kitchen table math, the sequel: Doing versus explaining and the process method

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Doing versus explaining and the process method

Fabulous comments on the Should math students explain their answer in words post. I'll try to get as many as I can pulled up front…

In the thread, Allison points out the irony that good teachers are the people who actually know consciously the nonconscious steps experts use to do what they do, and yet teachers are the one category of human being expected to stand aside while students figure things on their own out by deploying strategies and asking three before me.

Which brings me to my own experience teaching college composition.

I know I've said this a number of times but it bears repeating, I think: when I returned to teaching three years ago, I was chronically stymied by the fact that while I knew how to write myself, I had no idea how to explain what I did to my students.

In fact, it was worse than that. The problem wasn't just that I had no idea how to explain what I did when I wrote. The real problem was that I had no idea what that was. What was I doing when I wrote that was different from what they were doing?

All I really knew about what I did was that I wrote by ear. And so I would tell my students, frequently, that writing by ear was an option, and that the way to develop an ear for college writing was to do all their assigned college reading (and hope for the best).

Beyond that, I was stumped.

I didn't particularly want to tell freshman writers just how obsessive the process of writing entirely by ear actually was.

Writing by ear, for me, meant I would write something that sounded bad; I would hear that it sounded bad (that seemed to be the critical element, hearing badness); and I would then spend endless hours writing and rewriting and rewriting again (and again and again), trying to make what I'd written a) stop sounding bad and, only then, once that was achieved, b) start sounding good.

I did this for hours on end.

Until things sounded right.

So what does writing-by-ear translate to inside a composition class?

I'll tell you what it translates to: it translates to the process method, which I think is a lousy way to teach writing.

The Process Method, by the way, seems to have originated in the Bay Area Writing Project, now called the National Writing Project. Ed was somehow connected with the Bay Area Writing Project & has spoken disapprovingly of it for lo these many years. I'll have to get him to brief me again…

In the process method, students write something bad, then have their peers tell them it's bad, then revise the bad thing they've written to make it …. better.

Then, if they happen to be in a class taught by Peter Elbow, they find a volunteer copy editor to fix all the things that still need fixing.

OK, time to cook vegetables.

Will finish up later.


Anonymous said...

When I teach engineering students how to write, I don't tell them to "hear badness" nor to randomly rewrite stuff until the badness goes away.

If they didn't "hear badness" on the first draft, they aren't going to be able to on subsequent drafts. Random rewriting is a terribly inefficient way to fix a computer program or a piece of writing.

Instead I direct them to read the part of Huckin and Olsen's book
on maintaining focus, or flow, or topic sentences, or definite and indefinite articles, or whatever else seems to be the biggest problem with their writing. I then help them apply the heuristics presented there to their own writing.

Anonymous said...

"Hearing badness" is a great first step in editing one's own writing. Just getting my students to read their own writing out loud to themselves gets them to detect and eliminate the most egregious errors on their own. But this is only a first step. The rest of it, except perhaps for detecting and correcting simple grammar and mechanics errors, is very difficult to teach unless the student already has an ear for good writing.

allison said...

"Writing by ear" is the ultimate example of constructivism gone awry in rhetoric. Most of us can only develop an ear for "good sentences" if we have read an overwhelmingly vast quantity of well written sentences.

Students now read texts and tweets. They listen to their friends and shows on TV. Where will they develop the ear? Reading cheap sci fi or romances won't develop that ear either.

Most foreign students/ell students past age 15 probably can't learn to hear their non native language well enough to ever pick up the cues without explicit instruction, either.

Anonymous said...

"Students now read texts and tweets. They listen to their friends and shows on TV. Where will they develop the ear? Reading cheap sci fi or romances won't develop that ear either."

It's worse than that. When they come across good writing, they're convinced it's "old-fashioned". A lot of reviews on Amazon say this.


chinaphil said...

"Listen to your writing and hear problems" = "be smarter". As the others have said, the ability to hear problems and write well by ear comes from being smart and well read. Students who have poor writing need scaffolding to ease them into better writing.

But the scaffolding isn't always enough. I've done some English teaching in China, where there's a lot of very explicit instruction - I'm sure most US/UK educators would find it mechanical and dull. The result is that I used to get essays that were surprisingly well structured, but didn't "hang together" because the student didn't actually have anything to say. They had been taught and asked to use argumentative structures (e.g. the five paragraph essay); but they didn't have a point to argue, and were unable to develop one, because this is not something they were asked to do in the rest of their education. So knowing structures and explicit methods is one thing. But there needs to be a simultaneous development of the students' actual ability to think. Good teaching makes those two go hand in hand.