Thursday, June 28, 2012

Sneaking the Hobo Queen Into School

My recent piece "Hobo Queen of the Sciences" actually drew what, for me, is a deluge of email—fourteen of them. Five were various flavors of attaboy which I have put in the ego reserve for bad days; four were "Kids these days, they just can't think, and they're on my lawn," with the interesting note that two seemed to be from conservatives and two from liberals; three were from teachers who spotted a little bit about rhetorical/enthymemic listening, which does produce large improvements in listening comprehension and retention in formal, academic sorts of settings (in classroom lectures, of course, but also in situations like listening to campaign speeches, business presentations, law courts, classroom discussions, and so on).* They wanted me to say more about how that works and what I would do to teach it.

Well, I can't teach you how to teach rhetorical listening in one blog post, or in ten. I might someday do an ebook about it, or something of that sort, but at the moment I'm not sure how I'd approach teaching it at various grade levels, let alone lay out a curriculum in it; I'm not even sure how much applicable educational research has been done on it (if it's like most subjects, there are ages below which most kids can't get vital aspects of it. On the other hand, often kids can get much more than we give them credit for.**)
Also, my gut feeling is that it should probably be part of a larger curriculum in "informal logic and what to do with it" that would also embrace skills like close reading, outlining for writing, and much of what should be in critical thinking curricula.*** But with those provisos, here's what it's about and how I think I might tackle the task if I wake up and find myself Chief Pooh Bah**** of Education.

First of all, how and why it works:
The common reasons (that are within their personal control) why people don't understand or remember much of what they hear in a public, one-to-many situation are:
1. They only sort of want to (in exactly the same way they only sort of want to know the stuff in the textbook); they're not trying very hard.
2. If they do want to try harder, they don't know how to try harder. Watch academically challenged kids "study" and you'll see what I mean. They furrow their brows. They tense their muscles. They look real serious. They read sentences aloud very, very loudly. But they don't actually do anything that moves things off the page and into memory, or reshape their understanding of anything with any idea they encounter. Many people trying to listen better do the equivalent: they sit forward, squint, berate themselves to pay attention, lock their gaze on the speaker ... and don't listen because they're not sure how to do it.
3. They're too smart (we all are). Everyone thinks 3-6 times faster than a public speaker talks. So 60%-90% of the time, we're killing time waiting for that person at the podium to continue, and while waiting, we think of something else to entertain ourselves. Naturally what people think of is inevitably more entertaining than the subject of the speech, so that by the time they need to listen again, they're already thinking about/invested in something more interesting, such as when lunch is, whether their parents had any idea how rude that was, or who has the nicest hair in the front row.
4. They don't connect it to anything. An often neglected consistent result in reading research is that a poor decoder, reading about something in which s/he is passionately interested, learns and retains more than a fluent decoder reading about something of no personal interest. The same applies even more so to listening. The best preachers have always tied the lesson to the parishioners' lives every few seconds;special ed teachers are forever being astonished by how much a student comprehends about football or music (if that is where the passion is); connection is everything.
5. Their model of knowledge is a "fact pile" model; they think smart people are people who know large numbers of facts, rather than the connections between them.***** So they listen to heap up facts, and the heap overflows storage pretty quickly, especially with no connections between things, and furthermore since much of what there is to know is the connections, they miss much of what there is to know.

The commercial and noncommercial, widely-distributed learning systems almost always work for a while, because they really do match up to the listening problems:
1. If the student goes to the bother of taking the class, then either the student or the student's parent wants them to listen better; motivation is guaranteed because it is self-selected.
2. Just having something to try, effective or not, means the student feels less discouraged and less like it's impossible.
3. Having a system to work means that the student is working the system instead of wondering when lunch is; it keeps them closer to what's being said.
4. Nearly all systems, beginning with the ancient Greek "Palace of Memory", systematically create associations. Any association is better than none, and it immediately improves memory.
5. And while the associations may be goofy (and therefore, sometimes memorable) and are generally not the ones the speaker was aiming for, they do enable the student to keep more facts and more statements of the basic idea on the fact pile at the same time, so the student can feel him/herself retaining more facts, and feels better.

However, most of the standardized commercial (and student-learning-center promoted) systems wear off fairly fast, for predictable reasons that are also tied to those five problems:
1. If a student learning by listening does not become a positive experience in its own right, the student will stop as soon as parent, teacher, or self-pressure is withdrawn. It's like reading or exercising because it's good for you; the kids who experience intensive listening as all broccoli and no pizza will slack off as soon as authority, even their own personal and internal authority, turns its back.
2&3. As soon as the system becomes fully automatic, it's like freeway driving or working a counter: people can do it with a third or a tenth of their attention, and they do, thus losing much of the benefit.
4&5. If the associations are at variance with the meaning, the student learns things wrong, or has to memorize a separate set of corrections. Furthermore, as the set of associations becomes more familiar, it loses its power of surprise/goofiness, and becomes less distinctive; the first time you remember the presidents by picturing them in your favorite bawdy house ("Washington upstairs doing the books with the madam ... Teddy Roosevelt playing the piano ... Woodrow Wilson coming downstairs in his red heart boxers ...") it may stick with you forever, but by the twentieth time you use that, to learn, say, the elements in atomic number order, it may not have the sticking power ("Molybdenum tied to the bed and waiting for Rhoda ... no, wait, maybe that's rhodium is tying Molly to the bed ...")

Rhetorical or enthymemic listening is more effective than most or maybe all of the commercial systems, but it's harder, because the thing you're learning to associate to actually is part of the speaker's meaning and the information being communicated to you, so you need less unlearning, have more accurate learning in the first place, and just generally get more of the message. It doesn't get old (a person who has really learned to read fiction, poetry, or reportage well has more pleasurable entertainment available than s/he can consume in a lifetime; a music fan with deep and precise musical knowledge never runs out of good speeches; it is the same with listening to the spoken word).

This is all great and a major advantage, but the heart of what makes rhetorical listening better is something very hard: you have to become not just acquainted with, but so deeply familiar with informal logic, that it's in your bones, so that you invoke it and use it as automatically as you compute Bug for 7x5=Bug or mentally correct typhogrephical errrers. It's that stuff athletes drill about, so that if you're a shortstop you're moving the right way, based on the batter's stance and swing, before you know you're moving, and the reason why a guitarist's fingers know which fret is E on every string in a given tuning, and can find it before s/he can think "E," and a fact that some crossword-loving friends tease me about, that because I have been a touch typist since age 12, when they ask me to spell something, I rest my hands on the table and say aloud what my fingers are keying.

Having enthymemics down cold and automatic is not as bad as it sounds. There are only at most about 25 enthymemes (depending on how you count and divide them) and each of enthymeme is made up of no more than about five elements; there are fewer total elements than there are characters in either the katakana or hiragana syllablaries, or in multiplication tables up through twelves, and way fewer than most languages have irregular verbs and nouns. But at least some drill and practice is necessary; it needs to be automatic rather than baffling that
an analogy consists of a known and a partially known,
the part of the known corresponding to the known part of the partially known is meaningfully like it, and
it is therefore argued that the unknown part of the partially known can be predicted from the remainder of the known.
And at first, like that business about square roots and alright triangles and hippopotamuses, or the difference between a cross-threaded gerund and a leaping participle, it's all confusing terminology that doesn't seem to relate to anything. (Better terminology will help but won't eliminate the problem).

My guess is that pushing enthymemics all the way into the mind so that the subject is automatic is every bit as much fun as teaching long division, subjects and predicates, and so forth, and teachers and kids will love it just as much. But the potential rewards are very large, and since I'm not aware of any large-scale attempts to make learning the subject fun, I may be quite wrong. Maybe some inspired teacher out there will invent the book that does for enthymemics what The Cat in the Hat, Go Dog Go!, and Captain Underpants do for reading.

Once the student has the enthymemes down cold, the student simply incorporates them in some version of the famous Cornell-System listening (Review-Relate-Anticipate) by taking each point as s/he hears it and breaking it into:
•What's the point being argued?
•What facts (if any) support it, and are they true?
•What enthymeme connects the facts to the point?
•Are all the parts of the enthymeme present, or reasonably implied, and are they valid?"

It's not really any harder than evaluating a pop song, quarterback, used car, or entree that you haven't encountered before; and if you're proficient, you do it as automatically as a gardener looks and sees peonies or gladioli rather than "flowers," a birdwatcher knows a barn owl from a great horned, or a serious fashionista knows whether that will work with her skin and existing wardrobe. And you may note that after a walk through a garden, a birding trip, or a shopping expedition, any of those people can remember dozens or hundreds of things they saw.

Because the enthymemics of the spoken word is different every time (it's the difference between a choreographed stage fight and a real one, a choreographed First Dance at a wedding and being actually able to dance, or having memorized Goodnight, Moon and being able to read) it doesn't go stale; because it's demanding intrinsically (like rally driving as opposed to keeping the car in an interstate lane), it doesn't become too easily automatic; and because it is built on the structures of meaning, it draws attention to and focuses the effort of memory on the speaker's points and ideas rather than on stray facts. The one thing it can't fix, directly, is whether the listener wants to listen (though even there, people generally like to do things they have become proficient at, and if there are real rewards for comprehension, there will probably be enough motivation for the job).

Now, how would I get that into students? Some things I think are obvious, and then some things I'd do because of them:
1) Kids younger than about age nine or ten don't seem to have most of the modules for logic (with exceptions, but we're designing a one-size-fits-most curriculum here); at about that age they become interested in things like meta-jokes and frame-breaking, and able to handle math ideas like sets and functions. So we start in 4th grade. (Other systems may translate as needed...)
2) About 8th or 9th grade students in academic programs begin to have lecture-heavy classes, and without getting into it here, a good lecturer addressing good listeners is still more effective than most "innovative" teaching methods. (It's just that good lecturers are if anything scarcer than good listeners, and we don't do much to develop either).
3) So we want to start them in 4th and have the complete set of academic listening skills in place by the end of 7th grade, with 8th grade probably a review-and-refresh year to make sure it sticks.
4) With about a 20 enthymeme-system, I'd sort the enthymemes into logical groups with some considerations about complexity, and teach my way up the ladder, a few per year, aiming to have the easy ones taught twice and the hard ones taught at least three times. So to have all of them in place by the end of seventh grade, I'd have to introduce the easy ones in fourth grade, review easies and add hards in fifth, expand and elaborate hards in sixth, and review hards in seventh. That would mean covering about an enthymeme every three weeks in fourth and fifth grade, and probably every two in sixth and seventh.
5) At the same time I taught each enthymeme, I'd teach how to spot it in listening, reading, and visual communication, and have students use it in their own writing, classroom presentations, and art.
6) Right from the beginning I'd start teaching that enthymemes chain together to make arguments, arguments chain to make cases, and cases chain to make up things like philosophies, disciplines, areas, etc. This would probably get me into brawls with parent groups because, for example, it would clearly explain why evolution is central to biology, why military and economic history are ultimately more determinant than cultural and literary history (or what Marx called the superstructure, in the good old days), and why quantum mechanics doesn't mean that wishing will make it so and you can attract checks and fly if you really want to.******
7)In 4th and 5th grade this would focus on arguments and cases in student compositions and in understanding them down at the micro level; by 6th grade they should begin to apply enthymemics to learning one or more specific academic subjects, and by 7th grade should begin revisiting some of the subjects they had previously learned as small children to incorporate and expand the enthymemics.
8) In 8th grade, I'd offer two one-semester classes: one that was a general review of enthymemics with many, many small applied problems (the get-it-ineradicably-into-their-bones course) and another that demonstrates the foundations of informal logic in formal logic (syllogisms and all that) as a way of expanding and deepening understanding.
9) Now, who would teach all that? What I found at the college level was that most bright adults could get enthymemics on some level in one semester course, and become proficient in about another one or two. Learning to apply enthymemics was highly variable, with most students seeing and using applications immediately but some students really fighting to see what all this was about (rather like story problems or like one college roommate of mine who couldn't see why in physics class we were analyzing circuits that "didn't do anything.") Once the teacher candidates have got it themselves and are proficiently using it to learn their academic material (incidentally that will make their lives easier, and may help to sell them on the whole thing), then probably a one-semester course in "teaching enthymemics" with an emphasis on "don't teach rules, teach what it is."

Could it be done? Yes, surely. Will it? Not soon. Should it? Well, yeah, I think so. Don't forget to write me in for Chief Pooh-Bah at the next election.

*One letter was from a teacher who apparently read the whole piece as being about "empathetic" rather than "enthymemic" reasoning, and just wanted to let me know that empathic listening is so important because it helps us understand each other. I shall keep that in my good day bring-down file, for whenever I find myself too cheerful, and try to remember to give the Lions Club a few extra bucks this year.

** A classic example of this which I shall write about sometime, somewhere, is the New Math of the mid-1960s. People who write about education like to shriek, in tones of mild hysteria, that they were teaching set and number theory (previously grad school topics) to third graders, instead of making them memorize how many inches are in a furlong like Grandpa did. Inevitably the people who hold up New Math as the model of educator cluelessness miss two key points: a) kids that age take naturally to set and number theory, and many students in remediation who struggle with basic arithmetic improve drastically once they have the theory behind it, which is not intuitive for everyone; conversely many bad teachers of grade-school math are bad exactly because they don't really know how or why it works, they've just memorized recipes (like the sort of cook who isn't sure whether you can substitute Jif for Skippy in a peanut butter cookie recipe). The New Math was barking up the right tree, but to make it work, they needed to retrain the teachers, thoroughly (and perhaps get rid of the few who genuinely couldn't get it, as opposed to just being thrown in over their heads). Which brings me to the second ignored point: b) In several nations where there was a national standard curriculum, teachers were simply paid extra to retrain during vacation time, so that the teacher knew what s/he was trying to teach, and in those nations, New Math was adopted with very little stress, and its descendants are still in use, and several of those are the nations whose students consistently beat the pants off American kids in international math comparisons.

*** I've seen some excellent critical thinking textbooks and programs, and also some that seem to confuse critical thinking with "copping an attitude about things your teacher doesn't like." It's not a problem that students can't tell the difference, at least at the beginning of the term; they're there to learn it. Not a problem, either, if parents can't; they'll just have to have kids who know more than they do, and isn't that what progress is? But if the teacher or the textbook author or publisher can't, that's ominous. The most effective place to entrench against the forces of ignorance is at the generational line.

**** If they appointed me Secretary, Minister, Czar, or High Commissioner of Education, I would immediately, as my first act in office, change my title to Chief Pooh-Bah. I know my moral character and I need to stay away from temptations to take myself too seriously. Also, all my press conferences would end with an intern striking a gong and shouting, "The Pooh Bah Has Spoken! Tremble, grovel, and comply!"

***** This is perfectly normal in younger children; when Stepson #2 was ten, he thought he was the smartest person in the family because he knew the most names of dinosaurs. Jeff Foxworthy's "Are you as Smart as a Fifth Grader?" hilariously relies on this; you could reverse the results (but it wouldn't be as funny) just by testing life skills instead of general knowledge. I returned to this topic about a year after, in my "Smart People Who Make Themselves Dumb" essay.

****** Good thing I'm Chief Pooh Bah; a few parental heads up on pikes beside the hug-and-go lane should suffice to quell the disturbances, and from then on, if public meetings become disorderly, I shall simply have the lackeys release the hounds.