I had an amazing conversation last night, with Lynne Anderson-Inman, at the speakers reception for the TRLD (Technology, Reading, & Learning Diversities) Conference. Lynne is the Director for the Center for Advanced Technology in Education, at the University of Oregon. We started the conversation, and the evening with methods for inspiring students to want to learn.
Inman told me that they were learning that questions intended to spark learning had to be simple and basic. They had to start small. What is this (holding up a strand of barbed wire)? What is the history of that house on Karl street? What is the story with old Miss Crabgrasse, on East Main Street? These types of questions, she said, tended to lead to more questions, inquiries that take on a life of their own.
The questions I was asked in school, and that I asked as a teacer, were not simple and they started in the middle. I asked them only after I had lectured or after students had read their assignment. Then I asked them questions, not to inspire curiosity and inquiry, but to assure that the assignment had been completed and knowledge was gained. These questions were asked, answered, and then they died on vines that could have lead not only to more learning, but to self-personalized engagement.
This took me back to a conversation I’d had years ago with Jim Moulton. We concluded for the wildly gyrating logic of our discussion that we should be teaching history backwards. We should start with today and work our way back via various topic threads, that might best be determined by the students.
You’d be starting with simple questions about something you can point to. Why is everyone so excited about Barack Obama’s presidency? Why are there all these windmills all over the place? Then you work your way back asking and answering more interconnected questions.
It was at this point, that Lynne gave me ample of opportunity to leave, that her next avenue of logic would probably not be of interest to me. Of course, that is no way to stay someone’s curiosity. So she went on, describing her new passion and the subject of her recent grant proposal. It’s Antique Samplers!
OK! before last night, I wouldn’t have been able to imagine what Antique Sampers were if mentioned. Here is the Wikipedia definition:
A (needlework) sampler is a piece of embroidery produced as a demonstration or test of skill in needlework. It often includes the alphabet, figures, motifs, decorative borders and sometimes the name of the person who embroidered it and the date.
Lynne said that this is how girls (and sometimes boys) were taught the alphabet. They decoratively stitched them on cloth. The practice, for all intents and purposes, ended in the 1860s. But she said that before that time, to be taught writing was not the same thing that we think of when planning writing instruction today. It wasn’t about learning to convey ideas with words. It was about lettering, calligraphy, PENMANSHIP.
For the most part, girls were not taught to write, they were taught to read, but not to write — and it was while learning to sew that they learned the letters. When we see paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries of a mother and daughter sitting and stitching, we may be seeing a mother teaching her daughter to read.
Inman added that there are instances of women wanting to write (in our sense) and using their leaned skills to do so, producing a letter to a relative by stitching the letters into cloth — or an entire memoir.
I wonder when we started teaching writing as a communication skill, rather than just the mechanics — and why? Just about every day I talk about how information, until recently, was a product that we merely consumed. It was a book or magazine we bought so that we could read it, a CD to listen to, or a DVD to watch. Today, we all have the ability to produce a book, music, movies, for others to enjoy — to consume.
But does the capacity to produce messages require us to teach the skills involved? No! I don’t think so. What does make the ability to express ideas compellingly so important — so BASIC — is what Daniel Pink characterizes a abundance. There is so much stuff, so many opportunities, so much information, that there is enormous competition for our attention. It is information that competes, which means that for your product, idea, message, or story to gain an audience, it must compete for the attention of that audience. You have to be able to describe it compellingly with the appropriately assembled message.
Part of doing this is asking questions that go somewhere.