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.

We all know fluency when we see it in a foreign language speaker. . . . It’s not just about saying the correct words. It’s also about achieving a useful pace or speed of performance. We have little difficulty recognizing a masterful athletic or musical performance. [Great athletes and musicians] have at least one thing in common: performances that are undeniably fluent. They all make the right moves without hesitation. . . . Even in people who are less well known . . . , we recognize fluency as the hallmark of competence. Skilled computer users, mental mathematicians, or expressive readers share that combination of getting it right with ease and fluidity that characterizes all genuinely accomplished people.

Fluency goes beyond mere accuracy to include the pace, or speed of performance. On a continuum from a total lack of measurable performance to mastery, 100% correct is only part of the way there.

Can you demonstrate how it looks to perform at 75% correct? Can you visualize a 90% correct performance? The answer is “No.”. That is because with a percentage correct score, we . . . can’t tell how much time was required to complete the work (was it 10 seconds, 1 minute, 10 minutes?). Therefore, we cannot possibly demonstrate or imitate the performance because a percentage correct score lacks the time-based information that would allow us to duplicate it.

This lack of essential information built into percentage correct evaluation is at the heart of many educational failures. Since most educational assessment uses accuracy-only, it cannot show any difference between accurate but struggling performance, and fluent performance.

Fluency: Achieving True Mastery in the Learning Process by Carl Binder, Elizabeth Houghton, and Barbara Bateman 2002 

Mastery means fluency.

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

Why it’s hard for a memoirist to write non-choppy prose and sound like a normal human being

I mentioned the other day that in trying to revise the dyslexia passage I became convinced I couldn’t do it just by rejiggering the sentences.

That was a shock. I thought all choppiness, in all cases, could be fixed via sentence combining and de-combining. Now I’m not so sure.

One problem that kept cropping up: when I rejiggered the sentences, I made the author sound (slightly) artificial, or pretentious, or both.

Here’s the passage again:

Aidan had started the project in a moment of despair right after getting back his spring grades in ninth grade. They were disappointing. They didn’t reflect how hard he had worked. We were standing in his room at the time. I had pointed to a poster he had tacked up over his desk of successful adults who have dyslexia. “I wonder how they made it?” I had said.

Jay Leno’s Advice for My Dyslexic Son

The choppiness, which most editors would consider a flaw, also gives the paragraph its authenticity. You feel you’re reading the real words of a real person recounting a real experience. She’s telling you what happened, not gussying her life up for the sake of ego or drama.

In contrast, here’s a short piece of personal writing that isn’t the least bit choppy but would probably be more compelling if it were:

I have never walked out of a speech.

Or I hadn’t, until last night’s opening keynote for the Brisbane writers festival, delivered by the American author Lionel Shriver, best known for her novel, We need to talk about Kevin.

We were 20 minutes into the speech when I turned to my mother, sitting next to me in the front row.

“Mama, I can’t sit here,” I said, the corners of my mouth dragging downwards. “I cannot legitimise this …”

My mother’s eyes bore into me, urging me to remain calm, to follow social convention. I shook my head, as if to shake off my lingering doubts.

As I stood up, my heart began to race. I could feel the eyes of the hundreds of audience members on my back: questioning, querying, judging.

I turned to face the crowd, lifted up my chin and walked down the main aisle, my pace deliberate. “Look back into the audience,” a friend had texted me moments earlier, “and let them see your face.”

The faces around me blurred. As my heels thudded against they grey plastic of the flooring, harmonising with the beat of the adrenaline pumping through my veins, my mind was blank save for one question.

“How is this happening?”

As Lionel Shriver made light of identity, I had no choice but to walk out on her by Yassmin Abdel-Magied 1

Not choppy.

But not as effective as it could be, either.

…the corners of my mouth dragging downwards…

…my pace deliberate…

… the adrenaline pumping through my veins…

These structures are called absolutes. They’re extremely useful, and common, in fiction writing, but when you apply one to yourself, as the author does here, you sound self-important.

That was one of the problems I was having, revising the dyslexia passage: if I used an absolute to make the prose smoother, the author became less appealing.

Without absolutes With absolutes
“Mama, I can’t sit here,” I said.
The corners of my mouth dragged downwards.
“Mama, I can’t sit here,” I said, the corners of my mouth dragging downwards.
I turned to face the crowd. I lifted up my chin. I walked down the main aisle. My pace was deliberate. I turned to face the crowd, lifted up my chin and walked down the main aisle, my pace deliberate.
My heels thudded against the flooring. The flooring was grey plastic. The thudding harmonized with the beat of my adrenaline. My adrenaline was pumping through my veins. My mind was blank save for one question. As my heels thudded against the grey plastic of the flooring, harmonising with the beat of the adrenaline pumping through my veins, my mind was blank save for one question.

I’m not sure about that last one … must ask Katharine to explain the grammar.

1. I came across Abdel-Magied’s essay in Lionel Shriver’s op ed in the Times: Will the Left Survive the Millennials?

AND SEE:
How to turn a list of sentences into a paragraph – 9/20/2016
Get me rewrite – 9/24/2016
Why it’s hard for a memoirist to write non-choppy prose and sound like a normal human being – 9/27/2016

Is sequencing sentences no longer a writing skill?

In the following questions, the first sentence of a paragraph is given. Your job is to “unscramble” the rest of the paragraph by putting the next five sentences in the correct order.

QUESTION 1 In the remote mountain country of Nepal, a small band of “honey hunters” carry out a tradition so ancient that it is depicted in drawings dating back 10,000 years.

______ Q. Throughout this entire dangerous practice, the hunter is stung repeatedly.

______ R. To harvest the honey from these combs, a honey hunter climbs above the nest, lowers a bamboo-fiber ladder over the cliff and climbs down.

______ S. The honeybees that colonize the Nepalese mountainsides are among the largest in the world, building huge honeycombs on sheer rock faces that may be hundreds of feet high.

______ T. Only veteran honey hunters, with skin that has been toughened over the years, can return from a hunt without the painful swelling caused by these stings.

______ U. Once he has reached the level of the nest, the hunter uses two sturdy bamboo poles like huge chopsticks to pull it away from the mountainside and into a large basket, which is then lowered to people waiting below.

QUESTION 2 In the 1880s, John Wesley Powell, an explorer of the Grand Canyon and director of the United States Geological Survey, led the development of the first topographical maps of the entire United States.

______ Q. This is because streams cut into the land, so contour lines will turn upstream, cross the waterway and return downstream, creating a V shape, with the “V” pointing upstream.

______ R. Waterways, such as streams, are usually marked in blue on topo maps, but even if they were not, the presence of one could still be identified using contour lines.

______ S. Contour lines indicate the slope of the land as well.

______ T. If the lines are close together, the elevation is changing rapidly and the slope is steep, whereas widely spaced lines depict a gently sloping terrain.

______ U. Also called “topo maps,” these maps differ from others in using thin brown lines, called contour lines, to connect points of equal elevation.

Answers appear in an article in yesterday’s New York Times, which is also my source for these excerpts.

Since 1994, the article reports, questions like these have appeared on the “scrambled paragraphs” section of New York City’s specialized high school entry exam: the sole determiner of whether students are admitted to places like Stuyvesant High or Brooklyn Tech.

But now the scrambled paragraphs are on their way out. Quoting the Times, they’re being “replaced multiple choice questions intended to evaluate writing skills.” As intrigued as I am to see what these new multiple choice questions look like, I’m also baffled by the implication that sentence sequencing isn’t a writing skill.

But that may be beside the point. As the Times explains:

These paragraphs were, to put it politely, unpopular with many students and their families, and were often criticized as having little relation to what students were taught in school, which could give an advantage to those who could afford to pay for test preparation. The city’s Education Department decided to remove them to align the test more closely with classroom instruction.

Yet another indication that sentence-focused instruction is totally passé.

Catherine and I, of course, are trying to bring it back–scrambled paragraphs included. So now we have to wonder: is unscrambling paragraphs really as unpopular with students as the Times implies?

A big help in unscrambling paragraphs, by the way, is awareness of cohesive devices (like those I discuss in my earlier post). Try out these questions, and you’ll see what I mean.

Get me rewrite

The other night, trying to revise the dyslexia passage, I convinced myself it couldn’t be done without adding new content.

I’m sure that’s wrong, but I’m finding it much easier to fix the start-stop quality (technical term: choppiness) of the original by changing the content, not just the syntax.

So here are two copy edits, one relying on syntax alone, the other relying mostly on added details.

I want to stress that in I don’t mean to be critical, or to embarrass the author. Her essay works as is– the reason I know about it is that a friend of mine liked it so much she emailed it to her friends.

ORIGINAL

Aidan had started the project in a moment of despair right after getting back his spring grades in ninth grade. They were disappointing. They didn’t reflect how hard he had worked. We were standing in his room at the time. I had pointed to a poster he had tacked up over his desk of successful adults who have dyslexia. “I wonder how they made it?” I had said.

Jay Leno’s Advice for My Dyslexic Son

(Aidan’s project is a series of interviews with successful people who have dyslexia.)

POSSIBLE REVISION USING CHANGES IN SYNTAX

During 9th grade, in a moment of despair, Aidan had started the project after getting back his spring grades. They were disappointing. Certainly, they didn’t reflect how hard he had worked. I pointed to a poster he had tacked up over his desk of successful adults who have dyslexia. “I wonder how they made it?” I said.

 

Lots of sentence combining, plus I changed two instances of  the past perfect to simple past tense

POSSIBLE REVISION USING CHANGES IN CONTENT AS WELL AS SYNTAX

Aidan had started the project in a moment of despair after his spring grades arrived freshman year. They were a disappointment. He had worked hard, and the unrelieved column of Cs and one D didn’t show it. Discouraged, I looked at the poster he’d tacked up over his desk, the one listing “Successful and Famous People with Dyslexia.” There were 80 of them, all told, beginning with Robert Blake—Robert Blake—and ending with Ernest Hemingway.

“I wonder how they did it,” I said.

Adding details (I found the Robert Blake dyslexia poster on Pinterest) made it much easier to fix the problem of a string of sentences starting with “I,” “they,” and “we.”

AND SEE:
How to turn a list of sentences into a paragraph – 9/20/2016
Get me rewrite – 9/24/2016
Why it’s hard for a memoirist to write non-choppy prose and sound like a normal human being – 9/27/2016

Let’s resurrect sentence-based rhetorics

Part of what’s distinct about Catherine’s and my curriculum is that we’re zeroing in on the basic building blocks of writing–phrases, sentences, and paragraphs.

Many of today’s writing classes instead zoom out to the big picture–communication, argumentation, and audience. Get students thinking what their ideas are and who they’re addressing them to. Have them do lots of open-ended writing. Perhaps toss some peer-editing into the mix. Surely, then, students’ phrasing and paragraphing skills will develop organically, without explicit instruction by teachers or textbooks. And surely, compared with scores of exercises in sentence construction and paragraphing, the holistic, naturalistic approach is more effective and appealing to all concerned.

It certainly appeals to many of classroom writing instructors–as it has for a long time. But, it turns out, sentence-based instruction goes back even further. A while ago, Catherine sent me an article by Robert J Connors (“The Erasure of the Sentence“), and I was surprised to learn that explicit instruction in sentence syntax had been a staple of composition classes (dating back to classical antiquity) until just a few decades ago.

What happened? Here, in a nutshell, is Connors’ thesis:

The usefulness of sentence-based rhetorics was never disproved, but a growing wave of anti-formalism, anti-behaviorism, and anti-empiricism within English-based composition studies after 1980 doomed them to a marginality under which they still exist today. The result of this erasure of sentence pedagogies is a culture of writing instruction that has very little to do with or say about the sentence outside of a purely grammatical discourse.

What are these sentence-based rhetorics that have fallen out of favor? One recent example is Francis Christensen’s “sentence combining.”  In Connors’ words, “Sentence-combining in its simplest form is the process of joining two or more short, simple sentences to make one longer sentence, using embedding, deletion, subordination, and coordination.”

According to Christensen, you could be a good writer if you could learn to write a good sentence. His pedagogy consisted of short base-level sentences to which students were asked to attach increasingly sophisticated systems of initial and final modifying clauses and phrases-what he called “free modifiers.” Effective use of free modifiers would result in effective “cumulative sentences,” and Christensen’s most famous observation about teaching the cumulative sentence was that he wanted to push his students “to level after level, not just two or there, but four, five, or six, even more, as far as the students’ powers of observation will take them. I want them to become sentence acrobats, to dazzle by their syntactic dexterity.”

Another “sentence-based rhetoric” was Edward Corbett’s “imitation exercises.” This involved the “the emulation of the syntax of good prose models.” Students would begin by copying a model sentence word for word. Then came “pattern practice,” in which students construct new sentences that parallel the grammatical type, number, and order of phrases and clauses of the model sentence, perhaps with the help of a syntactic description of the model sentence’s structure. Students might also perform syntactic transformations (informed by Noam Chomsky’s Universal Grammar) on the model sentence. In Corbett’s words, the aim of such imitation exercises was to “achieve an awareness of the variety of sentence structure of which the English language is capable.” Other advocates of imitation exercises noted that student writing “is often stylistically barren because of lack of familiarity with good models of prose style;” the remedy was explicit emulation of good models.

Both Corbett’s and  Christensen’s methods were subject to empirical scrutiny, and studies showed that both methods not only increased the grammatical complexity of student writing, but also improved the overall writing quality (as compared with control groups and as rated by blind raters). In particular, internalizing syntactic structures, even by slavishly copying them, ultimately increased originality and creativity–presumably by giving students a wide repertoire of syntactic tools to choose from and handy ways to play around with them.

But as Connors notes, almost as soon as this sentence-syntax teaching methodology starting showing empirical success, it was shouted down into oblivion by critics who found it philosophically distasteful.  After all, these methods involved:
  1. Textbooks
  2. Mere exercises, devoid of content and real-world application, with (worse yet!) correct and incorrect answers
  3. Rote imitation
  4. An inorganic, narrow, analytical, reductionist approach that stifles creativity
  5. A procedural focus at odds with the authentic writing process in which motivation and communicative intent and self-expression come first and everything else comes along for the ride (including, apparently, grammatically well-formed sentences).

The result of this backlash was that most writing instructors came to believe that “research has shown that sentence combining doesn’t work.”

Communication, argumentation, and audience–these seem like great things for writing instruction to prioritize. But as Catherine and I discuss on our book and will continue to explore here, effective communication and argumentation depend largely on effective phrasing and paragraphing. And, as those studies of Corbett’s and Christensen’s methods suggest, explicit practice with sentence and paragraph construction yields skills that typically don’t emerge from today’s more naturalistic, holistic approaches to writing.