Active marketing for active learning

From my faculty inbox:

Dear Katharine,

The traditional lecture model is no longer the most efficient way for teachers to impart knowledge to students. With Wi-Fi, smartphones and laptops providing an endless supply of distractions, savvy educators must rely on new teaching methods for classroom engagement.

Our new Active Learning Handbook highlights how using active learning techniques can result in higher student engagement, improved grades and a lower dropout rate.

“Active learning techniques,” apparently, do not include active banning of smartphones and laptops, nor do they include old methods like active calling on students, active class discussions, and active writing assignments that require active listening to lectures.

A diminishing infection of casual speech by edited prose?

A colleague of mine once told me a story about the lingering effects of a psycholinguistics experiment on a college campus. Incentivized by the sticks and carrots of their department, the subjects of the experiment, naturally, were mostly undergraduate psychology majors. These subjects were induced, through subtle, ingenious prompting, to use passive voice constructions: to favor sentences like “I was induced by the clever prompts” over “The clever prompts induced me.”

Long after the experiment ended, its subjects continued–apparently subconsciously—to favor passive voice. Their habits spread like a contagious meme throughout the rest of the campus—and on into incoming classes. Years later, even after all the subjects had graduated, a higher-than-average use of passive voice could still be observed on this particular campus. Or so the story goes.

Apocryphal though it may be, it exemplifies a real phenomenon. Language, as a communicative system, also functions as a communicative disease. Before you can say “Jack Robinson” (does anyone say that anymore?), everyone is saying “impactful” or “yeah no” or “bad optics.”

Sources for these memes range from sitcoms to stand-up comedy to sports talk to management-speak to psycho-babble to political punditry. A smaller influence, but still significant, is written language. Though much of written language is more formal and complex than oral language, the vocabulary and language patterns we encounter in reading still potentially prime our word choices and phrasings in speech.

So what happens when reading habits change? What happens when your average person spends less and less time immersed in sophisticated, literary prose, thereby soaking in an ever narrower range of vocabulary and syntax? What happens when people spend less time reading carefully edited texts, where there are fewer mistakes in grammar and word choice than what is inevitable in spontaneous speech? Might this have an aggregate effect on oral language—on what all of us are collectively hearing and uttering and immersed in as listeners and speakers? Might the result be an impoverishing of vocabulary, a simplification of syntax, and a proliferation of linguistic errors in our everyday conversations–even among those of us who still spend significant time engaging with sophisticated texts?

It’s true that errors and simplifications have been around forever, but I wonder if they’re more common now than back when sophisticated, carefully edited texts reached more people. I wonder this when I see preposition disagreement and dangling modifiers and mangled phrases like “he beat me by a long shot” and “attribute hearing loss to language delays” everywhere.

I wonder this when I hear simpler words and word combinations replacing more complex ones: “reveal” for “revelation”; “fail” for “failure”; “push back” for “resistance,” “look-see” for “inspection,” and “nice to haves” for “desiderata.”

I wonder this when I hear “comparable” increasingly pronounced with the accent on the second syllable—compArable—making it more like the simpler verb form from which it derives, and evoking the way a beginning reader might read the word, especially if he has never heard it pronounced in what was once its standard pronunciation.

Again, errors and simplifications have been around forever, and these recent simplifications may simply be an innocuous continuation of a long-lived trend. After all, we’ve long had “move” for “movement,” “win” for “victory,” “find” for “discovery,” “dig” for “excavation,” and “talk” for “conversation.” But I’m wondering if what we’re hearing now is part of a bigger, more troubling trend: one that reflects the diminishing corrective influence on all of us of the kind of colorfully worded, precisely phrased, and carefully edited language that appears only in certain types of writing—and that depends for its survival on a critical mass of certain types of readers.

Accessibility vs. remediation: the unintended consequences of font tag deprecation

Nature abhors a vacuum—particularly when it comes to to-do lists and worries. No sooner did I complete the big SentenceWeaver upgrade and deal with (at least for now) the various bugs that have sprung up during beta testing than I found myself worrying about a whole new issue: one that potentially undermines the entire program. This issue stems from a certain shadowy, world-wide organization that has the power to cause widespread disruption to websites.

No, it’s not Korean hackers. As far as hacking goes, I’m not particularly worried. My content is copyrighted; my code is encrypted; whole directories are blocked off from all IP addresses except mine. Then there are my web host’s gatekeeping algorithms, which are so risk-averse that they recently started blocking the IP address of my main beta-tester. A few of the thousands of words he’s typed in, as it turns out, appear on my host’s list of key words that could theoretically be used in attacking the website.

(This list includes “from” and “where”: words that appear regularly in the sentences that users input as part of their grammar training. The offending sentence, the one that got my user backlisted, was “The boy and the girl will wash the car three days from now.” Once I became aware of the issue, the solution was a simple string substitution before and after the php calls to the database.)

No, the shadowy world-wide organization to which I refer is the World Wide Web Consortium, aka the W3C. This is an organization of organizations, founded at the MIT lab for Computer Science “with support from” the European Commission and DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). Its member organizations, which must be “reviewed and approved” by the W3C, range from businesses to universities to “governmental entities.”

The W3C’s mission, according to Wikipedia, is:

to foster compatibility and agreement among industry members in the adoption of new standards defined by the W3C. Incompatible versions of HTML are offered by different vendors, causing inconsistency in how web pages are displayed. The consortium tries to get all those vendors to implement a set of core principles and components which are chosen by the consortium.

In service of this goal, the W3C has adopted new standards for HTML5, the latest version of HTML that all browsers are eventually expected to use (think psychiatrists and the DSM V). One of these new standards involves “deprecating,” or no longer supporting, any HTML code that the W3C views as purely “presentational” in nature (think Asperger’s Syndrome).

One of these deprecated elements of HTML code is the lowly font tag—the tag used to specify aspects of font text like font type and color. In the words of the W3C’s website:

The element is a non-standard element.

HTML5 classifies it as a non-conforming feature.

HTML5-compliant websites are instead supposed to be handling color via Style Sheets.

If your website’s presentational elements are static, that’s fine. Indeed, in most websites, things like font type, font weight, and font color don’t change when you interact with the site. But one of the things that makes SentenceWeaver special—and is, in fact, an essential part of its Feedback Algorithm—is dynamically generated font color, as we see in this video below.

The prospect of my entire program, within the next few years, losing an essential part of its functionality, first kept me up at night—and then propelled me towards a workaround. Implementing it took me about a day and a half, and though the changes in code, in the end, probably summed to just a few extra lines, it was a kludgy pain in the neck.

One of the problems with shadowy, unrepresentative organizations inflicting rigid standards on the rest of us is their tendency to forget about unintended consequences. What we see here with the W3C, in particular, is a failure to imagine all the creative ways in which web tools can be used. Deprecate something, however lowly and insignificant it may seem to you, and suddenly algorithms you never thought to think about stop working, perhaps requiring many hours and kludges to rewrite.

The best defense of the W3C’s rigidity has to do with accessibility for people with special needs. The more rigid the standards for webpages, the easier it is to plug in accessibility tools like screen readers. But in my world, this is yet another example of accessibility at all costs—of ignoring the tradeoff between accessibility and remediation.

In my writings on disability in the classroom, I’ve worried that the emphasis on accessibility—along with the proliferation of assistive technology—has diminished the urgency of actual instruction. If students can communicate all urgent messages via picture buttons on tablets, why invest so many hours in teaching them to communicate with words?

The W3C standards put a different spin on this tradeoff: in prioritizing accessibility over website dynamics, they’ve undermined at least one program that caters to special populations as much in terms as instructional needs as in terms of accessibility.

Not as much rules about grammar now

A couple of excerpts from an essay J recently submitted for English 101:

At that time, people didn’t think that smoking was as bad, and therefore a lot of people have smoked and there weren’t as much rules about smoking in the building or restaurants or bar, and even hospitals.

Speaking of people drinking alcohol, there was some prohibition from 1920 to 1933, but it seemed like picture was taken after the prohibition ended, but before the prohibition ended, there were some organized crimes, like going to a secret bar and drink alcohol.

The professor loved it, particularly appreciating its “informal tone.” I loved it: J wrote it all by himself, without any help or edits from us. J’s grandparents loved it, too. None of us can stop marveling at how far he’s come, from barely putting two-three words together at age 6, to, after years of computerized grammar training, writing college-level English essays.

Right—college-level English essays. And there’s the rub.

“I trust the teacher will give him some feedback on grammar and punctuation,” my mother wondered.

Well, no.

In fact, at this point in my experience with the education world, I would have been surprised if there had been any such feedback. In the ed world, after all, it’s all about false choices and fake freedoms: open-ended communication as opposed to the confines of grammar; encouraging students to express themselves as opposed to stifling their creativity. No matter that, once in the real world, well-formed sentences suddenly matter: whether you’re writing a cover letter, a memo, or even a routine, job-related email message. Outside of English class, clumsy, error-filled sentences not only make you look careless and stupid, but also close off opportunities.

In fairness to the professor, I should note that (1) many of J’s sentences contained no errors; (2) the course is an online Blackboard course. (Normally online classes aren’t open to full-time undergrads: permission to take English online is the one accommodation that the disability office has made regarding J’s difficulty working in groups in English class—group work, naturally, having long been the norm in the brick-and-mortar versions of English 101).

This online English, as a Blackboard class, lacks functionality for marking up papers. Blackboard makes it convenient to submit papers, grades, and general comments, but (at least in the versions I’ve used) not to insert comments within student work. The best you can do is cut and paste entire passages into the “comments” window and then make edits (or cut and paste somewhere else, make edits, and then re-paste into comments). This procedure (though I’ve often resorted to it) is unwieldy. And it’s unwieldy not just for the person making the edits, but also for the student—who may or may not bother to do all the scrolling up and down that it takes to process all that’s been cut, pasted, and edited.

It wouldn’t be that hard for Blackboard developers to make inline edits as convenient as everything else is. But for this to happen, a lot more people would have to care.

Blogging out some thoughts around preposition agreement

Just as subjects and verbs can agree (“he walks”) or disagree (“he walk”), so, too, with verbs and prepositions. For example, we “bring up” a topic; we don’t “bring of” a topic; we “speak of” someone”; not “up” someone. Arbitrary though preposition agreement is, it matters. As with verb agreement, errors be hard on the ears.

How hard depends on what your ears have gotten used to. For decades now, “different than” has been edging out “different from”, and “based off of,” “based on.” Then there’s the gradual displacement of “about” by “around”—as in “issues around.”

The latter, I believe, is part of a larger, older trend that begin with the spatial meanings of certain prepositions. People used to look about the room; now they only look around the room. They also used to see things before them: now they only see things in front of them. For decades, the meanings of “about” and “before” have been shifting away from the concrete and spatial, narrowing towards the more abstract and temporal.

But now even the abstract meaning of “about” is in jeopardy, what with issues around identity and discussions around immigration. Meanwhile, “around” is broadening into some sort of all-purpose preposition, with people doing work around special education and the like.

Other recent examples of preposition displacement—or is it examples around preposition displacement?–include jargon: ”follow-on” for “follow-up” (“follow-on questions”), and the superfluous “out” of “share out” and “tweet out.” When I hear these, I also hear the faint echoes of consultants and commentators coining new phrases for old concepts.

Beyond the trendy, there the sloppy—the stuff that abounds, for example, in student papers:

  • There are different elements to the question.
  • She was the subject to an investigation.
  • He felt shame towards what he did.
  • It was made in bronze.

These seem like the byproducts of mental interference from (or is it mental interference around?) similar phrases in which the verbs and prepositions do agree:

  • There are different sides to the story.
  • She was subjected to an investigation.
  • He had feelings towards someone.
  • It was cast in bronze.

Then there’s plain old weird:

  • Another key criterion that distinguishes Asperger’s Syndrome to autism is…

Or the weirdly inverted:

  • She attributes the child’s multiple supports to his academic success.

I’m guessing that many of these errors would be evident to their authors, and readily corrected by them, if only they would carefully re-read and revise. But might today’s preposition disagreement also reflect a more general decline in attention to the details of sentences—not just in writing, but in reading?

More examples of modifier-heavy, subject-light sentences

I forgot that the most egregious ones in my collection were hiding in my iPhone notes!

  1. During this field experience, it was the first time I saw an autistic support classroom in action.
  2. In Ms. X’s classroom, she teaches math and reading.
  3. When observing the speech therapist and teacher, they would show just how dedicated they are to their jobs.

Sentence 3 illustrates another hazard of not revising such sentences (a hazard far worse than loose structure and wordiness): some of these  modifiers, however innocently they start out, can end up as danglers.

Commitment is tough—especially when it comes to grammar

I’ve been distracted away from blog posting by a number of things: most recently, a heap of student papers. But these papers, as it turns out, aren’t just time-consuming items to read and grade; they’re also rich material for a blog about writing instruction. With great regularity, they illuminate blog-worthy patterns in the prose writing styles of the latest crop of college graduates (my students are typically master’s students). One of these patterns appears in the three sentences below, which I’ve altered slightly for anonymity:

  1. In Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures, it discusses how autistic people can be very visual in their thought processes.
  2. From talking with the student’s mother, it seems as though she is very satisfied with the accommodations he receives at school.
  3. For those individuals that are included with their regular education peers, they struggle more with accessing classroom reading materials because they are reading below grade level.

What do all these sentences have in common? I’m not sure how obvious the pattern is: I’ve perhaps become, over the years, as hyper-sensitive to it as I am hyper-irritated by it. But what we see here, generally, is a looseness of syntactic structure. More particularly, all three sentences have topical material that really belongs in subject position, right before the verb, but is “factored out” into an introductory modifier. Ditch the modifier and move the content into subject position, and you get:

  1. Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures discusses how autistic people can be very visual in their thought processes.
  2. My talk with the student’s mother gave me the impression that she is very satisfied with the accommodations he receives at school.
  3. Those individuals that are included with their regular education peers struggle more with accessing classroom reading materials because they are reading below grade level.

The sentence structure is tighter, and there are fewer content-poor words like “it” and “for.” The original sentences, in other words, have undergone the kind of pruning and tightening that should be one of the priorities of revision. And I’m guessing is that part of what’s going on here is that fewer and fewer students are bothering to revise their sentences.

First drafts of sentences are naturally loose and wordy. When we start formulating a sentence, we’re often unsure of where it’s going—which is why spontaneously spoken sentences often look garbled in written transcripts. If you’re not sure where you’re going, it’s safest not to commit yourself to a particular subject. Prematurely committing yourself to a particular subject may prematurely commit you to a particular predicate: a predicate that may be at odds with what you actually end up wanting to say. So why not procrastinate by placing the topical material in some sort of introductory modifier–“In such and such a book,” “When talking to so and so…,” “For those people who…..” Then, when you get to the main clause, you can use some sort of pronoun or placeholder (like “it” or “there”) as the subject as you start thinking your way through the rest of the sentence.

That, at least, is my explanation for these loose, modifier-heavy, subject-light sentences that predominate in the absence of revisions. As for the other phenomenon–why are students no longer revising their sentences?–this brings us back to one of the reasons why Catherine and I are writing this blog in the first place: the demise of sentence-level instruction.