October

From Science Daily is a digest of some research by John Dunlosky and Amanda Lipko of Kent State on techniques for evaluating your learning. Generally speaking, people aren't good at this. Two techniques mentioned are:

rereading or summarizing text can improve people's ability to accurately evaluate how well they are learning those texts.

In addition, techniques that focus people's attention on just the most important details of a text also help them to evaluate their learning.

How to use this information in the classroom?

On focusing people's attention for evaluation, the article said,

if a text includes several key ideas, attempting to recall these ideas from memory and then explicitly comparing the recall with the correct answers improves people's ability to accurately evaluate how well they are learning the ideas.

In other words, it's a way to test your memory or recall. If you don't do well, then you need to read some more.

With respect to re-reading, for me, that means repetition, repetition means practice, and the more practice, the better. Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, writes, "Practice makes perfect: but only if you practice beyond the point of perfection".

Exactly when to engage students in practice, through what method, and for what duration are educational decisions that teachers will need to make on a regular basis. But, that students will only remember what they have extensively practiced--and that they will only remember for the long term that which they have practiced in a sustained way over many years--are realities that can’t be bypassed.

Practice is related to competence, which is related to the ability to evaluate how well you can do something. Seven years ago, Erica Goode (New York Times) in Incompetent People Really Have No Clue reported on research conducted by David Dunning, professor of psychology at Cornell, and Justin Kruger, now associate professor of marketing at the Stern School of Business:

One reason that the ignorant also tend to be the blissfully self-assured, the researchers believe, is that the skills required for competence often are the same skills necessary to recognize competence. 

The incompetent, therefore, suffer doubly, they suggested in a paper  appearing in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social  Psychology. 

"Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate  choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it,'' wrote Kruger, now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, and Dunning. 

So, in essence we're back to the fact that there are no shortcuts in learning (see Anderson & Schunn's article "The implications of the ACT-R learning theory: no magic bullets" (pdf)). Learning and being able to evaluate your learning depend primarily on lots of practice--or time on task--and mastery depends on practicing past the point of perfection.

Related posts:
Reading: A Case for Practice and Examples
IQ vs. Self-Discipline
Forget IQ: Just Work Hard!
The Expert Mind



U.K. Chief Rabbi Johnathan Sacks talks about the threat to democracy from multiculturalism in his new book, "The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society":

Multiculturalism promotes segregation, stifles free speech and threatens liberal democracy, Britain's top Jewish official warned in extracts from his book published Saturday.

Jonathan Sacks, Britain's chief rabbi, defined multiculturalism as an attempt to affirm Britain's diverse communities and make ethnic and religious minorities more appreciated and respected. But in his book, "The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society," he said the movement had run its course.

"Multiculturalism has led not to integration but to segregation," Sacks wrote in his book, an extract of which was published in the Times of London.

"Liberal democracy is in danger," Sacks said, adding later: "The politics of freedom risks descending into the politics of fear."

Sacks said Britain's politics had been poisoned by the rise of identity politics, as minorities and aggrieved groups jockeyed first for rights, then for special treatment.

The process, he said, began with Jews, before being taken up by blacks, women and gays. He said the effect had been inexorably divisive.

"A culture of victimhood sets group against group, each claiming that its pain, injury, oppression, humiliation is greater than that of others," he said.

From the back cover of the book:

"Multiculturalism has run its course and it is time to move on." So begins Jonathan Sacks' new book on the future of British society and the dangers facing liberal democracy.

Arguing that global communications have fragmented national cultures and that multiculturalism, intended to reduce social frictions, is today reinforcing them, Sacks argues for a new approach to national identity. We cannot stay with current policies that are producing a society of conflicting ghettoes and non-intersecting lives, turning religious bodies into pressure groups rather than society-building forces.

Sacks maintains that we will have to construct a national narrative as a basis for identity, reinvigorate the concept of the common good, and identify shared interests among currently conflicting groups. It must restore a culture of civility, protect "neutral spaces" from politicization, and find ways of moving beyond an adversarial culture in which the loudest voice wins. He proposes a responsibility-based, rather than rights-based, model of citizenship that connects the ideas of giving and belonging.

Offering a new paradigm to replace previous models of assimilation on the one hand, multiculturalism on the other, he argues that we should see society as "the home we build together," bringing the distinctive gifts of different goups to society as a whole, and not only to our particular subsection of it.

Sacks warns of the hazards free and open societies face in the twenty-first century, and offers an unusual religious defense of liberal democracy and the nation state. A counterweight to his earlier The Dignity of Difference, Sacks makes the case for "integrated diversity" within a framework of shared political views.

The notion of "integrated diversity" reminds me of Maria Rosa Menocal's book "The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain" in which she writes about the "authentic multiculturalism" in medieval Spain that occurred through processes of tolerance, dialogue, and acceptance of "contraries."

Her notion of authentic multiculturalism ties in well with a "responsibility-based, rather than rights-based, model of citizenship." We hear all too often people clamoring for rights without regard to any responsibility they might have. It's more of a "gimme, gimme" attitude instead of a "giving and belonging" attitude. Not that rights must not be protected in a democracy, but rather they must be balanced by a sense of responsibility for a liberal democracy to exist.

Related posts:
The Downside of Diversity
Multiculturalism and Prejudice



Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard and author of quite a few books on language and mind, has a fascinating essay on cursing and taboo words in the New Yorker (via John Gruber): "Why we curse: What the F***?". He writes:

THE STRANGE EMOTIONAL power of swearing--as well as the presence of linguistic taboos in all cultures-- suggests that taboo words tap into deep and ancient parts of the brain. In general, words have not just a denotation but a connotation: an emotional coloring distinct from what the word literally refers to, as in principled versus stubborn and slender versus scrawny. The difference between a taboo word and its genteel synonyms, such as shit and feces, cunt and vagina, or fucking and making love, is an extreme example of the distinction. Curses provoke a different response than their synonyms in part because connotations and denotations are stored in different parts of the brain.

The mammalian brain contains, among other things, the limbic system, an ancient network that regulates motivation and emotion, and the neocortex, the crinkled surface of the brain that ballooned in human evolution and which is the seat of perception, knowledge, reason, and planning. The two systems are interconnected and work together, but it seems likely that words' denotations are concentrated in the neocortex, especially in the left hemisphere, whereas their connotations are spread across connections between the neocortex and the limbic system, especially in the right hemisphere.

A likely suspect within the limbic system is the amygdala, an almond-shaped organ buried at the front of the temporal lobe of the brain (one on each side) that helps invest memories with emotion. A monkey whose amygdalas have been removed can learn to recognize a new shape, like a striped triangle, but has trouble learning that the shape foreshadows an unpleasant event like an electric shock. In humans, the amygdala "lights up"--it shows greater metabolic activity in brain scans--when the person sees an angry face or an unpleasant word, especially a taboo word.

The response is not only emotional but involuntary. It's not just that we don't have earlids to shut out unwanted sounds. Once a word is seen or heard, we are incapable of treating it as a squiggle or noise; we reflexively look it up in memory and respond to its meaning, including its connotation.

So, words are not just words. Our responses to words are emotional and involuntary, and thus they have consequences. This explains why language learners are not affected by curse words the same way as native speakers of the target language: They don't have the same emotional connotations established with the target language word as they do with their native equivalent.

It's a long essay (over 5000 words), but well worth reading.



A while back, Traci Gardner at the NCTE Inbox blog wrote about "abbreviations and shortcuts" used in IM and elsewhere as not being incorrect grammar. She stated:

The systems that I see Internet writers use don’t indicate laziness or a lack of education. Far from it. They require complex understandings of how language works. When students use Internet language in the wrong place, we shouldn’t mark their work incorrect any more than we would mark students’ use of dialect and home language wrong. What we should do is talk about code-switching and how the uses of Internet language and Standard English contrast.

I responded in two comments over there, but I thought I'd expand a little more on it here. I agree with much of what Gardner wrote. In this particular paragraph, although I agree with the first and last sentences, the middle two sentences, I can't.

Although it might seem that internet language requires a complex understanding of language, most people don't understand the language they use in every day conversation. Linguists do, and people who study a foreign language get some inkling of the mechanics of their native language. But most people don't understand how language works any more than the non-biologist understands how mitochondria synthesize ATP. I remembered taking an English syntax class in my thirties, learning for the first time that the difference between blue bird (a type of bird) and blue bird (a bird that is blue in color) is understood through stress. The former has equal stress on blue and bird, while the latter has stress only on bird. Until that class I didn't even know that I was making that distinction. It was all unconscious (which is how we acquire our languages). So, no, although language itself is complex, most people do not have "complex understandings of how language works," at least consciously.

Yes, dialects and home languages are not wrong. They just are. However, any dialect can be "wrong" in a particular context. Imagine using text-messaging abbreviations in a resume or on a company's business report to shareholders. Imagine pontificating with academic verbiage to your parents. Or using "ain't" and southern double modals in an academic article.

In some ways, it's a natural progression to go from saying that something is not wrong to not evaluating it as wrong. But, again, what is not "wrong" per se can be wrong in a particular context. Most people applying for a construction job are not going to wear a tuxedo or evening gown. There's nothing wrong with tuxedos and evening gowns in and of themselves. At a construction site, however, an employer might question your ability to do the job and might interpret your choice of apparel as indicating a lack of common sense and consequently perhaps a lack of trustworthiness. If your purpose were to obtain a job, then you would have failed an important test.

Similarly, dialect use depends upon audience, purpose, and context. We are not helping our students if the resumes they send out do not have a formal dialect, if the company's reports they write do not have a business dialect, and so on. So, although we need to explain and help our students learn contextual uses of language, we also have to evaluate and give feedback on how well they use a dialect for the audience and purpose for which their text is intended. Generally speaking, internet abbreviations don't cut it in school and business writing.

Another reason that Gardner gives for not correcting dialects is,

The problem is that marking language “wrong” doesn’t work.

Yes, there's research that shows that traditional grammar instruction and correction doesn't work. And there's research that shows certain types of error feedback do work. (For more on error feedback, see my series of posts on error feedback, beginning with Error Feedback in L2 Writing.)

Of course, simply marking something as wrong may not work. Even in sports, if a coach simply says, "Wrong, do it again!" it's unlikely that a player will improve much. But coaches give feedback on what to do, and the players practice hours on end for months to incorporate that feedback. In addition, coaches don't tell players everything that is wrong, only a few crucial points at a time. The problem with most grammar correction is that, although explanation often accompanies the correction, often the amount of correction may be too much to attend to and also students generally do not practice hours on end to change their grammar. So, it's to be expected that much research will show error correction doesn't work. Not because it doesn't work but because it's implemented in ways that will not work. However, many extrapolate from this finding and jump to the conclusion that all types of error correction will not work. That's an unjustified jump.

Having said all of that, it really makes no sense to apply research findings of grammar correction to Internet-speak correction. Teachers may be marking Internet-speak "wrong," but this is not the same "wrong" as in correcting grammar. As Gardner notes,

Wheeler and Swords point to the research of applied linguistics and the work of educators such as past CCCC president Keith Gilyard that indicates the correction of vernacular language, the languages used with family and friends in the home community, just doesn’t work (4).

However, Internet-speak is not a native vernacular language that people grow up with. I'm not sure it should be considered a language as distinct from English. At best, it might be considered some sort of pidgin, as Anil Dash (whom Gardner cites) says, learned around or past the prime time for acquiring a native language. In fact, although we might mark it "wrong," we are not correcting it in the way that we expect students to modify their native language. Instead, we are saying, "Don't use Internet-speak. Use your vernacular language."

Again, the issue is not whether a dialect or abbreviations are "wrong." They're not. The issue is, How can we help our students use the language expected by their audience in a particular context? Of course, as Gardner states, we must orient our students to noticing contrasts between Internet-speak and academic language. Their ability to do so, however, should be evaluated just as we assess other aspects of their writing.

If you're interested in reading how others are handling Internet dialect differences in email from students, read the following:
Bullshit Meters are Blowing Up
An Academic Outsider Gets Real About Email Communication
Email headaches: small bother? good lesson?
Write a perfect email
How to send Krause email
How to email a professor



This blog on plagiarism, Copy, Shake, Paste may be of interest. It's maintained by Debora Weber-Wulff, professor for Media and Computing at FHTW Berlin, who has been conducting research on plagiarism detection services. She and her colleagues released a report (in German) on the testing of these services. She states:

We hope that our work can help these companies to produce better results. But our summary for 2007 is the same as for 2004: It is better to use a search machine yourself, the software just costs money and is not necessarily very good at finding all plagiarisms.

Not knowing German, I can't read the report to see what percentages of "finding" were found, and it seems odd to me to expect that any software would discover "all plagiarisms." Of course, users should consider whether the software is worth the money, depending, I imagine, upon some expected percentage of successful discovery--especially if you want to use it as a learning tool in the classroom. At least this approach, unlike quite a bit of the ideological controversy surrounding these tools, is one that is simply being practical.

On a side note, at the Educause 2007 Southeast Regional Conference in Atlanta, Liz Johnson, Project Manager, Advanced Learning Technologies (Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia), had a poster session with a chart (pdf) that compared seven software detection programs:Turnitin, MyDropBox, PAIRwise, EVE2, WCopyfind, CopyCatch, and Glatt. The chart provides information ranging from price to support to much more, including the issue of intellectual property.

Related posts:



The 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature was just awarded to Doris Lessing. From the New York Times:

Ms. Lessing, who turns 88 this month, never finished high school and largely educated herself through voracious reading. She has written dozens of books of fiction, as well as plays, nonfiction and two volumes of autobiography. She is the 11th woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

She never finished high school but won the Nobel Prize. The key to her success was reading, "voracious reading." What slows down students, especially ESL students, is a lack of reading. Without a strong reading background, students lack the vocabulary and the sensitivity to understanding and intuiting how reading and writing works, from such simple mechanical items as spacing, punctuation, and spelling to the critical issues of comprehension; questioning authors and assumptions; analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information; and more

Reading is crucial to all academic endeavors. A few years back, the principal of a charter school in Texas that had a majority of at-risk students, told me,

These students can do the math and science. Their difficulty is they can't read: They can't understand what a problem is asking them to do. But once you explain it to them, they can do it.

Reading is also important for acquiring a second language, especially at the academic level. Although I consider Stephen Krashen's distinction between acquisition and learning to be a specific application of the difference between procedural and declarative knowledge (and thus there is an interface between the two), he is right on the importance of reading. That is, massive reading is important for spelling, vocabulary, literacy development, and language acquisition. Thus, for teachers, a major, probably the major, key to helping their students to learn another language remains creating environments that engage and motivate students to read.

Related posts:
Language Learning vs. Language Acquistion
Engagement and Flow



illusionFrom the Sun Herald (via Mark Bernstein) is this neat animated gif. If you see it turning clockwise, you're right-brained (meaning you use more of the right brain than the left), and if counterclockwise, left-brained. Weird, isn't it?

This illusion definitely fits with my experience, according to the Sun Herald's list of differences below: That is, I'm oriented toward logic, details, facts, words and language, math and science, practicality, and playing it safe. I seldom take risks or act impetuously. I was 48 before I got married! And although I'm good in math, geometry was my weakest area in math. I'm not quite so sure about lacking imagination, however. Of course, these are tendencies, not absolutes, but still, it's weird to me that one's brain-side dominance affects how you see this figure turn. I wonder how this might affect learning.

LEFT BRAIN FUNCTIONS
uses logic
detail oriented
facts rule
words and language
present and past
math and science
can comprehend
knowing
acknowledges
order/pattern perception
knows object name
reality based
forms strategies
practical
safe

RIGHT BRAIN FUNCTIONS
uses feeling
"big picture" oriented
imagination rules
symbols and images
present and future
philosophy & religion
can "get it" (i.e. meaning)
believes
appreciates
spatial perception
knows object function
fantasy based
presents possibilities
impetuous
risk taking

Update: Stephen Downes says that it's not a matter of right- or left-brain dominance because

You can learn to see the dancer spin both ways - it has to do with where you focus your attention.

I've asked in a comment on how that works. Let's see if he will respond. Even so, if one has to learn how to do something to go against the brain's natural preference, then apparently something brain-related is occurring whether or not it's a brain hemisphere dominance. Perhaps, Stephen can comment on that, too. For right now, I tried looking in different ways but could only see it going counterclockwise, and Mark Bernstein could only see it going clockwise. It's still a fascinating illusion, and brains are still weird!

Update 2: Stephen Downes responded on where to focus: Focusing on the feet turns the dancer counterclockwise while focusing on the shoulders makes her appear to go clockwise. Sometimes that works for me, sometimes not. Mark Bernstein's site has two dancers turning, and sometimes, I can get them going opposite directions by focusing on the shoulders, and sometimes not. It does seem to be a matter of focusing, then. Thanks to Steve for clarifying this illusion.



The second speaker at the Spilman Symposium was Edward White, professor of English at the University of Arizona. I have one of his books, Assigning, Responding, Evaluating, and it's an excellent guide for, as the title says, assigning, responding to, and evaluating writing. White talked on "Why write?: Teaching writing in an era of over testing."

White said that one student in response to a teaching prompt of "Why write?", stated "They make you write so they can getcha." In other words, because it's so easy to make errors, it's better to avoid the whole thing. For students and others, White says, the aims of writing differ from what most scholars assert to be the purpose of writing. For White, writing has life and reflection. However, teaching our students that writing has purpose is not so easy when the purpose they encounter is one of testing. Thus, he asks,

How do we reconcile demonstrations of technique with the purposes of real writing?

To illustrate the difference between mere technique with purposeful writing, White compared two essays. The first he wrote himself as an example of formulaic writing according to the five-paragraph format. He was motivated to write it after "grading hundreds of AP exams and wondering why so many good writers wrote bad essays."

I don't remember the prompt, but it might have been something like, "What is writing?" Although ostensibly a representation of a fictional student "Ed" writing a 40-minute timed essay, White took several hours to craft this essay whose thesis was, It didn't matter what you wrote as long as you followed the formula and had three points to talk about. You could have three points against or for the existence of God. The side you took wasn't important, but the formula of having three points was. After all, for this student, "The only purpose for writing was to pass a test."

For our discussion, White asked us to consider:

  1. What might you say to Ed?
  2. What grade you might give him?
  3. What you might say to him to change his idea?

I'm not sure what I would say to Ed to change his idea. Much of persuasion has to do with actions. Modeling engagement and reflection is one influence. Crafting assignments that engage students is important, too. Another approach is to relate writing to their interests and future careers. I have a list of quotations from people in different professions that assert that writing is essential to their job. But without experience, many students just nod their heads, but don't take it to heart until they experience the need for writing in their lives.

On #2, I would have given the essay an A due to its craft. In contrast, White would have given it a C at best due to its point of view because it wasn't a point of view that encouraged reflection and engagement. As White mentioned in an email, it would depend on the assignment. He was thinking of a response in a course that had already discussed "educational concepts and the purpose of writing." The assignment certainly makes a difference. In the course context, I'd expect some acknowledgement of its concepts.

Initially, however, I was thinking of something along the lines of an SAT essay sample. But now I'm wondering, suppose the student disagreed with the course teachings based on his previous schooling, thinking, "Yes, they say that writing has this purpose, but all of my teachers have simply presented it as a formula." Or the student may not be interested in this sort of reflection. Perhaps, expecting students to see that "writing has life" is the same as expecting English majors to see that physics has life. Outside of physics and engineering majors, I doubt that many students see that. And vice versa. In her research on engineers, Winsor, professor of English at Iowa State University (citing Bazerman) wrote,

To many technical people, writing seems to be a rather uninteresting act of translating knowledge they have encoded in another form.

That is, for these engineers, they engaged in and reflected on their work; writing was simply a matter of translating what they had already thought into an "uninteresting" form of communication to others.

For an example that shows reflection and engagement, White gave one that had this prompt:

The best swordsman in the world doesn't need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn't do the thing he outght to do, and so the expert isn't prepared for him; he does the thing he ought not to do; and often it catches the expert out and ends him on the spot. --Samuel Clemens

Write an essay that explains what Clemens means by his description of the "best swordsman" and the "ignorant antagonist." Relate Clemen's concept to an area about which you are well informed."

In this essay, the student does an excellent comparison of when Clemens' concept works and when it doesn't. It works, "When revolutionaries break diplomatic rules by engaging in acts of terrorism ...." It doesn't work in chess, because "brilliant innovations in chess have nothing to do with ignorance," and the student gives specific examples of rook pawn openings or using the queen in opening positions.

White, in his book Assigning, Responding, Evaluating, states that this sort of prompt makes different types of conceptual demands on the writer than prompts based on personal experience do. It's more "academic" in that it "demands close and sensitive reading of the passage as the crucial first step" (p. 144). Of course, as he notes, the ability to deal with this sort of prompt depends on the student's background in reading and writing.

This sort of prompt is better than the general question, "What is writing?" For those not much interested in writing, "What is writing?" is unlikely to engage students and likely to end up with formulaic generalizations. In contrast, the Clemens prompt requires dealing with and understanding a text, and it ties into students' own knowledge fields, engaging them by unexpectedly juxtaposing "school learning" with their own interests and presenting a challenging puzzle to resolve. I wonder how a physicist would have responded.

One thing, however, is that I'm not sure whether the Clemens prompt requires more engagement or reflection than what the first student wrote in the context of a 40-minute essay. It's obvious that this student plays chess, and although we can't be sure about his/her background in politics, he seems to know the subject well. In other words, this student is writing on topics, as the prompt required, on which he is "well informed." In such a case, the primary conceptual demand seems to be to find two areas that he knew well that could tie into Clemens' assertion. Once found, the student could then go on automatic writing pilot. Indeed, the student must, because in a 40-minute essay, the time for reflection is insufficient. Thus, this essay is a speed test displaying what writing skills (and knowledge) have already been internalized rather than for showing reflection and engagement.

Although engagement and reflection should be a goal of any course, I don't think it's possible to evaluate engagement and reflection. The source eludes me, but in one particular study I read some time ago, what looked like a lack of engagement in several students' writing was actually a case of writer's block. On a side note, this reminds me of grading students on participation. When a student, I used to ask a question or two in many of my classes--not to participate but because my own speaking would wake me up.

White's question "How do we reconcile demonstrations of technique with the purposes of real writing?" is an essential one for the writing classroom. We may not be able to assess engagement and reflection, but if we believe that writing should have "life and reflection," then we need to design prompts and tasks that accord well with those purposes. As White states in his book,

we must offer the best assignments we can devise in order to stimulate our students creatifvity and convince them to learn what we teach.