Or are we walking and talking in circles?

Shortly after writing about the pedagogical conundrums that arise when students don’t do the reading, I encountered this passage in Tristram Shandy–which suggests that it’s all part of one big, ever-repeating cycle:

Thus—thus, my fellow-labourers and associates in this great harvest of our learning, now ripening before our eyes; thus it is, by slow steps of casual increase, that our knowledge physical, metaphysical, physiological, polemical, nautical, mathematical, aenigmatical, technical, biographical, romantical, chemical, and obstetrical, with fifty other branches of it, (most of ’em ending as these do, in ical) have for these two last centuries and more, gradually been creeping upwards towards that Akme of their perfections, from which, if we may form a conjecture from the advances of these last seven years, we cannot possibly be far off.

When that happens, it is to be hoped, it will put an end to all kind of writings whatsoever;—the want of all kind of  writing will put an end to all kind of reading;—and that in time, As war begets poverty; poverty peace,—must, in course, put an end to all kind of knowledge,—and then—we shall have all to begin over again; or, in other words, be exactly where we started.

—Happy! Thrice happy times!

Except that in our perhaps less happy times, the chain of causality is reversed, with the end of reading portending the end of writing–and, with that, the end of all kinds of knowledge–physical, metaphysical, physiological, polemical, nautical, mathematical, enigmatical, technical, biographical, romantical, chemical, and if not, obstetrical, then many other branches of knowledge ending in ical.

Walking the walk instead of talking the talk

I’ve just finished teaching my latest crop of ed school students, and I’ve been puzzling over two trends in education. These trends aren’t exactly new, but, for some reason, it hadn’t occurred to me until now the degree to which they’re in hopeless contradiction. Think irresistible force hitting immovable object. The one: most instructors spend most of their time being guides on the side rather than sages on stages. The other: most students no longer get through most of the assigned readings.

So, unless you give up on students learning specialized knowledge—of the sort that comes from instructors or readings—how do you run a student-centered classroom that addresses the course material?

Let’s say, for example, you’re teaching a class on the cognitive idiosyncrasies of autism, and you want to draw your material from experts like Uta Frith, Nancy Minshew, and Yvonne Groen. And let’s say, hypothetically, that no one does all the reading, and that some students do no reading at all.

To the rescue come four additional edworld trends: trends that suggest ways for you to avoid being a stage sage while still appearing to cover the course material. The trends in question? Real-world “relevance,” personal connections, group work, and hands-on activities.

Option 1: shift class activities from specialized knowledge to related topics that are accessible to people whether or not they’ve done the reading. Instead of focusing on, say, what experts have concluded from experiments measuring perceptual processing or complex task performance in autism, students could share their anecdotal experiences and current opinions. They might discuss their impressions of the cognitive strengths and weaknesses of whichever individuals with autism they happen to have interacted with personally. Or they might share their opinions on whether society should be pathologizing, accommodating, and/or celebrating these cognitive differences.

Option 2: shift class activities away from whole-class discussion towards group activities. Make sure each group contains at least one student likely to have done at least some of the reading. Have each group discuss a question (based, at least loosely, on the readings) and then present their responses to the rest of the class. Recent incarnations of this increasingly popular protocol–Chalk Talk and Gallery Walk— factor in poster boards, markers, post-it notes, and students walking around the classroom-turned-poster-gallery, thus lending the process the kind of hands-on, active-learning “feel” that appeals, at least theoretically, to the millennial and post-millennial mindsets.


Option 3: drastically reduce the reading assignments and have students read during class time. (J recently had a history class like this that he had to drop because of what comes next…). Once the 10-20 minutes allotted for reading is over, have students write responses. Though this disfavors slow readers and poor comprehenders, Option 3 serves an additional purpose: making sure students aren’t plagiarizing or having parents or college writing center “tutors” write their reading responses for them.

Option 4: a variant on Option #3 in which the solitary writing activity is replaced by Option 2.

There’s one remaining option, of course—brazenly defiant though it is of the many sages on educational stages who tell the rest of us we shouldn’t be sages on stages. If students haven’t read about perceptual processing and complex task performance in individuals with autism… then perhaps they should spend most of class time listening to the instructor present this material to them.

Worldly knowledge and the new SAT

So how do we connect The Dreamy Child Syndrome I blogged about earlier to the SAT reading sections I promised to relate it to?

Let’s begin with some observations by cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham, author of The Reading Mind. Willingham proposes that there is

a correlation between world knowledge and reading comprehension. The more stuff you know about the world, the more likely it is that you’ll know at least a bit about whatever passage you happen to hit.

In support of this, Willingham describes a 1997 paper by Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich:

The researchers administered a number of different measures to 11th graders, including the comprehension subtest of the Nelson-Denny Reading test, and three measures of general cultural knowledge: a 45 item cultural literacy test.

This test showed a “remarkably high correlation between reading comprehension and the measures of cultural knowledge.”

Willingham concludes:

once kids can decode fluently, reading comprehension depends heavily on knowledge. By failing to provide a solid grounding in basic subjects we inadvertently hobble children’s ability in reading comprehension.

But there’s another reason, beyond “we” adults, why a child could lack background knowledge. The child might in fact be (1) surrounded by knowledge (content-rich books; content-rich conversations; well-informed peers, parents and teachers; newspapers, magazines, and NPR news shows) and (2) highly encouraged to absorb that knowledge (via bedtime reading; carefully chosen books and clipped out articles; family dinners; outings to museums; and, of course, limited screen time). And yet, if that child lives mostly inside his or her head, a great deal of this knowledge will go right over that head.

This is especially true of knowledge that the child hasn’t been explicitly taught and held accountable for learning: i.e., the more ambient, worldly information that tends not to make it into even the most content-rich of K12 classrooms.

So here’s where new SAT comes in. Catherine and I have talked about it quite a bit and she has really helped me clarify my thinking on what’s afoot here. The new SAT reading passages, much more than their former incarnations, strike us both as tapping into a broad repository of worldly information and issues rather than scholastic knowledge in particular; to measure, not what a child has learned in school, but how much of a tuned-in, sophisticated, extraverted sponge he or she is.

Consider, for example, what this paragraph–an opener to one of the reading comprehension passages in the College Board’s 2017 Official SAT Study Guide–means to a dreamy child who’s had no direct experience with, or exposure to, an idea-driven economy, pressures to innovate, “collective hours commuting,” and “productive regions”:

In today’s idea-driven economy, the cost of time is what really matters. With the constant pressure to innovate, it makes little sense to waste countless collective hours commuting. So, the most efficient and productive regions are those in which people are thinking and working—not sitting in traffic.

Or–w.r.t. this opening to another SAT reading passage–consider a similar cluelessness about profits, economic efficiency, corporate social responsibility, and market outcomes:

Recent debates about the economy have rediscovered the question, “is that right?”, where “right” means more than just profits or efficiency.

Some argue that because the free markets allow for personal choice, they are already ethical. Others have accepted the ethical critique and embraced corporate social responsibility. But before we can label any market outcome as “immoral,” or sneer at economists who try to put a price on being ethical, we need to be clear on what we are talking about.

Perhaps it’s reasonable to inform colleges about how tuned in to the world an applicant is. After all, many colleges are more interested in “best graduates” rather than “best students”–i.e., in people who, regardless of how well they do in the classroom, will make the biggest worldly splash (bringing publicity, and perhaps large donations, to their alma maters). But, to the extent that the college classroom still matters, perhaps it also makes sense to assess applicants in ways that tease apart general verbal comprehension and verbal analysis skills from worldly sophistication.

Dreamy Child Syndrome

It’s not that you’re unsocial: in some ways, you’re unusually socially sensitive. While you struggle to intuit what’s socially appropriate, you worry about the impression you make and about not hurting people’s feelings. You may have trouble interpreting facial expressions, but not tones of voice. You make eye contact, speak fluently, and tentatively engage one-on-one or in small groups—especially in imaginative play. The broader world out there, however, baffles you, and so you retreat. The more you retreat, the less you sponge up. As you grow older, you fall further and further behind your peers—in worldly knowledge, in vocabulary, in knowledge of social rules. Group conversations and real-world phenomena (everything from politics to pop culture) become increasingly difficult to make sense of. Things snowball.

Your refuge is a private world–of fantasy, of systematizing, of thought experiments, or, at its worst, of brooding and perseverating. Unlike the stereotypical introvert’s retreat to a library to gobble up books, your retreat is more deeply interior. You deviate from the introvert stereotype, but not from introversion in the word’s truest sense.

Except for fantasy and sci fi, age-appropriate texts become as hard to follow as the real world. When others address you directly or give you specific tasks, or you give yourself a task (painting, learning music), you tune in, but when the topics turn worldly and tap into your knowledge deficits, you start losing focus. Keeping your mind turned outwards is exhausting, and once you’re no longer immediately accountable, you relent. While teachers teach, or kids chat, or a show plays on TV, or your parents converse at the dinner table or read to you at bed time, or you yourself try concentrating on a book, you find yourself picking up only snippets and then free-associating back into your head—back to the rivalries between witches, to the phonemic categories of English, to the nature of infinity, to a replay of a plot line from Harry Potter, or to the question of why someone snubbed you at lunch.

Has any diagnostician classified this syndrome?

And why am I talking about it here, on a blog about language and writing?

I plan to spell that out more in the next few weeks, but (spoiler alert!) this post is my lead-in to a discussion about… the reading and writing sections of the new SAT.

What I’ve been thinking about for the last 6 months (besides SentenceWeaver)

Some things that have been on my mind:

  • Catherine and my many recent conversations about the new SAT reading sections
  • Related thoughts we’ve had about SAT vocabulary challenges
  • Thoughts on verbosity and hedges (“obviously”, “apparently”).
  • The Dreamy Child Syndrome, aka Multi-Factor Introversion (not autism, and not in the DSM!)
  • Beyond background knowledge: other background variables in reading comprehension
  • How the Curiosity Mindset (or lack thereof) affects comprehension
  • Clues that “kids these days” are doing less and less careful reading
  • Clues that they’re getting less and less writing instruction
  • Thoughts on “Why do you think that?”, “Yeah!”, “It’s a good question”, and “one less thing to worry about”
  • The ongoing recovery of the English language from the Norman Conquest (or is it something more sinister?)
  • J’s adventures as a college undergraduate

For now, I’ll share the following email exchange—a sign, perhaps, of things to come:

E: Katharine, happy to meet with you. I will have my new assistant help us. Amy, can you help set up a meeting with Katharine next week?

E: I forgot to cc Amy.

K: Great—Thank you, E! Next week I am quite open Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.

A: Hi Katharine. Just wanted to check in and confirm what action you’d like me to take.

If this is an entirely new meeting you’d like me to get on the calendar, just let me know “Amy, please schedule a meeting” and CC in the people you’d like to meet with.

Alternatively, if you’d like me to make any updates to an existing meeting, could you please resend this message in the original thread for that meeting?

For now, I’ll take no action on this.


E: Katharine, Thank you for your patience with my new assistant. I guess “forgot to cc Amy was not understood.”  So trying again. I will take over if it doesn’t work.

Amy can you please schedule a meeting with Katharine next week?

Thank you.

A: Hi Katharine,

Does Monday at 11:00 AM EST (Eastern Daylight Time) work?

Alternatively, E is available Monday at 2:00 PM or Tuesday at 10:00 AM.

The meeting will be a web conference.


At this point I was ready to type an exasperated “As I said…”– but something made me to look back through this bizarre exchange.

It turns out that Amy, whose last name is Ingram, has an email signature that concludes with the following details: “Artificial intelligence that schedules meetings. Learn more at x.ai”



Injunctions of yore

I may have jumped the gun re: Common Core and injunction-spotting:

David Mulroy, the author of the 2003 book “The War Against Grammar” and a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, . . . asked his students to analyze the opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, without telling them what they were reading. One mistakenly interpreted it as, “When dealing with events in life, one should drop preconceived knowings and assume that everything that happens, happens for a reason, and basically life goes on.”
Modifying the Subject by Kate Zernicke – New York Times – 11/7/2004

And see:
Reading and writing in the second person 
Common Core in the 2nd person
Injunctions of yore