Pathways and learning–site under construction

The brain, as we are beginning to see, is an inveterate pattern seeker/maker/that needs almost no encouragement in creating a world–the one in which we move and take for granted as the way things should be.  But, hold on, Tex that is a bit too easy, a bit too sleight of hand.  What about the hard work of learning how to read and to write–and to think about how things really are?  But this is where things get interesting.  The world we think we see and what is actually there intersect in any number of ways, the trick is to understand how.


Think of the number of religious stories that humans tell about things–how this appeared, how that god did something and the other god did something else and then a whole slew of gods did a bunch of things.  These stories work for reasons that people like Scott Atran are beginning to catalogue–and even the residue of the story still has a certain gravitational pull–think of the number of people who attend services during the big holy days of particular traditions.  They have come for the nostalgic hit, for the “maybe” it is true kind of taste.  More to follow

The Invasion of the Body Snatchers–3rd version

In the original movie, the fear was “godless communism” turning red-blooded Americans into Zomboids, soul-less grey creatures; the next version was a bit more horrific (special effects had grown a bit more sophisticated so things were a bit more bloody–but the point was still the same–the loss of self). Now in the Steve Jobs/Bill Gates/Samsung version of body snatchers, the only real clues we have about loss is people walking into poles, walking into cars, crashing into each other while driving and texting.  Individuals have developed a permanent zombie grip that holds the instrument while it controls the holder.  Things to look for–refusing to put the thing in a pocket while checking out at the Duane Reade or ShopRite and paying with a credit card.  It doesn’t move but results in strange contortions.  On a dinner date–both parties look up only to order and occasionally sip some wine, but otherwise are locked into the screen.

If you ride public transportation and find, for some odd reason, that you have to change your clothes–not to worry.  Only young children will be looking–and they see that everyday so will be comforted by the normality of the event.  Whatever adult is with them on the bus or the train won’t be alarmed either–they will be checking on the next app, or the one after that.





Comprehension stretches from birth to college graduation

Much of our education is organized like a salad bar: these activities and then some of those, more of these than those.  Avoid  wasting time with frivolous stuff–the pedagogical equivalent of no candy and soda.  We also tend to think that schooling happens in a similarly organized calendar.  This level, then another and finally the last level (college), unless, of course, there is a lot more college in the form of professional training and formation.

What could possibly link these levels?  Similarly, what could possibly link the ABE student with the college freshman?  I think the answer to that question is: comprehension  How far along are each of them in taking control of and using a domain of knowledge?  It is a process, like learning dance steps, that is reiterative and performative, where the content is not so much “mastered–” a curious term for understood and explored–as incorporated into how one now sees things and acts on them.

Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow meets Reading in the Brain

Reading and writing, I think we can say, are the first of the apps; they are the mother of apps.  Another way of saying this is that once humans figured out that the combination of sight (form), sound and meaning could be fixed; that tribal memory could be externalized, that meaning could be layered, tweaked, expanded–then it was a short step to the I phone and twitter.

But that said, the issue of learning to make form and sound and meaning really work, every child has to learn, every generation has to do the work of kicking the brain into action.  And this is where Kahnman and Dehaene meet.

Learning to read and write takes work: the brain has to be coaxed into doing the work of putting things together.  It is not at all dissimilar to what a dancer or an athlete or a musician or a chef has to do in learning something new.  First baby steps, missteps, then a bit of a gain in speed as competence begins to form.  The moment then arrives when you are doing the dance, playing the solo, running the play without thinking about it (which would be fatal), because “body memory” has taken hold.  The brain changes in this process, neural networks become more dense–think of it as you would body building.

You are bulking up the brain.  This does not mean however that a person  is now automatically brighter.  Having learned to read and write is, like playing an instrument, something that needs to be rehearsed again and again.  It also happens to be a function of what Kahneman would call System 2 activity.

Most of the time our brain is on auto pilot.  If you are sitting in a chair reading this–well, that means the brain is making certain you are breathing, that your vision is okay (even if corrected) and systems are doing what they have to be doing.  You do not, in fact, have to dig for meaning in this pass, but , that is generally how we proceed through the day–relying on System 1 to get through, get by, get over.

What, you say, is System 1 and System 2 and what does it have to do with me–and with reading, writing, comprehension.  That is what we will be talking about.







 One of the odd benefits of being trained in Adult Basic Education, working with adults who are  learning to read is that sooner or later you have to sort out the social dimensions of educational formation.  Dewey’s great insight, that learning is social, interactive and developmental, often invoked, is, among other things,  something of a political scalpel because if you grab its logic you have to look at what is happening to children as they develop.  Of course, but you have to look at where, and under what circumstances the children is developing.  Who else is involved and in what way?  This seems so axiomatic as to be banal.

But discussions of formation and development seem not to begin from that place, but with the school and the teacher, as though the circumstances of the first years of life are not to the point.  An argument about what constitutes development and learning, uninformed about a child’s development or the circumstances of that development is willfully blind, though politically convenient. 

Yes, children raised in difficult circumstances can do well in schools that protect, nurture and demand and expect that they will do their best.  The Catholic school system, at its height, proved that day after day.  But why must the poor always have to be heroic in getting a good education?





Ah, the ironies!!!!!!





I  have spent a lot of time on this blog exploring and/or commenting/or ranting about issues associated with literacy, an enormous and deliciously interesting topic.  One taken for granted assumption that I think most college faculty share is that issues of literacy should be solved by the time that students get to them and if they aren’t, then the institution should put more resources into writing tutors, labs, etc.  A professor is not a teacher of reading and writing.  I have been writing against such a point of view because I think that all teachers, whatever their disciplinary passion, should be helping students (whatever the student’s age) to reason more clearly, to express themselves with more assurance and a sense of control over the material they are dealing with. 

Enter irony.  In a workshop at the College’s recent Academic Area of Studies conference, held via Elluminate (worked pretty well, actually), one panel was looking at issues of evaluating student progress, how to address that, make it visible and the like.  Members of the panel from our MAT program had some interesting things to say about evaluating student teaching–how to get at the central features of effective teaching,  how to use things like Facebook to share insights and to have a vivid look at performance.  Now, this is really interesting.  We take for granted, indeed, we insist that student teachers have something to learn when it comes to learning to teach.  But when we get to college faculty we are inclined to look at degrees as a way of accounting for competency.  How did that happen?  Teaching is a profession that, one would think, demands, cries out for on-going development, on-going refreshing of skills and learning what we now know about how students learn and give voice to what they learn.  Curious–if you relied on the medical knowledge of a general practitioner who finished her residency in 1985, you might be in real trouble if she hadn’t continually upgraded her diagnostic skills or understanding of a range of run of the mill illnesses.  What about the professor who finished his doctorate in 1995?  Any problems there–or don’t we ask about on going training in how to teach in a discipline; how to use writing to help students take hold of a subject. 

Curious, very curious.


Teaching everyone to talk


A taken for granted bit of business in the teaching and learning business is that learning is social.  It is best done together, so that people can trade insights, questions, and, as the theory has it, build knowledge.  That seems to work in my ABE class–the more we talk and share and work on issues together, the better, the more solid the progress.  In a college class room, the idea of talking together seems as hard to learn as feeling good about writing.  Is it my design? the amount of reading (I have actually cut back in most of my courses)? the clunkiness of Angel which, Lord knows, is clunky enough?  Don’t know, but I seem to have enrolled a group of the shy, aliterate who want me to teach by talking, something I am trying to move away from.

I am still trying to get a bead on my student’s reading strategies and that is proving very difficult.  The one thing that makes all the jazzy on-line this and that crash into worthless dust is silence on the other end. Remember Bartleby the Scrivener, Melville’s famous clerk.  Were he living today, he would not return email, would not post a comment, would not text.  All of those instruments would gather dust, fizzle out.  I feel as though I have dialed up Bartleby and the silence I am hearing is the equivalent of his:  I would prefer not to.

Getting back–but I haven’t left


Getting back to full time teaching in College while continuing to work with students who are learning to read has made one thing very vivid for me.  Reading is something, like singing, that you have to keep doing if you want to do it well. I am increasingly concerned that a good deal of schooling ruins reading for people, making it something that “other people” do.  If that isn’t bad enough, it makes writing a complete mystery.

If people are used to summarizing with a personal swipe of opinion mixed in, assuming that that is a reasoned conclusion, then they announce themselves as never having really walked into a text and spent some time with the author and the issue the author is discussing.  A lot of those students make it to college–somewhat aliterate and grapho-phobic  (i.e. afraid of writing).  Sounds a lot like Adult Ed to me–whatever else is true, we are still dealing with people who are the outside (or the margins) looking in.

Making it all liquid


This continues the discussion about content, coming at it in a slightly different way.  Before a student can really master content, the issue of fluency and comprehension has to be addressed.  Very often, this is confused with memorization.  There is, actually, historical precedent for the mix up: educators in the late 19th/early 20th century stressed “fluency in reading” as a goal, very often at the expense of understanding.  A child was expected to read something, demonstrating mastery of a vocabulary, i.e. they could read all the words.  This demonstrated “fluency,” even though the student who had performed this feat, didn’t have a clue about the meaning of  the passage.  Fluency today is understood to be in the service of comprehension; it marks the student’s ability to read and not stumble on just decoding what is written.  Fluency clears the ground, as it were, for comprehension.  If a student is struggling just to get through a passage of assigned reading, then comprehension, to say nothing of analysis or questioning is going to suffer.

So, we are agreed that a student should be able read fluently, working toward comprehension and questions or issues that follow in the wake of unlocking a text.  Here, we run into an interesting problem associated with assigned reading, maybe a couple.  The first is: the authority of the text.  What, the student is saying, can I possibly say: it has all been said. Memorization and parroting would seem to be a thoughtful strategy at that point.  A book, after all, is someone’s conclusion, someone’s QED.  How does one get beyond that, so that the issue the author is addressing, the author’s approach and methods of reasoning can be sorted through, weighed, talked about?

Faculty, in discussions of reading and writing and how well students do or don’t do either of them, very often use the phrase–“getting it.”   A typical statement would be something like, “I was in my sophmore year before I really got it, before I caught on, before I know what went with what…”  They were revisiting, maybe somewhat nostalgically, what every student wrestles with–what does this teacher want?  What am I supposed to be getting from this class?  This epiphany usually has to do with the fact that in writing about an assigned reading, one is not expected merely to repeat it, but to discuss it, to question, to probe, to engage in sifting out the wheat and throwing away the chaff. 

Oddly enough, this matter of “getting it” is not front and center in a course syllabus, which represents a teacher’s through line in giving a course–the principal issues, something of the history of the thing, possibly current debates, and the like.  At the very least, if it is an introductory course, the student will have to master some new vocabulary, and some names that matter; but unless a teacher has invited a student into the work of solving a problem in the field–how is a problem defined, approached, opened up–the student is likely to think of the teacher as something of a talking book.  All that needs to be said about this issue has been said, what can I say except to repeat what I have heard–hit the coast button.

This is what “taking a course” means–a certain amount of seat time, reading/memorization, maybe even good notes, a few “content quizzes,” and a final, possibly a research paper (due, disastrously, at the end of the term) and that is that.  I have taken a lot of courses that way.  You can build a pretty good library, depending on the course selection, and remain untroubled by anything that went on in class.

But how to get beyond these two pinch points–the text that seems to have said everything; the teaching approach that is faculty-centric in the presentation and discussion of material.  The first one is, I think, simple but that doesn’t make it easy.  Begin by demystifying each text that is assigned and describe strategies for reading. A text book, like an encyclopedia canvasses, maybe highlights, maybe invites questions, but it has a surface like macadam that needs a bit of breaking up so students can see what range of discussions, theoretical debates and counter-debates make up the territory they are entering.

 As for the method of teaching….that is what we will have to sort out.

Content is a vocabulary, a workstation


The “content” issue is interesting and complex and worth sticking with for awhile. In what follows, I would like to sketch out what I see as the elements that make up this issue and what we can learn from them.

When you go to graduate school to do an advanced degree, you are signing on to create “content,” in its every day most recognizable form–an article, a book, some piece of business that marks you as a contributor to the field.  If you create a lot of “content,” you can become an authority in your field.

What does this have to do with student learning?  I no longer have an easy answer for that.  The content that is created in a field wants to be handed onto students who are working their way through a curriculum, on their way to finishing a degree.  They might be taking a course to satisfy a distribution requirement (the seven daily servings of fruit and vegetables that are good for you principle of undergraduate design)  or a part of a major (I want to go to grad. school too and become a college professor).  At least one theory of teaching is that if you have mastered a lot of content, if you know your field, you are, eo ipso, qualified to teach.  But here we come to the heart of the problem–teach what? 

One theory of the student is that they don’t know anything so they need to be “taught,” i.e. they need to ingest a lot of content.  Student as vessel is an old model but still very much with us.  And filling them with stuff does exactly what?  I don’t know?    There is a distinction to be drawn between knowing how and knowing what.  If someone is lecturing to me about the Ottoman Empire, its rise and fall, I will, presumably, know something that I didn’t know before–at least for a while, maybe even for a few weeks after the course is finished,  but “learning?”  What have I learned? 

What would a course in history have to look like for a student to be learning how to frame and answer a historical question?  Put it another way.  A professor can teach almost anything she wants to if she proceeds on the assumption that the job is to impart content, to test for mastery of content, and to assign writing assignments that demonstrate knowledge of the assigned reading.  Does learning occur in such circumstances?  I imagine it does; most of the classes I have had have worked just that way.  There was learning in spite of the design of the course.  Reading and writing do not, in the main, get directly addressed in this design by the teacher.  If a student has problems, they can go to the Learning  Center or find tutorial help, but if a student is not directly learning how to read this material, explore its organizing issues and use written work to arrive at some insights or conclusions, what is the point?

Well, one answer is “fluency;” another is “comprehension,” issues that we will have to explore more fully.

reading becomes writing