Why do we dress up and behave more formally than usual for job interviews? Because we know that first impressions and stereotype expectations are important. Research has shown how being informed of stereotypes can affect negatively one's performance, as when women are told about men being better at math before taking a math test. The opposite is also true. That is, being informed about a stereotype threat can reduce or eliminate its effects). And, in addition, belonging to a positive stereotype ethnicity can impair performance as in some research with Asian-American women.

As the Mungers (Cognitive Daily) point out,

The impact of stereotypes clearly is complex—we've reported on positive, negative, and neutral effects (as in the case of gender here). Perhaps this experiment's findings on Asian-American women won't be replicated with other groups. What's certain is that stereotypes do have an important impact on performance.

So, how does this play out in the second language classroom? One way is in the stereotypical expectations my students have concerning writing in English as represented by their comments, often at the beginning of a course, and occasionally throughout the semester. They often say,

  • Writing is hard because it's not my native language.
  • Writing in Spanish (or another L1) is easy [although they may not have any experience writing in Spanish].

Some of their comments imply,

  • I must be stupid because I don't understand what I should be doing.
  • I must be incompetent because I can't get this right.

Obviously, it's important to establish a classroom environment that's supportive and nurturing. Just as important is an environment that counters stereotypical expectations. In this case, students have the impression that learning should be easy and that because they're ESL students, writing will be too difficult for them to master. To counter these impressions, on the first day of class, I begin with,

In this class, you will be confused throughout the semester. And that's great! Because it means you're learning! If you aren't confused, at least a little, then it means you already know this material and will be bored. In contrast, confusion means an opportunity for learning to take place.

Simply setting the tone at the beginning that "confusion is normal" and "confusion is important for learning" is not enough; it must permeate the course environment. So throughout the semester, as students show confusion and sometimes frustration, my response is, "Great! We're about to learn something!" And I remind them of Dudley Herschbach, Nobel laureate in chemistry, who stated,

You have to be confused before you can reach a new level of understanding anything.

Thus, by building a new stereotype (a true one) that confusion is a normal part of learning, students' expectations about writing in a second language slowly change toward an attitude supporting their learning instead of one defeating it.

Do you sometimes wonder about the original meaning of words? For instance, why do many people say "as cold as hell" on a freezingly cold day when most of us today consider hell to be hot? That's for another day, but here are some words derived from the navy (verbatim from Navy Federal Credit Union's newsletter Homeport, Fall 2006, page 18):

Bamboozle: In the days of sailing, this modern term for deception meant disguising your ship's nationality by flying colors that were not your own--a practice common among pirates. Today, an intentional deception among frineds, usually mean as a joke, is said to be bamboozling.

Devil to pay: Although now used primarily to warn of an unpleasant consequence, this phrase described a grueling job--caulking the longest seam, or "devil," of a wooden ship. A sailor would use a pitch, known as a "pay," to do the caulking.

Figurehead: This carved wooden figure placed at the bow had no function but to "see the way." The term now denotes a person appointed to a leadership position, but with no real responsibilities.

Long shot: Here's a modern gambling term that has nautical origins. Because the guns on early ships were inaccurate except when fired at close range, it was an extremely lucky "long shot" that would find its target at a great distance.

Slush fund: Slush, a watery mixture of fats made from scraping empty meat-storage barrels, was often sold ashore by the ship's cook, who would pocket the profit. This money became known as a slush fund.

Squared away: This term for being finished with one task and ready for a new one came from a square-rigged ship with her yards braced so the ship was said to run "squarely" ahead of the wind.

Three sheets to the wind: If the "sheets" (the rope lines used to control the sails) are loose on a fully rigged ship, the sails flap and flutter in the breeze--and are said to be "in the wind." A ship in this condition appears "drunk" because it shudders and staggers in the water, aimlessly floating.

Under the weather: The bow of a ship that comes under the constant beating of the sea, or "under the weather," is where sailors below deck were most likely to become seasick. The phrase evolved to indicate feeling ill in today's lingo.

Wallop: Admiral Wallop of King Henry VIII's navy gained notoriety after he and his ships were sent to the French coast to retaliate for the burning of the town of Brighton, England. He so thoroughly destroyed his enemies that his name now indicates a might blow.

Jay Mathews (Washington Post) writes that Confidence in math doesn't always equal success. Reporting on a study from the Brookings Institution, he writes,

countries such as the United States that embrace self-esteem, joy and real-world relevance in learning mathematics are lagging behind others that do not promote all that self-regard.

Mathews includes pro and con perspectives on this report. Of course, confidence based on a lack of reality doesn't bode well for success in one's life. Some time ago, I remember reading about a study that showed that competent people usually have less confidence than incompetent folks, at least initially, that their ability to do something is better than the average in the room.

In foreign language (and other) education circles, we do our best to make the classroom a safe haven for students and try to relate the classroom learning to their own lives. It's possible that some work harder at making everyone feel good than at learning. Even so, it's hard to see why having fun and making things relevant would reduce learning. The only factor I can think of is that countries that focus on lots of drills will do better on a test that reflects that type of learning. Those scores say little about whether students can employ those skills outside of the classroom. As Mathews cites Gerald Bracy, an educational psychologist as saying,

the report overlooked countervailing trends in Japan, Singapore and other countries that do better than the United States on eighth-grade math tests. Officials in those countries say their education systems are not yielding graduates who have the same level of creativity as American graduates. Some Asian nations have begun to copy aspects of U.S. education, including the emphasis on letting students search for answers rather than memorize them.

Still, it is important for our students to have an accurate sense of how well they are doing and how they can improve their abilities in various areas. Self-assessment and peer assessment, along with seeing their peers work, can help in this regard. For a portfolio system that includes these aspects, check out The Learning Record.

Deborah Meier ("Protecting Public Schools", Forum) talks about the need to support our public schools. Her article should be read in its entirety but here are a few excerpts:

"Reformers who urge us to drop the pretense of a local connection between schools and their communities lead us into dangerous territory."

"Reformers of all stripes sometimes forget that the genius of our democracy is in sustaining the tensions and balances between various sources of power—including the power  of us “ordinary” people."

"That language of “for, by and of the people” may sound sentimental, but be wary when you are told that we cannot “compete” in the world unless we give up our commitment to democratically controlled public schools as mere wishful thinking."

None of this is new, but it bears repeating as folks so easily forget the necessity of including all shareholders in pubic schooling processes.

Philip Ross wrote a good review on The Expert Mind (Scientific American via elearningpost via elearnspace via Stephen's Edu_RSS). Some excepts:

The one thing that all expertise theorists agree on is that it takes enormous effort to build these structures in the mind. Simon coined a psychological law of his own, the 10-year rule, which states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field.

Ericsson argues that what matters is not experience per se but "effortful study," which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence.

Thus, motivation appears to be a more important factor than innate ability in the development of expertise.

The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born. What is more, the demonstrated ability to turn a child quickly into an expert--in chess, music and a host of other subjects--sets a clear challenge before the schools. Can educators find ways to encourage students to engage in the kind of effortful study that will improve their reading and math skills?

"Effortful study" is related to ACT-R theory and in some ways just seems to be common sense. What seems to be missing in this article is the recognition that the 10-year rule when applied to reading and math equals 20 years, unless we double the total amount of "effortful study" in each and every day. Although we might argue that reading (especially reading) and math have greater application to more subjects, it would still mean that students would need to focus on a career subject at an early age in order to become an expert.

The ten-year rule also puts into better perspective why people take so long to acquire a second language. Language fluency requires expertise in the language. Add to that expertise in writing in a second language means adding even more time.

The article also notes that experts do not exist in abundance:

Without a demonstrably immense superiority in skill over the novice, there can be no true experts, only laypeople with imposing credentials. Such, alas, are all too common. Rigorous studies in the past two decades have shown that professional stock pickers invest no more successfully than amateurs, that noted connoisseurs distinguish wines hardly better than yokels, and that highly credentialed psychiatric therapists help patients no more than colleagues with less advanced degrees.

Some questions: Is this a problem for education? In general? That is, should people in general strive for expertise in their fields? Or simply to be competent? With respect to second language learning, how should the 10-year rule affect our approach to language teaching and our expectations about language learning?

Marvin Minsky, professor of media arts and sciences at MIT (from an interview in Technology Review via elearnspace), stated:

What surprises me is how few people have been working on higher-level theories of how thinking works. That's been a big disappointment. ... I think people look around to see what field is currently popular, and then waste their lives on that. If it's popular, then to my mind you don't want to work on it. ... The main idea ... [is] resourcefulness. Unless you understand something in several different ways, you are likely to get stuck. So the first thing ... is that you have got to have different ways of describing things. I made up a word for it: "panalogy." When you represent something, you should represent it in several different ways, so that you can switch from one to another without thinking.

Higher-level theories of cognition, especially in artificial intelligence, is not an area I'm familiar with. Even so, the notion of not jumping on the popular bandwagon seems to be a good one if we wish to advance in our understanding of pedagogy and learning. Right now, web 2.0 is popular, but for about six months, I haven't read much that is pedagogically new in this area. One exception is that of Dave (Academhack) and Jenn (Expos-i-story), who have introduced the browser Flock (with Wordpress) as the key element for bringing blogging into Jenn's composition course. Students will load Flock onto a flash drive and thus be able to blog from any computer using Flock and also through its RSS capabilities be connected to one another. The idea of a flash drive carrying one's blogging and RSS tools around is a good one and freeing oneself from one's one computer is a good one in some respects.

Most innovation, like that of Dave and Jenn's, is the remixing of already present ideas and practices, small ripples upon the surface of pedagogy and learning. Small as they may be, they're still an improvement upon our present practices. So, what ripples are you and I creating in our teaching that differ from what's popular with the web 2.0 crowd or elsewhere? And how can we represent it in more than one way?