How can you tell when a student has mastered a skill?

How can you tell whether someone has truly mastered a skill? What is the measurable indicator that a person really knows how to do something? These questions should be at the heart of every teaching decision . . . and every evaluation we make about the success of an educational program. Yet for many educators, and certainly for most parents, answers to these questions are anything but clear. Most of us have grown up in a “percentage correct world” where 100% correct is the best anyone can do. But is perfect accuracy the definition of mastery? . . . In fact, we see many children and adults who can perform skills and demonstrate knowledge accurately enough – given unlimited time to do so. But the real difference that we see in expert performers is that they behave fluently – both accurately and quickly, without hesitation.

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Sentence combining & Marilyn Monroe

I was talking to Katharine about flow and sentence combining today.

Her take on the writing process:

  1. First combine as many sentences as you can.
  2. Then go back and un-combine the ones that need uncombining.

This reminds me of Marilyn Monroe’s principle for getting ready to go out.

Here’s how I remember it.

  1. Get dressed.
  2. Stand backwards in front of a full-length mirror.
  3. Turn around fast, glance at your reflection, and take off the first piece of jewelry that catches your eye, because that’s the piece that’s too much.

Flow redux

As a writing instructor, I’ve been chronically frustrated by the fact that composition textbooks use words they don’t define.

Flow, for instance.

What is flow?

Or paragraph.

What is a paragraph apart from a list of sentences separated by white space from a bunch of other lists of sentences inside a longer text?

The answer the books give is that a paragraph has a topic (what’s a topic?) and the sentences about the topic have flow.

But that’s no help because now we’re back to flow, and the books don’t tell us what flow is.

Then there’s the universal awkward, awk for short. 

What is an 18-year old college freshman who writes awkward sentences to make of the word awkward?

Not much.


I came across this passage from the novelist Nicholson Baker yesterday:

To find their way in American life, high-schoolers need to be able to speak English, to read, to listen to and respect other people’s opinions, to have a command of the basic elements of courtesy and, to a lesser extent, to write. (They do not need to know how to write a thesis sentence. More injury is done to high-school essays by the imposition of the thesis-sentence requirement than by any other means. The trick, kids are sometimes told, is to begin with a word like “although.” No.)
Fortress of Tedium: What I Learned as a Substitute Teacher: A novelist’s education in the classroom by Nicholson Baker 9/7/2016

Very droll! That final no is one of the funniest I can remember.

Funny, but wrong.

Number one, thesis sentences are a good thing. More than good, they’re essential. Katharine has a terrific story about a friend who couldn’t finish her dissertation because she couldn’t state, in one sentence, what her argument was. I know the feeling.

And, number two, although is an excellent word to begin a thesis statement with. As a matter of fact, Katharine and I teach the although- construction in our curriculum.

More in a bit.