Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Necessity of Wonder: Rethinking Argument

I. A Problem

Martin Nystrand and Nelson Graff authored a critically important piece of research, Report in Argument's Clothing: An Ecological Perspective on Writing Instruction (CELA Research Report 13007) that we need to pay attention to. Nystrand and Graff conducted a 9-week observation (nearly 5000 hours) of a middle school English-social studies blocked class in order to examine how the intellectual environment of a classroom (in)forms the teaching of argument. They explain that their research
examines the puzzling situation of an excellent teacher of writing who encountered unanticipated difficulties in helping her seventh-grade students produce effective arguments in their written work. In spite of the best efforts of this skilled and dedicated teacher, it was a challenging and not altogether successful effort, and the fact that her students still weren't writing argument despite her up-to-date professionalism became our research problem (pp. 1-2).
Wonder (M.A. Reilly, 2011)
So what was at issue?   They explain:
We came to view the students' problems as indicative of something systemic about cutting edge practice. We learned that it's not possible to understand the problem by focusing only on writing instruction. Rather, it is essential to examine the general culture, or ecology, of the classroom (p. 2). 
Here is a description of the teacher and the class:
Sally Martin's multiracial classroom of 31 seventh-grade students was a veritable cornucopia of the best pedagogical innovations in writing instruction from the last thirty years. As a well prepared, professional, and highly regarded English and language arts teacher, Martin believes that writing is best learned through practice and feedback, and she practiced what she preached: Her students continuously wrote and rewrote; she often responded to drafts, not just final copies, and revision was an expected part of every major assignment. Martin also conducted writing conferences with her students as needed, with additional support for students who either voluntarily sought extra help or whom Martin designated. And small group work was part of a rich menu of activities. 
Nonetheless, the students' argument writing did not mature past the report stage even though that was the expressed outcome the teacher sought.  How come? How is it that students in a classroom  taught by an experienced teacher who employs many of the 'best practices' espoused by writing workshop advocates and experts failed to better develop writing products? What went wrong?

Nystrand and Graff report:

In the 9 weeks we observed (in blocks of two 55-minute classes back to back), not 1 of
the total 4,950 minutes was given over to discussion in any extended form (we define discussion as the free exchange of information among students and/or between at least 3 students and the teacher that lasted at least a half minute). Martin's talk was peppered with the word, okay (sometimes with rising question intonation). These okays never functioned as questions requiring responses: Martin never paused for students to answer or even nod; she went on with her speech as if they had (p. 19). 
Instead of engendering a classroom where one wonders, Martin created a classroom where she told students how to write the argument by emphasizing form. Consider this exchange between Martin and a student and ask yourself, who did the thinking?  What did the student learn?

Martin: Have you ever had an argument with your parents about how late you
can stay up? Have you argued about how late or what time you have to
be home? Have you ever had an argument about that?
Jafari: (Yeah)
Martin: Okay. And when you have an argument with your parents, do you give
them reasons why you think you should stay up late?
. . .
Jafari: Uh 'cause I'm older
Martin: Okay 'cause you're older. What are some other reasons?
. . .
Jafari: Not sleepy
Martin: What do you mean—not, Oh, you're not sleepy: "I'm not tired, I should
be able to stay up when I'm not tired." What's another reason you
should be able to stay up?
Jafari: Um.
Student: Homework?
Martin: All right, someone's saying homework, so maybe you could say, "I
have homework to do—there's a reason for me to stay up." So right
there you have three reasons why you think you should stay up 'til 11.
Now, can you take each of your three reasons and back 'em up with
more concrete evidence? So when you say, "Mom, I'm not tired," can
you give some reasons? Can you say some other things other than "I'm
not tired"? Can you support your evidence, or your claims, or your
assertions with reasons? This is what you're gonna have to do in
writing. Okay? [2/16/98 ] (from p. 12).

In the rush to teach a specific format, the thinking necessary to conjure an argument and locate a defense is usurped by telling the student what to write. I think of this as I know that somewhere a well intentioned teacher is dusting off Stephen Toumlin's argument model (1958) and readying it for children to mimic.

II. Mimicry

Mimicry can never be the apt substitute for wonder. The challenge isn't employing models as much as it is developing thinking environments in which models might be composed and/or placed.  Nystrand and Graff conclude:

A few changes in writing instruction, while important, may not have the desired results if the dominant epistemology of the classroom derails the instructional goals for writing (p. 20)...The pedagogical character of the classroom ecosystem is sustained, moreover, by the fact that participant roles in classrooms are also epistemological: The questions teachers ask, the tests they give, and the responses they make to student answers, writing, etc., all function to establish what counts as knowledge in their classrooms (Nystrand, 1997) (p.21).

Along with the demand of the CCSS to ensure children and teens are composing arguments as readers and writers will come the myriad of professional books that sport spiffy lessons and units of study that are tidy, neat, well intentioned, and nonetheless deeply flawed as they attend to the topic of teaching argument as if it could exist apart from the ecological expression of the classroom. In communities where mimicry is the mode, knowledge is predetermined and dispensed by the teacher, and correctness as measured by a rubric is the sought outcome--the learning that is done will need to be unlearned.

Nystrand and Graff close their research by saying:

effectively teaching writing as process and writing as argument requires teachers to
radically and comprehensively develop sophisticated ideas about the nature and sources of
knowledge and the role of language generally, not just implement a series of cutting-edge lessons on writing. Classroom discourse has the seminal power to shape and maintain classroom epistemology. Conflicting demands on teachers' time, energy, and limited resources can also readily work against the use of the most innovative and creative teaching strategies considered on their own. It is through an ecological analysis of Martin's class related to these themes that we begin to understand how even skillful teaching that does not incorporate such changes in philosophy can yield superficial results (pp. 21-22).

III. Wondering

It is 4 a.m. as I write this and outside the window next to where I am seated is a full moon, hazy with cloud cover.

It is a moon to wonder

It is this space of wondering that we most need to conjure inside classrooms--creating a luxury of time where the agenda is open to the learner, not predetermined by teacher, principal or a director of curriculum.  Argument requires thinking.

We need to make room for learners to wander, to get lost, to get the lessons we teach, wrong. To fail in ways that most help us to learn.

Not all failure results in important learning, for failure without agency results in repeated failure. Our learners come to make the same errors over and over and over again.

To predetermine knowledge is to limit the discourse and to situate knowing as a finite unit that can be passed from one to the next, much like coins in a pocket.

Here's Toumlin's model.  Six steps.  Plug in your answers and check them off as you complete each task.

To begin a unit of study about argument requires us to understand that wondering trumps correct form.  It is better to have a messy product that involves thinking that is wonderfully incorrect than to have a pristine form that is largely empty of actual thought. The increased pressure of living within a testing culture we create inside classrooms where measurement outcomes are mistaken as signs of divinity obscures the necessity for talk especially when learners have nothing to say (think John Cage).

"Here are the answers," we say.  "This is what you put in paragraph 1, 2, 3, and so on."
We need to stop and clear a space where we have nothing to say.  It is in such spaces that wonder rises most acutely.

So tonight
beneath this very full moon, I am wishing you
                   false starts.
I am hoping
                            you will chuck the pre-made lessons,
                                                     the commercial units of study,
                                                     the pristine and pressed professional books
                                                     shrink-wrapped and delivered to your door.

As Annie Dillard nicely wrote, I am hoping the tracks have grown over; that the birds ate the crumbs and that you and your learners need to forge new ways of walking, new paths of meaning.

Let's clear spaces to wonder and wander.


  1. love:
    We need to stop and clear a space where we have nothing to say.

  2. Well said, Mary Ann. I'm reminded of the distinction Deleuze and Guattari make between tracing and mapping. Tracing is the process of following an existing line already set down from this point to that, and it captures graphically the traditional approach to education that Nystrand and Graff analyze. Tracing starts with the right answer and looks for competence in tracing our ways to that answer. Nothing stops conversation quicker than the right answer.

    Mapping, on the other hand, has to do with a process of active construction based on experimentation and feedback, and mapping captures graphically the approach that you describe above: clear a space where we have nothing to say. Mapping is grounded in performance, while tracing is grounded in competence. The difference between these is captured by asking a group of students if they can sing, dance, and draw. Kindergarteners will all say that they can, very few college students will claim the ability. The kindergartners are talking about performance, the college students about competence.

    1. keith, thanks so much for this thoughtful response. It pushes my thinking to reconnect this with the Deleuze work--an apt connection I was missing. I had never fully understood the tracing/mapping distinction in a thousand plateaus. Your explanations helos greatly. Appreciative.

  3. Agreed. Thanks, Keith, for the clear explanation of tracing and mapping. But, I fear, not many will ever understand this, especially those in power.