About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Study of Writer’s Block, Part One

We’ve been focusing on education policy – understandable, given the times – but I’d like to shift gears over the next few weeks and return our attention to teaching and learning, particularly to a study of writing that has applications for both the classroom and the tutoring center.

First, though, I’d like to briefly comment on the strong response I got to my last entry questioning the content and rhetoric of “21st Century Skills” initiatives. Thanks to Andy, Roderick, some/one, ArtSparker, Joe, and Candace for your thoughtful responses. A shout-out to Andy who was one of the teachers I profiled in Possible Lives, a smart and decent guy, as you can see. And a reply to Candace. You ask “who or what are you pushing against exactly?” I suppose I’m pushing against the lure of the magic cure, which always comes packaged in the rhetoric of the “new”. (I say more about this in previous blogs.) And I’m concerned about the increased influence of technocratic approaches and corporate-speak on educational policy and practice.


Now to the study of writer’s block. I’ll break it up into two parts: the present entry and a second to follow in a week or so. The study itself is one I did a long time ago, but it has just been reissued with a new preface (Writer’s Block: The Cognitive Dimension, Southern Illinois University Press, 1984/2009). In my experience teaching writing, I still find it pertinent and useful. What follows is a summary of the study, also written a long time back, though I revise it a bit for this blog.


The students in the study are college undergraduates, but I think that the principles underlying their behavior hold true – in different manifestation – across a range of populations, your humble blogger included.

Here's Liz, a junior English major, at work on a paper for a college course. She has been given a two page case study and must analyze it using the ideas contained in a second, brief handout. She has about one hour to complete her assignment. As she reads and rereads the handouts, she scribbles notes to herself in the margins. Liz is doing what most effective writers would do with such materials: paraphrasing the main points in the passages, making connections among them, recording associations to other pertinent knowledge. But a closer look at all these interpretative notes reveals something unusual: Liz seems to be editing them as she goes along, cleaning them up as though they were final copy. In one of her notes she jots down the phrase “is saying that not having creative work is the....” She stops, thinks for a moment, and changes "is the" to "causes” (Later on, explaining this change, she'll comment that "you're not supposed to have passive verbs.") She then replaces "is saying" with "says," apparently following her directive about passive voice, but later changes it again, noting that “says” is "too colloquial." Liz pauses after this editing and looks up – she has forgotten what she initially was trying to capture in her writing. "That happens a lot," she says.

Liz was one of the many college students I studied over a two-and-one-half-year period The purpose of my study was to try to gain insight into what causes some young writers to compose with relative fluency and what leads others to experience more than their fair share of blocks, dead-ends, conflicts, and the frustrations of the blank page. What I uncovered was a whole array of problems that I would label as being primarily cognitive rather than primarily emotional in nature. That is, many students were engaging in self-defeating composing behaviors not because they had some deep-seated fear of revealing their thoughts or of being evaluated or because of some long-standing aversion to writing, but rather because they had somehow learned a number of rules, planning strategies, or assumptions about writing that limited rather than enhanced their composing. We saw Liz lose her train of thought by adhering too rigidly to stylistic rules when she should have been scribbling ideas freely in order to discover material for her essay. Let me offer two further vignettes that illustrate some of the other cognitive difficulties I uncovered.

Tyrrell, also a junior English major, says he doesn't like to sketch out any sort of plan or draft of what he's going to write. He’ll think about his topic, but his fingers won’t usually touch the pen or keyboard until he begins writing the one, and only, draft he’ll produce. As he writes, he pauses frequently and at length to make all sorts of decisions about words, ideas, and rhetorical effects. In short, he plans his work as he goes along. There's nothing inherently wrong with writing this way, but where difficult assignments involving complex materials are concerned, it helps to sketch out a few ideas, some direction, a loose organizational structure before beginning to write. When a co-worker and I studied Tyrrell's composing, we noted the stylistic flourishes in his essay, but also its lack of direction. As my colleague noted, “[His] essay bogs down in description and in unexplained abstractions." Perhaps the essay would have had more direction if Tyrrell had roughed out a few ideas before composing his one and only draft. Why didn't he do so? Consider his comment on planning:

[Planning] is certainly not spontaneous and a lot of times it’s not even really what you feel because it becomes very mechanical. It’s almost like – at least I feel – it’s diabolical, you know, because…it’ll sacrifice truth and real feelings that you have.

Tyrrell assumes that sketching out a plan before writing somehow violates the spontaneity of composing: to plan dooms one to write mechanical, unemotional prose. Yet, while too much planning may sometimes make the actual writing a joyless task, ii is also true that most good writing is achieved through some kind of prefiguring, most often involving pen and paper or keyboard and screen. Such planning does not necessarily subvert spontaneity; in fact, since it reduces the load on the writer's immediate memory, it might actually free one to be more spontaneous, to follow the lead of new ideas as they emerge. Tyrrell’s assumption, then, is inaccurate. By recognizing only this one path to spontaneity, he is probably limiting his effectiveness as a writer and, ironically, may be reducing his opportunities to be spontaneous.

Gary is an honors senior in biochemistry. When I observed him, he spent half of his writing time meticulously analyzing each sentence of the assignment’s reading passages on one of the handouts. He understood the passage and the assignment well enough but wanted to make sure the passage was sufficiently broken down to be of use when he composed his essay. As Gary conducted this minute analysis, he wrote dozens and dozens of words and phrases across the handouts. He then summarized these words and phrases in a list of six items. He then tried to condense all six items into a thesis sentence:

I have concepts…and my task here is to say what is being said about all of those all at once.

Gary's method was, in this case, self-defeating. He worked in too precise a fashion, generating an unwieldy amount of preliminary material, which he didn't seem able to rank or thin out – and he was unable to focus his thinking in a single thesis sentence. Gary’s interpretive and thinking strategies were inappropriately elaborate, and they were inflexible. It was not surprising that when Gary's hour was up he had managed to write only three connected sentences. Not really an essay at all.


This is the first cliffhanger in my blog’s history. Tune in next time to meet some of the fluent writers in the study.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

21st Century Skills: Education’s New Cliché

I would like to open 2010 with a commentary on "21st Century Skills" that I published in Truthdig on December 8. For most of you unfamiliar with Truthdig, I recommend checking it out. It's a lively online forum on politics and culture.


Also, by coincidence, right around the same time my Truthdig piece was published, Education Week ran a story on possible connections between the 21st Century skills movement and technology companies seeking profit through 21st Century Skills reforms:


A quick separate piece of news. During the week of January 7 to 13, I'll be interviewed by Krista Tippett on her American Public Media show, "Speaking of Faith." It airs on a lot of public radio outlets and is also available online.

OK, now to the commentary on 21st Century Skills.


In all the current talk about school reform, there is one phrase that you will hear in every proposal, whether it comes from the president or the local school board. That phrase is 21st century skills. Provide students with 21st century skills for a 21st century economy. The label is a powerful one, heralding a new era, high-tech and prosperous.

But like so much in education reform, an idea that has some merit can quickly get reduced to a cliché. In one document I read, the phrase 21st century skills was repeated 25 times in less than two pages. And once you make your way through the cant, the 21st-century-skills approach has some troubling implications for education.

What are these skills? There are a number of definitions and lists, some running up to nine pages. Here’s a summary drawn from the Southern Regional Education Board. Twenty-first century skills include the ability to use a range of electronic technologies to access, synthesize and apply information. The ability to think critically and creatively and evaluate the products of one’s thinking. The ability to communicate effectively and collaborate with others, particularly in diverse and multicultural settings.

The range of skills is admirable, as is the intention that they apply to all students—an equity imperative. But what’s new about them? They sound like the skills one would have gotten from a good 20th century education—or from a lot further back than that.

You’ll find discussion of evaluating evidence or communicating effectively in Aristotle. The exception would be the emphasis on electronic media, but even here the underlying competencies—evaluating sources, synthesizing information—are good old-fashioned ones.

Why begrudge the 21st-century-skills advocates their use of the politically effective mantle of newness?

The characterization of these skills as new implies that they haven’t been taught before. And this characterization plays into the inaccurate claim—popular in some conservative reform circles—that America’s schools have failed on a grand scale. This dangerous claim keeps us from drawing on what we already do well, and creates a false separation between one educational era and another. The rhetoric of the new plays into our easy dichotomizing of “old is bad / new is good” and our fetish for the next big thing—the examination of which ought to be a 21st century skill.

Of broader concern is the philosophy of education embodied in this reform.

As extensive as some of the lists of 21st century skills are, there are topics you won’t find: aesthetics, intellectual play, imagination, the pleasure of a subject, wonder. The focus of the lists—even when creativity is mentioned—is overwhelmingly on utility and workplace productivity.

The irony is that a rich engagement with the subjects that are central to this skills-based reform—mathematics, science, electronic technology—involves for many young enthusiasts (not to mention experts) these same imaginative and aesthetic qualities. But the utilitarian concentration of the lists on production precludes these less tangible, but intellectually important, aspects of a good education.

The 21st-century-skills philosophy of education is an economic one. The primary goal is to create efficient and effective workers. Twenty-first century skills for the 21st century organization man and woman.

The economic motive has always figured in the spread of mass education in the United States, but recently it has predominated, edging out all the other reasons we send kids to school: civic, social, ethical, developmental. Even those 21st century skills that do deal with the civic, such as cross-cultural understanding, are expressed in terms of workplace effectiveness.

Take, for example, these items drawn from the advocacy group Partnership for 21st Century Skills:

  • Understand, negotiate and balance diverse views and beliefs to reach workable solutions, particularly in multicultural environments.
  • Leverage social and cultural differences to create new ideas and increase both innovation and quality of work.

These are worthy, and we certainly could benefit from their spirit of cooperation. But the focus is very much on getting something done in the workplace. There are other important educational and civic goals related to interacting with others of different backgrounds and beliefs. For starters, there is knowledge of cultural practices—of the very notion of culture—along with the appreciation of our common humanity. There might be nothing immediately “leveraged” from such understanding, but it has great civic and personal value.

This is a promising time for education. Reform is a priority in a number of states, and the federal government is about to infuse an unprecedented amount of money into the schools. All this is happening at a time of great anxiety about the economy, so a focus on the workplace has understandable appeal. But we need to be careful to not let that anxiety narrow the purpose of education in America, regardless of what century we are in.