tasks.

If a task is not challenging enough, boredom sets in, while too great a challenge results in anxiety, and both cases result in task, and thus learning, avoidance. As one's skills increase, then the challenge must also increase for one to remain in a state of flow. Because flow is an enjoyable experience, one continues to increase the challenge level (as from A1 to A4 and so on), and consequently continues to improve one's skills because doing so is necessary to stay in a flow state. Thus, we see the importance of "engaging" students in school. From the book,

flow activities lead to growth and discovery. One cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for long. We grow either bored or frustrated; and then the desire to enjoy ourselves again pushes us to stretch our skills, or to discover new opportunities for using them.

Of course, easier said than done, especially when one's students (mine, for example) often hold full-time jobs while being full-time plus students. Too much work and too little time constantly puts my students in states of frustration. Even when not, flow states are not a regular occurrence in life; according to Csikszentmihalyi (quoted by Jamie Chamberlin in the APA Monitor),

'A typical day is full of anxiety and boredom,' says Csikszentmihalyi. 'Flow experiences provide the flashes of intense living against this dull background.'

So, it's unlikely that in formal learning contexts that states of flow will be become the norm every day all day. After all, not all tasks are enjoyable, but they might be necessary, just as grading is a necessary but tedious part of teaching. Still, it seems more and more that students are being turned off by classroom learning. As Csikszentmihalyi asserts,

It is not that students cannot learn, it is that they do not wish to.

They don't, because they don't see the relevance of school learning. The relevance of math, for example, remains hidden until it is needed in a real world context such as engineering. As Csikszentmihalyi notes, in former times, young children learned in real settings, whether it was hunting, farming, or some trade. They could see first hand the relevance of their activity. Similarly, students playing sports and music see the relevance of any associated instruction. More importantly, goals are clear and feedback is immediate, as in chess when a piece has been taken.

Now, I still agree with Artichoke that student satisfaction/enjoyment is not a reliable measure of learning and that much talk about "engagement" is more jumping on a not-too-well-thought-out, feel-good bandwagon than anything else, but I want to look at this one point:

And engagement, despite Prensky’s slickly marketable “engage me or enrage me” stuff,  engagement is not a self report measure of wonderment and awe but rather a reflection of the determined and persistent focus that a learner needs to promote learning.

As Brabazon notes in her provocative book Digital Hemlock  “To read remember, understand, synthesise and interpret knowledge is often drudgery.  To learn with effectiveness requires repetition, practice and failure.”’ (p9)

Why should repetition, practice and failure be equated with drudgery? James Paul Gee (pdf) notes how in good video games,

mastery is consolidated through repetition (with variation), only to be challenged again.

Yet gamers play hours on end, repeating the same moves over and over. And this is true, too, of playing sports, music, and chess. Yet, one seldom hears of the repetition in these arenas as drudgery, perhaps hard, perhaps demanding, but not drudgery. In fact, flow can be achieved in something as apparently boring as working on an assembly line. In his book, Csikszentmihalyi recounts the example of Rico:

The task he has to perform on each unit that passes in front of his station should take forty-three seconds to perform—the same exact operation almost six hundred times in a working day. Most people would grow tired of such work very soon. But Rico has been at this job for over five years, and he still enjoys it. The reason is that he approaches his task in the same way an Olympic athlete approaches his event: How can I beat my record? Like the runner who trains for years to shave a few seconds off his best performance on the track, Rico has trained himself to better his time on the assembly line. With the painstaking care of a surgeon, he has worked out a private routine for how to use his tools, how to do his moves. After five years, his best average for a day has been twenty-eight seconds per unit. ... when he is working at top performance the experience is so enthralling that it is almost painful for him to slow down. "It's better than anything else," Rico says. "It's a whole lot better than watching TV." Rico know that very soon he will reach the limit beyond which he will no longer be able to improve his performance at his job. So twice a week he takes evening courses in electronics. When he has his diploma he will seek a more complex job, one that presumably he will confront with the same enthusiasm he has shown so far. (pp. 39-40)

Apparently, it is not repetition or practice per se that is drudgery. Perhaps, in school learning, repetition is not accompanied by variation, and so becomes drudgery. Perhaps, school repetition too often lacks the clear goals and immediate feedback of video games, sports, music, and chess, and so becomes drudgery. We need to find ways of integrating repetition and practice into school learning without them becoming drudgerous.

In the comments section, Artichoke stated,

the problem does seem to lie in the many differing meanings we attribute to "engagement".

If we can design learning conditions conducive to flow, perhaps our students will wish to learn.

Definitely. But the everyday meaning of engagement seems congruent with the academic concept of flow. In fact, one of Csikszentmihalyi's books is titled "Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life". Perhaps informing our understanding of engagement with the research on flow can help us move forward in "engaging" our students. Flow, again, requires clear goals, immediate feedback, challenging tasks, and variation in those tasks. If we can design learning conditions conducive to flow, perhaps our students will wish to learn.

Related posts and articles:



"effective time on task" and "self-determination" are important pillars of the learning process.

Engagement is a term heard everywhere in educational circles. But how do we measure it? Is engagement always relevant to learning? Artichoke asks these questions and others:

“Engagement” is an interesting notion, as is “rich and authentic”. When I hear schools advocating the use of student inquiry and authentic contexts over other pedagogical approaches on the grounds that it engages (and thus apparently motivates) students, I always want to ask

  • How do you assess engagement?
  • How different are these measures when students are learning through inquiry activities than when they are learning through other pedagogical approaches? And
  • What difference do you find in student learning outcomes that can be causally attributed to your measures of engagement?

And when I think about “rich and authentic” I want to ask, authentic to whom? I want to know why “rich and authentic” is a more popular descriptor of the quantity and quality of the learning experience than “educationally relevant”

Perhaps the emperor has no clothes. Engagement is a fuzzy and anecdotal term. Still, I suppose when I use that term, I'm really referring to time on task and self-determination. In terms of self-determination theory, acting autonomously promotes intrinisic motivation, which in turn leads to more time on task. And it's clear that the more "effective time on task" there is (see Implications of ACT-R Theory: No Magic Bullets (pdf)), the more learning can take place.

So, yes, we need to be careful in our bandying about the terms "engagement" and "rich and authentic." Having said that, "effective time on task" and "self-determination" are important pillars of the learning process.



elgg Kevin Jardine has a good summary of "What Elgg gets right" (via Dave Tosh). He writes in detail on the following points:

» A user-centric rather than content-centric approach
» Tags
» Access groups
» Aggregation
» Theming

Jardine concludes,

Elgg gives individual users unprecedented power to define their own personal spaces and to find people like themselves in a potentially huge member base. This creates an enormous shift from traditional content-based sites to new user-based ones. 



Much hype is given to social networks on the internet and collaboration in the classroom. But, as Kathy Sierra comments on the differences between "Collective Intelligence and Dumbness of Crowds":

"Collective intelligence" is a pile of people writing Amazon book reviews.

"Dumbness of Crowds" is a pile of people collaborating on a wiki to collectively author a book. ...

"Collective Intelligence" is about getting input and ideas from many different people and perspectives.

"Dumbness of Crowds" is blindly averaging the input of many different people, and expecting a breakthrough.

(It's not always the averaging that's the problem it's the blindly part) ...

It's the sharp edges, gaps, and differences in individual knowledge that make the wisdom of crowds work, yet the trendy (and misinterpreted) vision of Web 2.0 is just the opposite--get us all collborating and communicating and conversing all together as one big happy collborating, communicating, conversing thing until our individual differences become superficial.

"It's the sharp edges, gaps, and differences in individual knowledge that make the wisdom of crowds work" (Kathy Sierra).

Sierra's post brings me back to a series of posts by Konrad Glogowski (see in Related Posts below) on disliking group work with young students. In his last post, he sums up his position:

In addition, Eric MacKnight e-mailed me some time ago to tell me that he had discussed my entry on group work with his students and encouraged them to respond. I read all their entries and was impressed by how well they articulated their thoughts. Their responses show a wide range of opinions. Some argue that group work has a very positive impact on all group members. Others contend that working in groups is alienating and ineffective.

All of these texts once again led me to a realization that I prefer communities where everyone can contribute while retaining their own sense of individuality and independence. In such communities or networks, individual learners can still link up if they choose to and can achieve the goal of what Gordon Wells and Mari Haneda (.pdf) call “purposefully knowing together.”

For me, both Sierra and Glogowski have pointed out that "differences" need to be valued. We don't learn from those who think like us or who know only what we know. Rather, we learn from those who think and know differently because it is differences that clarify, challenge, and expand our thinking. Groups, or crowds, can stifle thinking and creativity, while collective networks can facilitate learning.

Practically, this perspective means we need to give careful consideration to building structures into our classes that promote a networking community as opposed to collaborating groups. Wikis, for instance, can become a classopedia to which students contribute and see who else has the same interests. If students are blogging, they should be subscribed to their classmates. And so on. None of these practices are new, of course. What's important in using them is to avoid the dumbing down effects of group work. That is, have students share, discuss, and bump ideas off each other but create their own individual works. In this way, the class can expand both its collective intelligence and individual learning.

Related Posts:
» Authentic Multiculturalism in Medieval Spain
» Learning: A State of Dissatisfaction
» On Commenting and Readerly Voice (Konrad Glogowski)
» To Ungroup a Class (Konrad Glogowski)
» They Begin to Build Bridges (Konrad Glogowski)
» Students Reflect on Group Work (Konrad Glogowski)
» Groups vs. Networks: The Class Struggle Continues (Stephen Downes)



"Why can't business majors write?" asks Dave Carpenter (Post-Gazette.com) in his article, Eschewing obfuscation: Business schools, firms target bad writing:

Like a dark and stormy night, bad writing has long shadowed the business world -- from bureaucratese to mangled memos to the cliche-thick murk of "corporatespeak."

But in an era of nonstop e-mail and instant and text messaging, written communication skills within companies may be getting even worse as quality is compromised by the perceived need for speed.

Wary of the trend, not just businesses but also business schools across the country are working harder to eschew obfuscation. Some have added or expanded writing programs in recent years; others use corporations' faux pas as case studies in hopes their students will learn to avoid them.

"eschew obfuscation"? Hmm. The article relies entirely upon anecdotal evidence, so let me add one of my own to the mix.

Once upon a time, there was a student who, working on a second undergraduate degree, had been in college for 9 years but had done little writing outside of lab reports and translations of dead texts. Conversing with his Latin professor, he mentioned, "I think I'll take the advanced expository writing next semester."

"Why," asked the professor?

He replied, "Well, to learn to write."

The professor shrugged a "whatever" gesture.

At the end of the semester, the student handed in two 3-page papers. Quickly perusing them, the professor glanced up and stated, "You might want to take that writing course." And the student did and wrote competently ever after.

Although some in the article would claim that business majors can't write due to laziness or the IM-multitasking culture, it's simply that writing, like any other skill, is one that must be practiced. According to Peter Handal,

"I think that would suggest that people are just so happy to get the communications going that they aren't spending the time on how to communicate," he said.

Probably, most people just aren't that interested in writing to spend the time. If they were, they would become writers—or at least bloggers.

Update: Alex Reid has a relevant post on student writing.