Saturday, September 28, 2013

Kneading, Chewiness and the Smell of Beer: Learning and Three Kinds of Standards

One key part of learning is: internalizing norms, criteria or standards.

If you cannot do something to a certain standard, there is little sense in which you can do that thing at all.

  • Some used to compare free verse to "playing tennis without a net."
  • We may not hold this low opinion of free verse: after all, if it scans, alliterates, etc., it may be 90% poetry, and that may be poetic enough.

Learning as part of education, is a part of the larger process of socialization. We have no problem thinking of socializing as internalizing norms and rules. But we sometimes lose our agility when thinking about how internalizing criteria happens in learning, let alone what kinds of criteria there are and what roles they play. As so often, the single word "criteria" blinds us to the variety that word hides.

In the interest of practical utility, I'd like to identify three kinds of criteria which I don't think are sufficiently differentiated. Each comes at a different moment in the learning process, is expressed in a different kind of language, has a different degree to which it is shared with others, and each plays a different role in the learning process.

Examples from prose-writing, bread-baking and cake-making may provide some assistance in clarifying these admittedly broad notions.

Minimal criteria are concrete. "You must be this tall to get on this ride." They can be expressed in declarative language. A full description may be rather detailed; but it is possible to give one. Minimal criteria are widely shared and shareable. And they are prerequisites to correct performances.

  • The ability to write a grammatically-correct sentence is a pre-requisite for many other activities. It is a minimal standard, a set of entry conditions. It may be complex, but it can be described exhaustively.
    • The longer the sentence, the longer the list of ways it can be grammatically defective. But beginning with a capital letter, having a subject and verb, the subject and verb agreeing, the words being spelled correctly––the compass is not vast.
  • For baking bread, kneading is a basic skill. If you can't knead the bread correctly, all the rising and baking is mostly for naught.
  • Similarly, to bake a cake, you must be able to keep butter chilled, cream sugar into it, probably whip egg whites until they form stiff peaks, etc.

Ideals are another kind of criteria. These are maximal criteria: they represent the highest performance a discipline, art or craft can reach. Their language seems declarative but is actually connotative: clarity, beauty, delicacy, grace are ideals for writing prose, creating art, baking a cake, and dancing, respectively.

The role of such ideals is both guiding and summative. They lead the learner forward, but they also summarize an understanding which must be achieved.

Saying a sentence is "clear" sounds simple enough: clear like glass. But what makes a sentence clear, and whether this sentence is more or less clear than that is a complex judgement. Once you've mastered it, it seems self-evident––which is why teachers have such a hard time teaching these high-level values: the language describing these values seems literal once the complex meanings are internalized; but it is anything but simple to those early in the learning process.

Ideals are public and shared, but not all publics overlap. Hence ideals are often contested. Some bakers believe bread is best when it's chewy and airy; others when soft and finely-textured. Likewise, when it comes to cakes, if you want to start an argument, talk about "crumb" and "lightness."

One of the things disciplines argue about is what their ideals are or mean. Different theories are not simply different in what they hold to be true: they are different in what they consider a theory should be and do. "Theory" is an ideal, and its definition is therefore often contested.

Terms referring to ideals need to be used throughout instruction, even though they're only understood gradually.

Finally, the fuzziest set of criteria are those we give ourselves. These are self-created rules-of-thumb. They encapsulate the learner's emerging understanding, and therefore I call these criteria "emergent." They are complex and simple at the same time. Their language is idiomatic: you may understand them, and I may not, but likely I get a strong feeling from them. It may be useful to share them, but they are not a common parlance. They are a by-product of the process of learning, rather than a pre-requisite or an end-point (as minimal criteria and maximal ideals are).

  • Bakers know when the batter "looks like thick latex paint" that they're in good territory––or in deep trouble.
  • Experienced breadmakers may recognize a certain smell as "yeasty" or "fruity" or "alcohol-y," and based on that they know just what to do.
  • Likewise, prose writers can tell you that they are done drafting when they find themselves polishing sentences excessively.

In many activiites, knowing when you're done, and how to push yourself towards being done, is not so much a matter of deadlines as it is of rules-of-thumb.

Learners can be encouraged to formulate their own emergent rules-of-thumb, and this seems to facilitate the learning process. For in fact, learning is not pure socialization: it's not simply internalizing others' rules. Learning always has a personal dimension. Even if learning is forced on you strictly in the most aggressive and regimented way, you will develop your own internal resistance to it, a sort of ridicule or gallows humor that you use to survive indoctrination––and to resist it.

These three kinds of learning criteria may be summarized in a table:

scope complexity language how widely shared role in learning
minimal concrete declarative shared prerequisite
maximal abstract connotative contested ideal, guiding
emergent mixed idiomatic individual by-product

But then we've made just another set of vocabulary terms––which become disciplinary ideals, hence something to argue about.

Whereas what I really wanted to do was to say:

  1. Put the minimal criteria first to help the learners succeed.
  2. Bring out the disciplinary ideals at regular intervals, but don't expect them to be understood right off the bat.
  3. Encourage the learners to create rules-of-thumb as they go.

Or: know how to knead, whether you like your bread chewy, and what to do when your dough smells like beer.

––Edward R. O'Neill

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