As you can see, I've changed the design of this site. Being colorblind, it's not easy, and I have to keep checking with others on how it looks. I've run out of time for now on the color scheme.

If you have Internet Explorer 6 or older (I'm not sure about version 7), the site is off-centered and the links on the sidebar are double spaced. This does not happen on any other browser that I'm aware of. Download Firefox, Flock, Opera, or anything besides Internet Explorer to see this site correctly. They're all free.

What do you think? Does one "learn" a language much like any other cognitive endeavor? Or is it "acquired" due to some innate language-specific biological mechanism?

There's quite a bit of controversy on this issue, on whether some universal grammar (UG) is responsible for language acquisition, deriving from an innate process specific for language. For those taking the UG approach, acquisition results from the UG module while "learning" is due to normal learning processes. Not all agree. For example, consider Christiansen and Chater's working paper, "Language as Shaped by the Brain". Here's the abstract:

It is widely assumed that human learning and the structure of human languages are intimately related. This relationship is frequently suggested to be rooted in a language-specific biological endowment, which encodes universal, but arbitrary, principles of language structure (a universal grammar or UG). How might such a UG have evolved? We argue that UG could not have arisen either by biological adaptation or non-adaptationist genetic processes. The resulting puzzle concerning the origin of UG we call the logical problem of language evolution. Because the processes of language change are much more rapid than processes of genetic change, language constitutes a “moving target” both over time and across different human populations, and hence cannot provide a stable environment to which UG genes could have adapted. We conclude that a biologically determined UG is not evolutionarily viable. Instead, the original motivation for UG--the mesh between learners and languages--arises because language has been shaped to fit the human brain, rather than vice versa. Following Darwin, we view language itself as a complex and interdependent “organism,” which evolves under selectional pressures from human learning and processing mechanisms. That is, languages are themselves undergoing severe selectional pressure from each generation of language users and learners. This suggests that apparently arbitrary aspects of linguistic structure may result from general learning and processing biases, independent of language. We illustrate how this framework can integrate evidence from different literatures and methodologies to explain core linguistic phenomena, including binding constraints, word order universals, and diachronic language change.

In brief, learning a language is like learning any other skill.

More recently, the National Institutes of Health released news on a six-year study on brain development in healthy children. The study followed the brain development of about 500 children, ages 6-18, each child being tracked over a four-year period. One finding (accompanied by caveats) undermines the notion of language being innate:

Children appear to approach adult levels of performance on many basic cognitive and motor skills by age 11 or 12, according to a new study coordinated by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). ...

Regardless of income or sex, children appeared to improve rapidly on many tasks between ages 6 and 10, with much less dramatic cognitive growth in adolescence. This result fits with previous research suggesting that in adolescence, there is a shift toward integrating what one knows rather than learning new basic skills.

In other words, there is a "critical period" for learning general cognitive tasks that corresponds to the critical period for "acquiring" a language, usually considered to be up until the age of 12, after which individuals will not develop a complete command of a language. In Error Feedback: Theory, I mentioned the 10-year rule, which states that becoming an expert requires at least 10 years of intense practice, a period of time similar to achieving nativelike fluency in a second langauge.

If language learning has a similar critical period time frame as other endeavors and takes similar amounts of time to become an "expert," then it would seem to be governed by general cognitive learning processes rather than by a language-specific learning process.

These findings do not contradict Krashen's assertion of the need for massive comprehensible input for learning a language. After all, the crucial element for achieving mastery of any activity is, as Anderson and Schunn (pdf) state,

For competences to be displayed over a lifetime, time on task is by far and away the most significant factor.

As teachers, then, one of our primary tasks is to motivate students to spend the necessary time in learning a language (see Error Feedback: Motivation, The Inverse Power of Praise, and Engagement and Flow).

On Monday, three of my colleagues and I presented at the New Jersey Writing Alliance Conference on designing assignments that motivate students to write. We looked at motivating high school students, analyzing bumper stickers, and using youth culture music. We wanted to provide activities that participants could take and use immediately in their classes, but we also wanted to give the theory with which to evaluate their present assignments and, if necessary, tweak them to make them more engaging.

The theory part fell on me, and I used self-determination theory (which I've talked about before here and here). As noted in these posts, motivation depends upon three needs: autonomy, competence, and social relatedness. Giving autonomy to students is crucial for learning. Ryan and Deci (pdf) state,

[T]eachers who are autonomy supportive (in contrast to controlling) catalyze in their students greater intrinsic motivation, curiosity, and desire for challenge…. Students taught with a more controlling approach not only lose initiative but learn less effectively, especially when learning requires conceptual, creative processing. (p. 71)

Controlling includes giving rewards, as well as imposing deadlines and other directives. After students have become accustomed to receiving rewards for doing a particular activity, they lose interest in it if those rewards are removed. Of course, teachers have the responsibility for ensuring that students meet course and institutional expectations. Many of my students have time constraints of work and family to the extent that if there were no imposed deadlines, these other priorities would preclude their doing the necessary study. Still, as much as possible, we need to give students choice and opportunties for directing their learning and determining their own goals if we want them to learn.

I just listened to an interesting session at Computers and Writing 2007 on the role of feedback and assessment in first-year composition. Fred Kemp, Ron Baltasor, Christy Desmet, and Mike Palmquist talked about how they used online learning environments as sites for assessing learning and teaching.

Fred Kemp talked about Texas Tech University's ICON system in which

  • class time is cut in half,
  • assignments are doubled or tripled,
  • all relevant interactions are online,
  • students meet in a classroom once a week to support those interactions, and
  • grading and commentary are anonymous with two readers on drafts.

This particular system helps to make the composition program an adaptive, feedback system that gains knowledge over time and is not dependent on rotating faculty and program directors. The data collection that is built into the system has shown that some assignments generate better grades than others, thus indicating where to make changes in the program. For instance, pulling back from having intensive peer reviews (12-13 a semester) has shown a decrease in students' GPA, suggesting that their writing has worsened. Next year, they're reinstating the peer reviews, and if the GPA increases, then there will be a strong correlation for the effect of intensive peer reviews on learning to write.

Mike Palmquist talked about Colorado State University's Writing Studio, a combination instructional writing environment and online course management system. As in ICON, the system collects data on how people are using the site by tracking their activity as they log in, which can give guide the program on which areas need to be strengthened, or vice versa. One question to be answered is, "How does technology shape the teaching and learning in writing courses?"

Ron Baltasor and Christy Desmet talked about the University of Georgia's emma system that embeds meta-data via markup in documents that are uploaded to the server. They have three ongoing projects that look at errors, revision, and citations. One finding from the citation project was that good library instruction works best in conjunction with instructor prompts for citations, but that library instruction alone showed no improvement.

Although the three universities have different approaches, they all show the value of electronic systems that can provide feedback to programs for improving instruction and composition programs.

Keith Burnett responded to my response on his preference for being a Guide on the Side as opposed to Sage on the Stage:

I’m both in different parts of the lesson. I think that many people assume that PowerPoint use implies Sage role, and I was trying to provide counterexamples.

That Burnett did well, and it's also clear that he plays both roles, choosing the role appropriate to a student's stage in the learning process.

Unlike Burnett, however, not everyone seems to understand that both roles are appropriate. If you google the words "sage stage guide side", you'll find more than a few links to titles saying "Guide on the side, not Sage on the stage." Here's a typical example from the Internet Time Group:

an instructor’s energy should be channeled to become the medium whereby the discovery of learning is facilitated in a student-centered environment. No longer a "sage on the stage, " the online instructor becomes a "guide on the side," helping others to discover and synthesize the learning material.

Discovery learning is simply re-inventing the wheel. The time spent in "discovering" could be better spent using the wheels that have already been designed.

Here's another one, an excerpt from an article in College English by Alison King:

In most college classrooms, the professor lectures and the students listen and take notes. The professor is the central figure, the "sage on the stage," the one who has the knowledge and transmits that knowledge to the students, who simply memorize the information and later reproduce it on an exam-often without even thinking about it. This model of the teaching- learning process, called the transmittal model, assumes that the student's brain is like an empty container into which the professor pours knowledge. In this view of teaching and learning, students are passive learners rather than active ones. Such a view is outdated and will not be effective for the twenty-first century, when individuals will be expected to think for themselves, pose and solve complex problems, and generally produce knowledge rather than reproduce it.

There's some truth in this perspective. We've all had classes in which we took notes, crammed for an exam, and regurgitated information on the exam. The problem, however, is that this is a caricature of lecturing. Not all lecturers assume that students are empty containers, and not all use lecture as their only mode of teaching. Interestingly, the same people who promote this perspective are often the same ones who give presentations in lecture mode at a conference.

Again from the excerpt:

According to the current constructivist theory of learning, knowledge does not come package in books, or journal, or computer disks (or professors' and students' heads) to be transmitted intact from one to another. Those vessels contain information, not knowledge. Rather, knowledge is a state of understanding and can only exist in the mind of the individual knower; as such, knowledge must be constructed--or re-constructed--by each individual knower through the process of trying to make sense of new information in terms of what that individual already knows. In this constructivist view of learning, students use their own existing knowledge and prior experience to help them understand the new material; in particular, they generate relationships between and among the new ideas and between the new material and information already in memory (see also Brown, Bransford, Ferrara, and Campione 1983; Wittrock 1990).

And again, we can say, yes, students construct their understanding and in terms of previous experience. However, this does not mean that they cannot "generate relationships" from the information in lectures to their own experiences. If lectures are "bad," so are books and any other "containers" of information.

When students are engaged in actively processing information by reconstructing that information in such new and personally meaningful ways, they are far more likely to remember it and apply it in new situations. This approach to learning is consistent with information-processing theories (e.g., Mayer 1984), which argue that reformulating given information or generating new information based on what is provided helps one build extensive cognitive structures that connect the new ideas and link them to what is already known. According to this view, creating such elaborated memory structures aids understanding of the new material and makes it easier to remember.

It's not clear that one way of engaging with new information is more likely to be remembered than another. This is an interpretation. Anderson and Schunn in their article "The implications of the ACT-R learning theory: no magic bullets" (pdf) note that it is much more likely that any better remembering is due to more "time on task" rather than the notion of self-constructing as opposed to learning from provided examples, and they write:

There are no magical properties conveyed upon a knowledge structure just because it was self-generated. If all things were equal it would be preferable to have children learn by generating the knowledge (due to the redundant encoding). However, because of difficulties of generation and dangers of misgeneration, things are not always equal and it can be preferable to tell the knowledge.

None of this is to oppose the "guide on the side" perspective. Rather, there is a time and place for being a sage and for being a guide. Repeating mantras is no more than educational indoctrination.

Jason, reporting about Mike O'Connell's article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, has a post worth reading on this issue and ends nicely on this note:

In short, I think we need to get beyond the “sage” and “guide” dichotomy, and use both for truly effective teaching. One cannot just impose a set teaching style when it doesn’t work. It behooves teachers at all levels to consider what really works (or what might really work), drawing upon the makeup of individual classes and individual students to make the course truly memorable and meaningful. Otherwise, we’re just playing with techniques, and using unwitting students as guinea pigs.

Keith Burnett posted his response to the Learning Circuits Blog's question of when and how to use Powerpoint. He obviously uses Powerpoint in ways that go beyond presenting material. Here's some of the ways he uses it:

  • Activity briefs
  • Quick whole class exercises
  • Voting slides
  • Mind maps and bubble diagrams
  • Builds in diagrams
  • Photos of a procedure

You'll need to go to his site to get the explanation for these, but they show that you can use Powerpoint in creative ways and not be limited simply to using it for a lecture presentation.

One point that needs to be considered a little more is Burnett's preference for Guide on the Side as opposed to Sage on the Stage. This is a common refrain based on the belief that students constructing knowledge from the ground up results in better learning. However, one point of the initial question of how to use powerpoint was some research reported by Anna Patty (Sydney Morning Herald), which had several findings.

One finding was that people don't process the same information as effectively when it's presented both verbally and in written form. With respect to Powerpoint, then, you don't want to just read words off a slide. Rather, if used, the slide should provide a visual, such as a picture or graph, that supports the points that you are saying.

Another finding was this:

instead of asking students to solve problems on their own, teachers helped students more if they presented already solved problems.

"Looking at an already solved problem reduces the working memory load and allows you to learn. It means the next time you come across a problem like that, you have a better chance at solving it," Professor Sweller said.

The working memory was only effective in juggling two or three tasks at the same time, retaining them for a few seconds. When too many mental tasks were taken on some things were forgotten.

In other words, this research indicates that in learning something new, it's better for teachers to act as Sages who present examples of "already solved problems." After a problem or process been learned and students are moving towards mastery of that area, then the role switches to Guide.

In a related post Learning with Examples, I commented on the power of examples for learning:

I've learned by observing what Mark did. Previously, I would duplicate an entire file to have a practice file; Mark simply added a new CSS note. Previously, I would export an entire document to see how it looked in html. While in Boston, I noticed that Mark just used the Preview button. And from the code he sent, I began to understand the difference between "float" and "absolute". In trying to re-design this blog, I spent two full days acquiring quite a bit of frustration but little understanding, as opposed to taking a few minutes to look at Mark's re-coding to learn where I had gone wrong.

For myself, I prefer to have a Sage tell me what to do and save me hours of frustration and wasted effort.

Perhaps you've heard about the recent article in the New York Times, "Seeing no progress, some schools drop laptops". That is, students had not shown any improvement "on grades and test scores" as a result of laptop initiatives. Alex Reid at Digital Digs has an excellent response:

So basically the teachers couldn't figure out how to use the technology in the classroom. Not surprisingly, as a result, the technology did not have much of an impact on outcomes. It is not surprising that the teachers have no idea what they are doing. Why would we imagine that they would? ...

As I've said before and will say again (here and later, no doubt), it's not about delivering the same old curriculum with a new technology.

Why should I use books in my classroom? Lecturing works much better. Students hide magazines inside the covers of their books. They look at the wrong pages. They copy text out of the book and plagiarize. They can't do any of those things when I'm lecturing. The book is just a box that gets in the way of my one-to-one relationship with my students.

Sounds pretty funny when it's put that way, huh?

As Reid notes, it's not clear that laptops will aid learning effectively; however, "our children will live and work, and yes, learn, in these networked environments." So, it's not a question of whether to incorporate technology into our schools. But two questions we do need to answer are:

  1. What are the best ways to introduce our children to the networked environments they will "live and work" in?
  2. What are the best ways to introduce our teachers to using networked environments to facilitate learning in school?