Sunday, September 20, 2009

A reflection on reflections on reflection

It appears that the class is bifurcated about the reflections. Some are enjoying the blogging and seeing the activity as a means for producing deeper learning. Others are struggling and not yet finding the writing illuminating. To those in the first group, keep at it. In my post, Slowing Down, which was focused on the class discussion but pertains to the writing too, I sketched some of the intellectual activities that are necessary for gaining a deep understanding of a subject. You should be aiming to do some of that with the writing.

For those in the second group, below I will offer a few suggestions about things that might help.

(1) This is a longer term suggestion. It may have no immediate benefit for you this semester. To the extent that improving your writing is a lifelong pursuit, it will help. To get a window into the idea, here is a short blog post by Will Richardson, who is writing affectionately about Donald Murray, a journalist and one of the great writing teachers. You might read Murray's book that Richardson references, Expecting the Unexpected. It will give you more of an idea about what the writing should do for the reader and what you should do to produce such writing. Though I came to my approach with teaching on writing independent of direct knowledge of Murray, I came to realize that I'm trying to emulate much of what he advocates.

(2) Some of you are struggling with the writing that focuses on "I" or "me" and the personal nature of that, in some cases because that cuts against your culture and your upbringing. You can instead use the experience of in-class discussions we've had, in which case it will be about "we" or "us" and perhaps that is less difficult to do. You can talk about other experiences you've been involved with and still use the first person plural form. Or you can be objective about ideas and write about them at arms length, but keeping in the mind that there is a need to produce connections between ideas and one good way to do this is on identifying multiple contexts to illustrate the same point.

(3) There is a romantic notion, almost certainly false, that the good writer can just sit down at the keyboard and crank it out. Then when it doesn't happen for you and you have writer's block and it's getting late on Friday and there is still nothing to show, it becomes painful. All of this is a reminder that you are not a good writer, as if that is stigma you'll endure forever. This outcome, I believe, is mostly a consequence of process errors you are making. The first of those is that the ideas you need to write about come from some grand gestalt you do in your head. That is the first cause or so you implicitly assume. Mostly, that is wrong. The first cause is the reading (you can't be a good writer without being a serious reader) or conversations in which you are engaged or movies or other external stimuli. There is no shortage of that. Then you need time to process that stimuli. That processing is called pre-writing. I do that in my head, but some of you may want to take some notes while you are doing it. Then you should be ready to write and it shouldn't be so painful.

I'm going to segue from those suggestions to Jake's post and about writing of the readings ahead of time. I'm still scratching my head on that one as to why you thought you shouldn't be doing that all along, but perhaps there is the question, which readings, the ones we've discussed already or the ones that are upcoming? To that my answer is, "yes." But rather than being cutesy here (when I was in high school, I gave that sort of response all the time to my mom) I've done something concrete to help you look forward. There is now a link in the left sidebar to the Google Calendar for the course so you can more readily look forward. This coming week, we will be finishing Bruner and working through Argyris on Double Loop Learning. Because the team led discussions are already scheduled, we'll start on Drucker the following week. Thereafter, we aren't yet scheduled (we'll do some of Drucker on the individual, but how much needs to be determined) and I then want the slowing down ideas to take effect.

I intended that Scientific American piece, which many of you liked, as a commentary about what you need to be doing in the reflections - effortful study. Some of you took that piece as truth on all accounts and interpreted it as saying that talent and native intelligence matters not at all. That is an extremely strong proposition. None of you asked how much and what type of evidence would be needed to be confident that the proposition is valid. The article offered mostly anecdotal evidence. Further, one wonders whether that is even an interesting question. If we can agree that effortful practice matters a lot for the development of expertise, which I'd is a potent conclusion in itself, what further value is there from asserting the strong proposition as some of you did?

One last point on that. Because time is scarce, becoming an expert is necessarily a narrowing venture. As generalists, in contrast, we remain amateurs. Sometimes the approach of experts blocks exploration because the experts have such high standards of what needs to be produced. Amateurs can feel comfortable in their explorations by safely ignoring a sense of good taste about a subject, invoking when necessary the rejoinder, "I'm no expert on this." Daniel Pink, in his book A Whole New Mind tells us readers to celebrate our amateurness. That's what you should try for with the blogging.

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