building blocks

Abstract is better than concrete for transfer, according to the New York Times reporting of recent research in mathematics:

In the experiment, the college students learned a simple but unfamiliar mathematical system, essentially a set of rules. Some learned the system through purely abstract symbols, and others learned it through concrete examples like combining liquids in measuring cups and tennis balls in a container.

Then the students were tested on a different situation — what they were told was a children’s game — that used the same math. “We told students you can use the knowledge you just acquired to figure out these rules of the game,” Dr. Kaminski said.

The students who learned the math abstractly did well with figuring out the rules of the game. Those who had learned through examples using measuring cups or tennis balls performed little better than might be expected if they were simply guessing. Students who were presented the abstract symbols after the concrete examples did better than those who learned only through cups or balls, but not as well as those who learned only the abstract symbols.

The problem with the real-world examples, Dr. Kaminski said, was that they obscured the underlying math, and students were not able to transfer their knowledge to new problems.

“They tend to remember the superficial, the two trains passing in the night,” Dr. Kaminski said. “It’s really a problem of our attention getting pulled to superficial information.”

The explanation of examples clouding up the concepts reminds me somewhat of the research on reading about seductive details diminishing recall of information. (There are many articles on this phenomenon, but see, for example, Processing and recall of seductive details in scientific text.)

Transfer is also a major problem in writing: Students often don't transfer what they know about writing in one situation to new situations. Somehow, the situations are compartmentalized so that the concepts don't transfer, which remains me of the research on students learning physics. David Hammer's research showed that students could compartmentalize and keep their every day notions about motion from the physics concepts they were learning.

So, although this was a small study (and one that needs to be replicated), it does fit in with what we know of transfer, that learning that is bound to a particular context doesn't transfer well--which explains why students who have learned the five-paragraph essay structure in high school continue to use it in college even when an assignment requires them not to.

What would be the abstract set of rules for writing? I've looked at that before, except I called them "building blocks." But although I can see the need for knowing the building blocks abstractly, I think mastering them abstractly is achieved through much practice of remixing these building blocks across contexts. (See Learning by Remixing and also this review/synopsis of Spiro's Cognitive Flexibility Theory.)

The problem remains determining what those building blocks are. Although they likely differ across genre (just as math concepts differ from geometry to algebra to calculus and so on), they must also have elements in common. At a basic level, there's always writer, audience, text, and purpose. For persuasion, it may come down to the formula in Graff and Birkenstein's book "They Say / I Say", in which writers join into a conversation with others and position themselves with respect to those others. It's a small book with three parts and ten chapters:

Part 1. "They say"

ONE: "They say" (Starting with What Others Are Saying)

TWO: "Her Point Is" (The Art of Summarizing)

THREE: "As He Himself Puts It" (The Art of Quoting)

Part 2. "I Say"

FOUR: "Yes / No / Okay, But" (Three Ways to Respond)

FIVE: "And Yet" (Distinguishing What You Say from What They Say)

SIX: "Skeptics May Object" (Planting a Naysayer in Your Text)

SEVEN: "So What? Who Cares?" (Saying Why It Matters)

Part 3: Tying It All Together

EIGHT: "As a Result" (Connecting the Parts)

NINE: "Ain't So / Is Not" (Academic Writing Doesn't Mean Setting Aside Your Own Voice)

TEN: "In Other Words" (The Art of Metacommentary)

As you can see, despite having only two building blocks--"they say" and "I say"--students are led into a variety of ways of analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating what "they say," along with generating their own understanding and position among others in a conversation. And treating persuasive writing like a conversation has many connections to students' lives: They argue about their sports, clothes, cars, majors, professors, and so on.

I imagine that different sets of building blocks are possible, just as different sets of rules can be found in different fields of math. The key seems to be helping students practice using one coherent set of building blocks (i.e., abstract principles) across contexts.

Related posts:
The Five-Paragraph Essay and Building Blocks of Writing
The Five-Paragraph Essay (continued)
Learning by Remixing

In an earlier post, I wrote,

It is not the structure of the five-paragraph essay that is limiting: It is a lack of critical reflection on one's ideas.

Many apparently disagree with that assertion, at least about the part on structure being limiting. I'm not sure why they do. Perhaps it's because many do use the five-paragraph essay in limiting ways. Perhaps it comes from a notion of learning as a creative endeavor, and perhaps the notion of "creative" for many suggests that learning occurs by intuitive leaps and bounds, which structure unduly restrains. However, without structure, no creativity can take place. Language itself requires structure to communicate meaning. In English, for example, stress can differentiate between adjectives and compound nouns, as in the difference between a "blue bird" (a bird that is blue in color) and a "bluebird" (a particular type of bird).

learning never occurs de novo.

Similarly, structure is crucial for learning. After all, learning never occurs de novo. Rather,

  • Learning always builds upon that which came before, and
  • Learning almost always involves a remixing of known building blocks.

My favorite example of these two principles is the many species that have evolved from the remixing of only four building blocks of DNA.

In looking at the five-paragraph essay, we can see at least four potential building blocks of writing:

  • introduction
  • "main idea" (thesis statement and topic sentence)
  • evidence
  • explanation (explanation of evidence and conclusion)

Let's look at how these four building blocks are used across three different situations: (1) framing a quotation, (2) the five-paragraph essay, and (3) introducing an academic journal article.

When introducing a quotation, as Graff and Birkenstein note in their book "They Say / I Say", it is typically framed. First, one introduces the source/author of the quotation and the author's main claim, then the quotation (evidence), and next one explains the quotation in light of the author's claim. Then, one uses the framed quotation to introduce one's own position (claim), thus starting another cycle of introduction, claim, evidence, and explanation.

In the five-paragraph essay, of course, one introduces the main claim (thesis statement), provides evidence for that claim in the form of subclaims (topic sentences), explains the subclaims with more evidence and explanations (logic or reasoning), and finally re-explains the main claim in the conclusion.

In introductions to academic journal articles, John Swales has shown that regardless of discipline they always include four rhetorical moves: introduce the topic, review the literature on that topic (explain the topic and the evidence surrounding it), indicate a gap in the literature (explain how something is missing or wrong in the literature, a claim accompanied by evidence and explanation), and then explain what one will do to remedy that gap (another claim with the evidence and further explanation forthcoming in the rest of the article).

The building blocks naturally take different forms in each context and build upon one another as the context becomes more complex. The power of such an approach is its interlocking strength of basic concepts across contexts, thus facilitating learning and transfer via student use and practice of building block concepts across different writing landscapes.

Thus, again, although one can use structure in limiting ways, when used appropriately, structure supports learning. For those who use the five-paragraph essay, then, rather than treat the structure as a formula, it would be more fruitful to familiarize students with its building blocks across contexts (including the five-paragraph essay), rearranging the building blocks in different orders and combinations to consider their rhetorical effect.

To acquaint students with these building blocks, consider beginning by building upon their own experiences with conversation. For example,

  1. First, have students write a conversation they might have with friends trying to persuade them to see a certain movie, play a particular game, or do some other activity, keeping in focus that their friends want to see a different movie or play a different game.
  2. Next, have them analyze their conversations, asking questions such as:
    • Are the building blocks of introduction, claim, evidence, and explanation there?
    • Are there other building blocks?
    • Are they consistently in a particular sequence?
    • Does the order of building blocks change?
    • Is a particular sequence of building blocks more effective?
    • When?
    • Why?
    • How do the sequences and uses of building blocks in conversations compare/contrast to those in the five-paragraph essay?

Of course, you can extend this process of analysis to other genres, such as blogs and editorials in newspapers, and to other media, such as podcasts and videos.

contradictions ... are the driving force of learning.

Whether learning new languages or new dialects, such as academese and blogese, this process of analyzing concepts across contexts can bring into focus contradictions between the rhetorical conventions of different dialects, languages, disciplines, and media. And it is contradictions that are the driving force of learning.

Related posts:
The Five-Paragraph Essay (continued)
The Five-Paragraph Essay
Click on building blocks and contradictions under Topics.
See also my article in Complicity: "Building Blocks and Learning".

Henry Jenkins (subbing for Mark Glaser at Mediashift) writes an interesting article Learning by Remixing. He notes that re-mixing is a Western tradtion: that The Iliad and the Odyssey were remixes of other myths, that the Sistine Chapel Ceiling is a remix of Biblical stories, that Shakespeare's work is a remix of parts of other plays, and so on. However,

Despite the pervasiveness of these cultural practices, school arts and creative writing programs often remain hostile to overt signs of repurposed content, emphasizing the ideal of the autonomous artist. Yet, in emphasizing totally “original work”, schools sacrifice the opportunity to help kids think more deeply about the ethical and legal implications of repurposing existing media content; they often do not provide them with the conceptual tools students need to analyze and interpret works produced in this appropriative process; and they don’t teach them the relationship between analysis and production.

Today, I want to report on several interesting new experiments which involve students sampling and remixing in order to develop better media literacy skills. My MIT students often report that they learned how engines worked by taking machines apart and putting them back together again. Maybe students can learn how culture works by breaking it down into its basic building blocks and remixing them.

After reporting on those projects that value remixing, Jenkins concludes:

What each of these projects have in common is a hands-on approach to culture: they recognize the value of remixing as a means of mastering the core vocabulary of storytelling and representation. They value the kinds of creative expression which emerges when familiar materials get placed in unfamiliar contexts or get rethought through different perspectives.

Of course, though the digital environment places a new emphasis on understanding and responding to remixing practices, this is not a radically new idea. I was going through some of my mother’s things recently and stumbled upon a box of her school papers from the late 1930s. One of the assignments had been to rewrite Little Red Riding Hood from the perspective of the Big Bad Wolf. As they say, everything old is new again.

Jenkins' position on "learning by remixing" meshes well with the building blocks in John Holland's model of complexity theory. Interactions of building blocks lead to the emergence of new building blocks at higher levels. In Hidden Order, he gives the example of quarks, nucleons, atoms, molecules, organelles, cells, and so on, to show the integration of building blocks at different levels. Holland writes:

We gain a significant advantage when we can reduce the building blocks at one level to interactions and combinations of building blocks at a lower level: the laws at the higher level derive from the laws of the lower-level building blocks. This does not mean that the higher-level laws are easy to discover, any more than it is easy to discover theorems in geometry because one knows the axiom. It does add a tremendous interlocking strength to the scientific structure.

I've wondered before what would be the building blocks that could lead to the various genres and concepts of writing. From classical rhetoric are candidates, such as stasis theory or the elements of pathos, ethos, and logos. More recently, Toulmin logic or Halliday's functional linguistics might be candidates. It's not that clear, however. Holland himself (Emergence, 1998) notes that poetry has a "looser framework" than physics when it comes to re-combining building blocks. Poetry's looseness, he says, "limits the possibilities for a cumulative structure," although not making it impossible.

Perhaps the levels are utterance (or word), clause, paragraph, and genre. I'm not sure how helpful using these levels would be in learning to write across genres. Gordon Wells (Dialogic Inquiry, 1999) tied Halliday's functional model with its concepts of ideational, interpersonal, and textual semantics to activity theory's levels of operation, action, and activity.

I've noticed that quite a few books on writing have similar sorts of questions. From stasis theory comes: What are the facts? What is the nature of the event? What is its value? and What should we do about it? From Deborah Meier's Habits of Mind: How do we know what we know? Who's speaking? What causes what? How might things have been different? and Who cares? (or So what?)

Quite close to the notion of Holland's building blocks are activity theorist Davydov's germ cell concepts in his "Ascending from the abstract to the concrete." This approach starts with students discovering primary general concepts in a particular discipline, investigating those concepts across particular contexts, and in the process retrace/recreate the process through which people developed the present day concepts.

These similarities across disciplines and theories suggest that human thinking runs along a few fundamental paths (this is not new), so perhaps the building blocks of any of those paths will be sufficient for students to learn and use in their writing in ways that help them transfer their learning to new contexts, whether to other classes or to future careers.

The key, however, remains remixing. In a fashion like the four bases of DNA that in various combinations lead to different species, composition might focus on a few building blocks that can produce a variety of genres across different contexts. Previously, I wrote about Graff and Birkentstein's book They say / I say. The book's goal, as they put it,

is to demystify academic writing by isolating its basic moves, explaining them clearly, and representing them in the form of templates. (p. x)

There are just two basic building blocks: "They say" and "I say". However, the permutations and recombinations are endless.

As I mentioned in my last post on commenting, Seth Godin was seen as arrogant when he disabled comments on his blog. Some asserted that blogging was about the conversation. Although I earlier said that it wasn't about the conversation, in a way, it is. More precisely, it's about the social relations between people that conversation enables. In looking at how Seth's post triggered a blogospheric uproar, we might consider how his post violated people's perceptions of the social relationships "required" in blogging from the perspective of social relational models, a theoretical model for social interaction posited by Alan Fiske, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Fiske proposes that four relational models in various combinations govern all social interactions. These models are Communal Sharing, Authority Ranking, Equality Matching, and Market Pricing. Although I've posted before on these social relations (see "The Internet and Ownership" and "Academic Blogging"), it's been a while. So, I'll review those models and then look at how they can explain people's reactions to disabling comments.

Communal Sharing is a relationship among a bounded group of people in which members are considered equivalent and have equal access to the group's resources, such as in the case of family members having equal access to the refrigerator regardless of who purchased the food or students having equal access to library resources regardless of whether they are on full scholarship, paying in-state tuition, or out-of state tuition. In communal sharing, people identify with their group and conform to its characteristics and behavior.

Authority Ranking is a linear, hierarchical relationship in which one person is above or below another person instead of being equivalent. The higher person has more privileges, status, and control, while the lower person is entitled to protection and care. It is not a matter of power, which is an asocial relationship, but of a social model that supports legitimate authority. Those in subordinate positions grant their leaders authority. That authority may be allowed in one situation but not in another. For example, students generally follow a teacher’s rules and directions. However, it is not uncommon for students to disagree with their teacher when they hold expertise in a particular area. In ESL (English as a second language) writing courses, for instance, graduate students accept grammatical corrections from their teachers but may reject content corrections in discipline-related papers because they consider themselves to have more authority with respect to their discipline. And Authority Ranking can co-exist with Communal Sharing as in the case of parents in a family.

Equality Matching is a relationship in which there is a one-to-one correspondence in the transfer of resources, often with a delay in response, such as when a someone extends a favor, which is expected eventually to be returned in kind. Unlike in Communal Sharing relationships in which accounts are not kept, they are in Equality Matching. Consequently, if too many favors are owed, an Equality Matching relationship can turn into an Authority Ranking relationship.

In contrast, Market Pricing is an exchange of resources based on proportionality, that is, a ratio or rate, such as exchanging goods or services in return for money. People want to get the best deal for themselves, or at least a fair deal.

In any particular action, more than one of these are usually operating, although it is normal for more than one to be more prominent than the others.

In addition to the social relational models, there are also asocial models in which people either ignore others or use others as a means to some end. Having evolved and emerged from psychological mechanisms, Fiske’s social relational models are the building blocks of cultures. Just as the four building blocks of DNA account for the diversity of species, so, too, do the four social relational models account for the diversity of cultures.

When we look at the many comments about Seth Godin, one word that comes up is "arrogant." Why? The tone does seem flippant. By itself, however, such a tone from most bloggers wouldn't have triggered such a response. More likely, the response resulted from his violating the Communal Sharing model. Although the blogging community does not have a uniform opinion on commenting, the overwhelming majority believe that to be a blog, it should have comments. Previously, bloggers had access to posting their opinions at Seth's site, and now they don't. Previously, they were part of Seth's "bounded group," wide-open as it may have been. Now they aren't. By unilaterally disabling comments, Seth was also violating the Authority Ranking model. That is, he was perceived to be acting from a position of authority that they did not grant (when not granted, it is considered an abuse of power). The combination of breaking off from the community and asserting authority, both actions violating social relational models, led to the blogging community's strong reaction.

Seth, on the other hand,might have been treating it as a Market Pricing relationship: He figured that the uproar would increase his traffic and was worth the backlash, thus an attempt to make the best deal for himself. Or, perhaps as he wrote:

I feel compelled to clarify or to answer every objection or to point out every flaw in reasoning. Second, it takes way too much of my time to even think about them, never mind curate them.

Just looking at his previous post on "On how to get traffic for your blog", you can see 113 comments and 76 trackbacks. Plus, Seth often writes 4 or more posts in a day. Commenters expect some interaction, as EFL Geek wrote:

If an author choose to disable comments I think that is fine, I don’t really support it, but that’s a fair choice. What bothers me is that authors who have comments enabled but never respond to any comments by their readership.

It doesn't seem likely that anyone would expect that Seth would respond to all commenters. Still, it's rather easy to imagine that he may have thought that he wasn't getting a good enough deal out of the comments to make it worth his while to keep them and respond to them. It's also possible that an Equality Matching model played some part. That is, when someone comments on your blog, you feel the obligation, as Seth said, to respond in kind. Obviously, he couldn't do so, and rather than feel uncomfortable about not fulfilling the social obligation of matching the comment, he simply withdrew from the conversation that maintained the relationship.

When people use different social relational models to their interactions with one another, conflict is likely to ensue. However, although the people involved may attribute their reactions to a variety of causes, they are governed unconsciously just as much, if not more, by underlying psychological mechanisms that guide social relations.

Obviously, these mechanisms can affect the learning that occurs in the classroom. Just consider the aversion of many students to peer reviewing essays and the social relational models that are likely underlying that aversion. However, that's a topic for a later post.