Friday, November 16, 2012

On Whether Learning Should Be Fun

There's been quite a bit of debate in recent years over whether teachers should make their classes fun. A criminally brief synopsis of the sides, which I will label using a frosted shredded wheat metaphor:
  • The unfrosted, shredded-wheat side argues that fun is a distraction and that many important subjects don't lend themselves well to fun: Teaching students how to document research and cite sources is difficult to make fun, but it's certainly critical stuff. The unfrosted side is also skeptical about whether students who are having fun are learning anything.
  • The sugary, frosted side argues that bored students don't learn. Bored students eventually may even disregard or drop out of school if they have too many shredded wheat teachers. Students aren't paying attention unless school is fun, and if they're not paying attention, they can't be learning. To the Frosties, fun is a precondition of learning. 
In a recent seminar I was running on how to teach writing, this subject came up. I ended up writing the following in response to one teacher's discussion board post, and thought I'd repost it here. 
Lessons don't need to be exciting, or funny, or hip, or loaded with pop culture or high energy to not be boring.  
When students are learning something, really learning it, they aren't bored. They might not find the material exciting, but that's not the same thing as finding it boring. "Boring" is an unusual word in that it has many opposites: fun, yes; but also puzzling, curiousterrifying, hypnotic, stressful, soothing, illuminating, thought-provoking, alarming, relaxing, eye-opening, provocative, disturbing. You're not bored when your brain has something to play with.  
"Boring" is a warning signal. It says what you're doing isn't even stimulating students enough for them to learn. It doesn't mean to add clown shoes and funny noises. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Wisdom of Children

Folk wisdom is often far too quick to praise children as wiser than adults, as though all we need to do to improve international relations or the economy is to listen to 8-year-olds. "Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?" hasn't helped. But it sounds mean to remind people that children are still new to the world and aren't as smart now as they will be later, or to point out that there's a good reason it's against the law for parents to abandon them.

Because of this faith in child wisdom, I sometimes receive withering glares from people when, as an educator, I use my own beloved children as examples of how ignorance or incompetence works. I try to do it in my best imitation of Bill Cosby's own loving delivery, but I'm not Bill Cosby, so I don't pull it off as well.

However, every once in a while, I see one of my children do something that reveals there are some ways in which children can be smarter than adults. My eldest son, age 7, pulled off one of them today.

He has been playing with an inflated beach ball on which a picture of the globe has been placed. It's essentially an inflated mock-up of Earth. My wife asked him at dinner today, as he was holding it, whether he knew which country was the largest. Well, he's looking right at the thing. He gets this one right: "Russia." Lots of adults would get that one right, too, but my wife wasn't done with her questions.

"And where is Russia?" she asked. 

He said, without looking at the globe, "It's right next to the United States."

Judging from stats on American geographical knowledge, most Americans would tell him he's wrong. One adult in the room at the time started to "Umm" toward a gentle correction before I cut her off. 

See, he isn't wrong. He's right. 

Imagine looking down at the same ball he's holding. Russia is huge, dominating the Northern hemisphere and appearing to form a kind of "C" around the North Pole. Not only does Russia come very close to Alaska, which is colored green like the continental United States, it's right across the North Pole from us. Back in the Cold War, many people imagined a nuclear war would involve nuclear missiles crossing the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, because on a flat map, that looks like the only way to do it. But the strategic planners in both countries had all of their radars facing north -- because the nukes were going to come over the North Pole. Santa Claus would look up from his home and see them criss-crossing through the sky like a screen from Missile Command. Going over the North Pole was the shortest distance for the ICBMs. 

So here's a question that most adults would get wrong, because they've spent too long with the sort of flat, horizontal maps you find in books, while the kid with the beach ball can remember -- without even glancing down -- that the two countries are practically touching. 

That's the sort of thing a kid can do better than an adult. When the models adults have in their heads distort the truth or contain inaccuracies while the correct answer is available to simple observation, a child will kick the adult's butt. 

Here's another question adults often get wrong, but a kid with a map or globe will handle just fine: Which city is further North, New York City or Rome, Italy? 

The answer is Rome, but if you've spent too much time watching footage of chilly New York winters and temperate, glowing, Mediterranean Rome, you're likely to get it wrong. (London, meanwhile, is about as far North as the bottom of Alaska. All of Europe is further North than Americans tend to imagine it is.) 

A child doesn't have all of those cold and hot associations for those cities, though. She'll just glance down at the world depicted in front of her and draw a line. An adult who corrects her when she gives her answer is doing damage and should listen carefully. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Not all upgrades are improvements

Technical note:...

I'm not a fan of the new Blogger interface, in which I type stuff, and it looks one way in the interface, and then I hit submit -- only to see it's added a bunch of space between my paragraphs (as a default setting!). I found how to turn that off by looking through the Google Forums, but it's not at all intuitive, and I'm surprised they screw with your formatting as a default.

This is yet another upgrade that is driving me away from Google products. An earlier one was an upgrade of Google Docs that stripped away the ability to track changes by user.

I don't know which is the more cynical interpretation of the "downgrade" trend:

1. Google (and other companies that seem to relish creating mandatory upgrades that destroy beloved features)  has inept managers who, living in a bubble world, truly don't realize the damage they're doing with their customer base.

2. Google is crazy like a fox and doing this deliberately, so, like Coca-Cola (but with better financial results), it can come back later and offer us "classic" versions of beloved products -- this time at a fee. We'll have all fallen in love with the products already, and will have been griping to the company about how we can't live without them. If we really mean it, Google will answer, we should be willing to pay to subscribe to them.

One of my principles is to always go with the most flattering interpretation of motives, so I guess I'm going with interpretation #2. It's unethical, perhaps, but one has to admire the ingenuity.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Quiet Rant, Just to Get It out of the System

My 3-year-old son sees me and my wife typing at keyboards. Both of us are writers. Both of us type quickly. When he wants the computer to do something, he smacks his hands against the keyboard, flattening dozens of keys at a time. He probably thinks he’s doing the same thing we are.

In much the same way, novices often misunderstand what experts are doing, and in trying to imitate them do so too bluntly to achieve the same results. I am not infantilizing novices here. Everyone's a novice at something. When I attempt new activities, I make the same kind of error.

But when it comes to teaching writing, a subject I am good at, I often do feel as I observe students like I am watching my toddler pound on the keyboard. I give the typing students high grades and the key-flattening students low grades. The key-flattening students look alarmed: “But I slapped the keys just like those other guys did!” They don’t see the differences, and chalk up the different grades to brown-nosing, or other students using big words, or me playing favorites.

Nothing I say makes a difference: If you can’t tell typing and key-flattening apart, no explanation will illuminate the situation. If you can’t tell the difference between posses and possess, or between idea and ideology, or between the verbs question and ask, or between a rhetorical question and an actual question, or between satire and a point meant earnestly, or between a run-on derailing sentence and a complicated sentence using parallel subordination, or between a Wikipedia article and a scholarly publication, or between figurative and literal language, or between summary of an opponent’s position and the summarizer’s own position, then you’re a bit like the caterwauling dreamers who can’t get on to American Idol -- you just don’t know how bad off you are, even though everyone else can tell.

There. Rant over. Deep breath, and back to work.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Collaborative Self-Evaluation Rubric for Writers

It's a truism that the best writers are often their own worst critics. There's a reason for this: To become a good writer, you have to be able to give yourself all the painful feedback that other people tend to avoid giving you. (At this point, some readers will start muttering to themselves about writing groups and writers' circles, which also work. But they work in part because they train the author to become a self-critic, to internalize all of those other voices so the author doesn't have to ask someone else's opinion after each draft.)

It's possible to train yourself to do some of the things that good self-critics do naturally, without a formal writers' workshop. Below are four tests that comprise a sort of rubric. Think about something you've been writing, and walk yourself through the tests that apply.

The Obsession Test

Instructions: Think back on your writing process.

Question to Answer Afterward: At any point in this process, did you fall so in love with the potential of your project that you obsessed over revision or research, hoping to make it as perfect as you were sure it could be? Put another way, did you ever (perhaps at the beginning) work on it because you couldn't help yourself?

What Your Answer Means: If you didn't answer "yes" to this question, then you're forcing yourself to work on the project. It's a relationship defined by duty, rather than obsession. Chances are, readers will have to force themselves to finish it, just as you're forcing yourself to create it. If that's the case, it's not the end of the world. But you have to find a way to fall in love with your project before you continue much further with it. You might need to tweak it, or uncover its most original facet. You might want to go a direction that's more ambitious, more challenging. Or perhaps your project is already so big and challenging that it's daunting and demoralizing, and you need to take a cue from George Lucas: Pick the part of it you find most fascinating and develop just that part for now. (Lucas famously trimmed down a story way too big for the screen to come up with "Episode IV," the first of the Star Wars movies.)

On the other hand, if you did answer "yes" to this question, then you very likely have an idea or goal worth pursuing, even if you've lost sight of it recently. At times, the love will seem to fade away, and frustration will take its place; this happens, but will often pass. Work through it. And be prepared to do a difficult thing: Be prepared to let go. It won't ever be perfect. Get it as close as you think you can, and then start circulating it.

Criteria Evaluated by the Test: The promise of your core idea, thesis, and/or purpose.

The Disclaimer Test

Instructions: Imagine handing your written work to a friend, or colleague, or stranger.

Question to Answer Afterward: How many disclaimers would you feel compelled to utter while handing over the paper? (Example of a disclaimer: “It’s not done yet, and I wrote it at 2 a.m., while drunk, on a manual typewriter with only two working keys. And I collaborated with a monkey.”)

What Your Answer Means: If you feel compelled to prep your reader with lots of disclaimers (more than you normally would), you have something fairly critical to say to yourself about your work. You should listen to you.

Yes, it’s tempting to hand the work off to someone, hoping he or she will love it more than you do. But this never happens. No one ever loves your children as much as you do. No one ever looks at your darlings as they bounce on the couch and scream for cookies and thinks they’re as adorable as you do. The same goes for your written children.

If you feel the need to apologize, you’re already aware of a problem and need to deal with it.

Moreover, the problems you’re feeling awkward about are almost certainly the sort that your reader can’t help you with: structure/organization, strategy, development. That is, you’re probably feeling un-ready because all of the pieces of your masterpiece aren’t in the right spots yet—some might not even be in the picture yet.

Criteria Evaluated by the Test: Structure, strategy, and idea development.

The Reaction Test

Instructions: Listen to what your friend, colleague, or stranger says about your work.

Question to Answer Afterward: What specifically did the reader comment about?

Did your reader say something like “Hey, it’s pretty good! There are some grammatical errors here and there, but fix those and you’re in great shape”? If so, the only thing your reader commented on was grammar. I know, I know. It sounded like your friend had more to say; she didn’t. Trust me. Write down “grammar.”

If your reader asked questions, or said something substantive, like “I’ve watched Avatar about fifty times, and I never noticed the Cyndi Lauper references before. I’m not sure about the ones you mentioned on page 3, though. I think maybe you’re wrong about them,” then write down “content.” The same goes for creative writing: If your reader is mad you killed off a character, brags she saw your plot twist coming, or says the ending isn't realistic, write down "content."

What Your Answer Means: Here's a rule of thumb that's absolutely critical: People cannot help reacting to content if they've read it and understood it. It's involuntary. They can't watch a movie without having something to say about the twist ending or a character. They can't read a novel without commenting on how witty or dull the dialogue was. They can't read an argument on a controversial topic without agreeing, disagreeing, or asking questions.

If your reader doesn't do any of those things, it's because he or she couldn't focus on what you were saying.

The most common reason for lack of focus is that the reader is distracted by grammatical errors. If there are enough of them, they can make your text confusing or frustrating to read.

However, your reader is probably a friend. And no one likes a grammar nazi, anyway. So your friend probably isn't going to say, "I couldn't read this. It's almost illiterate." That's not a friendly thing to say.

Instead, he or she probably said something like "It's really good. I liked it. Just fix the grammar errors, and I think it'll be great!" If you want to make your friend feel very awkward, press for details about the parts he or she liked. Ask what he or she thought about your paragraph about "Rock the Vote." Chances are, your reader will have to open the paper back up to look at that again; she'll bite her lip and say "um" at least once as she stalls. You've trapped her: She wants to be helpful, but she didn't follow the paper, and doesn't want to hurt your feelings by saying so.

On the other hand, if you distribute your paper to three buddies or classmates, and they all react to the content -- if they all ask questions or argue with you, focusing on specific points, that's great. It's wonderful, even if they disagree. It means your stuff was readable.

All of this applies to creative writing, too. If you’ve written a screenplay and hand it off to someone familiar with screenplays, the comments might be about formatting instead of grammar, but they mean roughly the same thing. (Example: “It’s a great script. You just need to put it in the right font and fix the margins, and you’re in good shape!” This typically means the reader couldn’t get into the story because he or she was distracted by all of the document features that made it look like it wasn’t a screenplay. Formatting is the screenwriter’s grammar.)

It's ironic that the last concern of writers is the first concern of readers. Any good writer will tell you that you should worry about content first, and save editing (or screenplay format) for the last stage of your writing process. And that's true, for writers. But readers invert that order: They can't get to your content until you've squared away the formalities. It's not fair, but it's the way it is.

Criteria Evaluated by the Test: Editing and format (i.e., formalities).

The Viral Test

Instructions: Distribute your work to some folks, or post it online somewhere.

Question to Answer Afterward: Did anyone not allied to you by blood, politics, friendship, or sexual chemistry pass your work on to someone else or recommend it for others to read?

What Your Answer Means: If a complete stranger (or, better, a stranger who has a reputation in the field) recommends your work to someone else, you should be submitting it for publication, trying to get an agent, and taking other steps toward professional distribution. The person recommending your stuff is taking a risk to do so. If other readers don't like it, that can reflect badly on the person who recommended it. Professionals in the field, in particular, are careful with their reputations. If someone took a risk to recommend you, you ought to be taking more risks, too.

Criteria Evaluated by the Test: Reader interest (and, holistically, all the other criteria, too).

Monday, May 9, 2011

xkcd conjures Marie Curie

xkcd has a great comic for students today (particularly women students, but really for everyone). I'll repost it here, along with a word of encouragement to check out xkcd's other stuff. It's a great strip.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Grammar Nazis

Those of us who consider grammar when grading student writing are often accused by students of being "grammar Nazis." Students often argue that we should evaluate what they said, rather than how they said it. This plea is particularly common in classes outside the English department: I hear it a lot when I teach business communications, and my wife hears it whenever she assigns papers in political science.

If you or someone else you know finds the above plea persuasive, try this experiment: Come up with a grade for the student essay below (which is a real essay, typed verbatim) -- as well as a justification for the grade that isn't based on grammar or mechanics. If you give it a good grade, you need a reason for it. If you give it a low grade, you need a reason for it (other than grammar). Without talking about grammar, can you come up with a justifiable grade for it at all? Imagine the student comes to you demanding to know why it got a "D" or a "B" or an "A-" (instead of an A). What's your content-based answer?

Although the paper below is an extreme case, it illustrates a real problem: Badly written papers are often difficult or impossible to evaluate fairly by any other criteria: You can't understand the content well enough to evaluate it. (Similarly, if a student's documentation is terrible, his or her research and support become difficult or impossible to evaluate.) Sure, I can evaluate the content and argumentation of a well-written paper quite easily, and the research of a well-cited paper easily.

But personally, if I were required to evaluate the paper below based on a criteria other than grammar, I'd be flummoxed. Take a look at it, and see if you can discern what I mean.

Student essay on “I Am the Enemy” by Ron Kline (2006)

With this argumentation Ron Kline wrote this I do agree so in the opening sentence started off like this one of those vilified, inhumane physician- scientists involved in the animal research. Do most of these animals that are getting tested have the rights to not be tested because the law has state that the animals have to be test on what is going around? In the first couple of sentences you can see that Ron Kline is pediatric oncologist and the former director of the bone marrow transplant program. You could say that the animal’s rights activists would suggest a fourth choice that the claiming that computers models can stimulate animal experiments thus they are making the actual experiments unnecessary to do this.

The argument is that I would have to agree in the this favor because looking at the little short statement reading on that Ron had put together a lot of good point. “ One of the terrifying effects of the effort to restrict the use of the animals in medical research is that the impact will not be felt for years and decades the drugs that might have been discovered will be and fundamental biological processes that might have been understood.” Understood to the better of one ability is what Ron put out there to make all those points since that he is that the enemy of himself. Is what the truth about this true then you could say that information is what they thought to be? Ron has this open opinion to say what has been going on for as long as we all know it was happening.

One other thing that I saw that at the in America today death has become an event isolated fro it earliest our daily existence out of the sight and the thoughts of most are believes. In common one that the doctors today watching children die today in the world that the parents and the animals grieve in the same was, I quietly understand and agree that animals have the similar way too. Argumentation

With all the technology up grates it would be a lot for the animals to be test and scientist think that it is just not right to do. Having this said the things are remain mysteries until time can be said. Knowing that the things being done are just what they are helped. The are danger that the politically expedient solutions will be found to that they will placate a vocal minority that while consequences of those decisions will not affect all of those decisions that are made on ones minds. “Fortunately most of us enjoy just being in good health and the trauma of watching one’s child die has become a rare experience

Ron has a lot of good supporting facts that are just right to the things that might be look at is that the great to site. In the argumentation is that I just do believe in that he saying because with all of the technology going on it just seems a lot of differences in medical science of the animals right today in USA.