Thursday, 8 December 2011

It’s All in the (Analyzing) Approach

Today’s entry begins with a clarification.  I may have mislead some readers when I talked about “Co-opted Study” without clearly indicating that the analysis of co-opted argumentation is the type of wisdom inducing exercise that I believe can, and should be examined in schools.  I was not, and never have been of the opinion that, the use of co-opting arguments as a strategy actually works.  In fact I’ve already taken a swipe at educators who combine or mix quantitative and qualitative study results in an earlier post.  The International Journal of Science Education article on Co-opting Science that I linked to in the previous post, does an excellent job of showing how we can be tricked by argumentation strategies that weave science fact (descriptive) and evaluative statements.  The study recognizes that educators must be on their toes when fallacious arguments combining normative and factual statements are being raised by students, and that there is a high likelihood of blurring results due to ‘co-option’ argumentation strategies such as the use of conjunctive argument (the concepts ‘hard snow’ and ‘ball’ are much different than ‘hard snowball’) or the fusion of normative and factual statements  (“disease eradication is great for the world” and “gene therapy can eliminate some disease” becomes “gene therapy is great for the world”).  Of course the way to avoid this, is to study and analyze argumentation through models of argumentation patterns and argumentation theory (normative pragmatics). This study requires the learner to not only argue, but also recognize how the functions of arguments are established.  As I pointed out last post, the platform for wisdom development does not have to be this complicated.  For a person ‘learning’ badminton, the function of keeping your opponent off balance through shot placement may not be within your skill repertoire yet, but one should practice with that conceptual function front of mind. The alternative is prolonged frustration as getting the bird back over the net using the now highly refined overhead shot, never seems to be enough to win the rally.

Now that that is cleared up, I’d like to take on an idea posited by Daniel Willingham (who was mentioned in the last post as well) in his book Why Don’t Students Like School? He believes that we should not expect young learners to be able to think like an expert because the young learner lacks the experience through practice (about ten years) required to ‘be the expert’.  The underlying argument is that even child prodigies are imitators rather than creators; so, a more realistic approach is to focus exclusively on comprehension rather than knowledge creation.  I beg to differ because I believe that young learners are more capable at analyzing than we often give them credit for.

To begin with, I would never argue that a learner can skip the hours of practice required to become an expert.  As stated above, studying ‘co-opting argumentation’ is a comprehension exercise critical to avoiding being misinformed about what is happening when people make declarations.   But once you comprehend what is going on, then what?  Should you just say you are done and ignore the ‘what ifs’ that comprehension now raises?

Let’s examine a really big ‘What if?” question.  I would argue that along any learning comprehension journey, ‘experts-in-the-making’ may not create new knowledge in a general sense, but are very comfortable in using both imitation and their own meaning build-out processes, as a way to build personal knowledge and personal wisdom.  This should not be confused with’ thinking like an expert’, but should be recognized for what it is, an expert’s approach to building deeper knowledge/understanding/wisdom.  Any expert who reflects upon and recognizes what it took to create knowledge, appreciates the need to comprehend.  What they don’t tend to do is get stuck in an approach involving a recursive cycle of comprehending comprehension (unless they are a philosopher or linguist or cognitive psychologist off on a tangent).  Once experts have determined that their comprehension is correct, usually through gathering repeatable evidence (and that’s where ten years of experience comes in handy) they get on to hypothesizing on the ‘What ifs?” in the world.  Those experts-in-the-making that morph into recognized experts also take and make the critical decision To DO Something with their comprehensions...they hypothesize and they ACT.   My sense is that if you asked an expert when the moment was that they started thinking about possibilities, but more importantly, DOING something with possibilities in mind, it wasn’t at 10 years + a day into their comprehension journey.  Steve Jobs left us with an important piece of advice, which was to ‘follow your dreams’.  I am particularly cognizant of the fact that his advice does not state that dreaming alone will get you what you want.  This holds no matter how well you comprehend, repeat, practice or otherwise focus on the dream.   On this point I should elaborate because to me ‘following’ something (in this particular case a dream) must be examined in two ways: deciding if someone is, or is not ‘following’, and then if following is occurring, is there a need to recognize the impact of the ‘degree of following’ (is there such a thing as a little bit dead, and does that matter)?

I begin this elaboration by recognizing that the results of creating meaning for oneself is not the same as the results of creating what would be considered generally accepted “New” knowledge. I never assume that new to me equals new to everyone.  With this given in place, the greater question becomes: From the perspective of someone who discovers (the unknown becomes the known via discovery regardless of degree) are the processing functions for comprehension and new knowledge creation the same; just  discoveries at different points along an experience continuum? 

Our entire belief in the concept of progression is built on this being true.  At some point the act of progressing may lead to discovering something no one knew (instead of just me not knowing) but the way one thinks (“how am I going to figure THIS out?”) is still the same.  So, if it is established that something is being followed and discoveries are happening, then how might these processing functions change (if at all) at different places on an experience continuum, and why might this be the case?  According to Dr. Willingham, this is due to the differences in the elaborative nature of the functions.  Essentially, the structure of the function is more elaborate due to experience and therefore can create knowledge where none existed before.  To me this is like saying that because your Ferrari can go 200 mph and my horse drawn buggy can go as fast my horse, I shouldn’t test what my top speed could be because it will never be 200 mph. What this doesn’t speak to is the impact or degree that using the available function has on future events.  If the goal is to learn how to manage a vehicle moving 200 mph, maybe my buggy won’t do.  But can a race in my buggy be used as a take off point for other races I might want to entertain in the future?  I believe so.

In his book, Dr. Willingham does make a near irrefutable point when he identifies the real problem, which is when educators don’t recognize the differences between experts and novice learners (that as educators we can somehow ‘shortcut’ the learning cycle and tell buggy racers that they are Ferrari drivers in the making).  I would argue that the shortcut approach of a teacher telling a student “Be the expert” (which is difficult if not impossible), needs to be replaced with “Be AN expert”.  The implications in differentiating these approaches should not be under appreciated (there is more here than a definite/indefinite article exchange). 

If the expectation is to do exactly as the expert does, of course there will be frustration on the part of the learner.  If however, the expectation is to do some things that change what we know in ‘wisdom gap’ narrowing ways (using the available function), the learner is moving nearer to expertise, with all the benefits that accrue.  The ‘Be the expert’ approach fails because the learner cannot be two places at once (both novice and expert) while the ‘Be an expert’ approach focuses on the relationship or distance between levels of knowledge and the ability to understand both similarities and differences.  My sense is that Dr. Willingham would be hard pressed to defend the idea that the concept of relationship function, which is familiar to everyone from about 5 years of age on, couldn’t be the first abstraction fully grasped if taught properly.  I think the minds behind Facebook would back me up on this.

Of course this puts the concept of who is ‘the expert’ in a different context.   The definition of ‘an expert’ now includes a focus on the ability to overcome cognitive capacity issues regardless of what point you are at on the cognitive ability continuum.   Dr. Willingham does an excellent job of making clear what the learning novice’s discrete limitation issues are.  Unfortunately in doing so, he concludes that the dynamics (the constant change) occurring over the 10 years of ‘becoming’ an expert are so drastically different from overcoming on a day-to-day basis, that one should not be compared with the other.  Note I used the word “compared” (past tense).  Of course the two abilities (novice ability and expert ability) to overcome are very different (both quantitatively and qualitatively) but the ability to recognize a change in ability (very large to relatively small) is exactly the same, especially when looking into the future (and not just the past). 

Regardless of the differences, one thing we can all (novice to expert) appreciate is that the road to overcoming begins with recognizing results.  What may be less obvious, but equally grasp-able, is recognizing the approach to be taken to achieve the results.  My sense is that focusing on effective approach is not a lost cause for novices.  It begins with the teacher saying “explain to me/show me what you did”, what we might see as Prove it first.   It continues with “now how does your approach compare with xyz approach?” or what we might describe as who else has proven this?  It ends with “gather the evidence that indicates how each approach works, then tell me which approach you would use under circumstance A, B, and C.”  This is the point where, should the motivation be present, the learner can contemplate making improvements.  

An interesting side note to this is that in my experience using this method, I find that comparing approaches taken amongst novices is far less threatening than comparing approaches taken by experts.  I believe the reason for this is because you are comparing learning novice belief-systems that are still open to, and accepting of change.

So although I would be hard pressed to debate with Dr. Willingham on how the mind works, I’m also unsure how to square my teaching experiences and learning results with the more modest outcomes that this author believes are “more realistic”.   To me, the evidence is that a Prove it – What’s proven – Can you improve? approach has shown again and again to work very well for young learners of all ability levels.  To do any of these 3 things requires that the learner distil out functionality within a context.  I fully recognize that the learner doesn’t perform these exercises with the sophistication of an expert, but I still see novice learners smiling as all the comprehension effort has as a reward pay off of looking at ‘What if?’ possibilities.  The next post is going to look at some tangible ways of building up to the ‘What ifs?’ that keep learners motivated.  As you can probably guess, the approach you take is very important :)

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