Monday, January 3, 2011

Volume theory

this originally appeared on the CESL webpages at: It was written in 2007.)

This is my effort to incorporate my thinking into a set of precepts which in fact I have been using for some time to guide my class lessons. It is a theory in want of a better name, as what I am after really is not so much the pure amount of anything, but the fact that the mind, in this case the mind of the learner, is always measuring, considering its options, and choosing for itself when to reorganize, make things easier, and learn what will help it do that.

Here are the starting points for what I have been calling volume theory. I have been using it in the writing sphere: trying to develop students' writing primarily by having them do as much as possible, and backing off on the demands a little in order to make that possible. In the writing sphere, the theory is as follows:

1. Teachers' time is precious, and so is students' time; therefore, having students write more will necessarily cause some adjustment in everyone's calendar and expectations. The first rule is simple: if you want students to write more, and write as much as will be necessary for them to truly be successful in becoming more fluent in writing, more comfortable with the process, and more successful in incorporating good writing habits into their systems, you will have to make that time available to both them and you, in whatever venue you can.

2. If their writing inevitably leads to a finished product that is formatted, spelled right, punctuated, and in general made to look comprehensible and presentable, whether it be in a paper-and-ink format or online, they will, by themselves, take shortcuts and start producing better formatted, properly spelled, punctuated work right from the start; life will be easier for them that way. The point at which they start doing this on their own is your, the teacher's, target. You can not force them to make their writing systematically cleaner, more fluent, etc.; they will do it only when they are ready, and only when they can clearly see that it will be useful to them from now on. There is no way from here to there, except over large quantities of work.

3. Developing fluency in any sphere will inevitably be similar to developing fluency in writing. If, for example, they are relatively fluent reader/writers, but absolutely terrified of speaking in front of even small groups, then they should be directed to speak in front of groups, with support, and often enough that eventually it is not such a source of fear and anxiety. It may be that only the volume, or the sheer amount of time that they spend in meaningful practice, will get them to that point. And if that is the case, your time should be directed toward making that practice possible, as opposed to talking about what fluency is like, or studying examples of someone else's fluent production.

Volume theory has a number of corollaries. Some of these could change or be added to; this will surely be restated. It is probably clear to the reader that I use this general philosophy in other realms; for example, in teaching vocabulary. In vocabulary learning, volume theory works like this:

To really learn a word, and incorporate access to its meaning into his/her active memory, a learner has to encounter it enough, in meaningful situations, to convince himself/herself that learning it and incorporating access to it in his/her active system would be desirable and efficient. It is probably the sheer number of actual meaningful encounters that will convince him/her of the need to do this.

Here are some more observations about teaching language in general. These can be considered corollaries of volume theory, though they may be somewhat unrelated.

All teaching must be directed at the student's system; that is, what the student chooses to incorporate into his/her working system of production and learning. The student alone will choose how to organize his/her own brain, as well as his/her own learning, and may not do as you ask, even if, on the surface, he/she appears to be quite willing. In some cases, the student will be genuinely willing, having spent a fortune of family money and effort, to do as an expert tells them, but the brain will only organize itself as it sees fit, and may have to be convinced, thoroughly and continuously, that certain learning processes and/or behaviors are necessary, efficient, or desirable. In other words, often the compliant student will be trying to memorize words from a list, but his/her brain, having limited patience with lists of things with no purpose, is not actively or successfully learning them that way. Why not? Because it is not convinced that it is useful information. Only by seeing the benefits of knowledge at work, will it be convinced. And we're lucky, if we think about it, that we are organized in that way.

Applying this theory to the weblog business, we can see its application to a number of skills. For example, many students have forgotten their passwords- why? They were told to remember them, and, at the time, probably agreed to do it. It wasn't insolence or rebellion. They simply weren't using the information. Similarly, they forget how to edit, how to publish, how to get out of one dashboard and onto another, etc. None of these are rocket science, though in some cases knowing the skills is dependent on knowing key words used by Blogger, such as "Publish," "Sign out" or"Edit." On macs, two tough nuts are learning double-space on Microsoft Word (document, paragraph), and learning link code in making blog posts. WIth the link code, even the best students have to ask several times, until they at least figure out where they can find the information, even if it is on a handout, directly in front of them.

It brings to mind a story about Einstein (Gordon, 2005) which I heard once and frequently mention in my classes. Einstein was being teased about not knowing his own phone number, and claimed to systematically not bother memorizing anything he could look up more easily.

However, as we know from learning to ride a bicycle, making a weblog or learning to swim:

Most people can do these things. And, after they have a skill, they tend to keep it, or at least, have access to it much later, so that, though they may have to relearn a few details, it is safe to say that once you've learned to ride a bicycle, for example, you can always do it thereafter. What the volume theory contributes is this: There was a point, somewhere in the process of learning, where the mind simply incorporated and bundled its instructions, and said to itself, learn this, it's useful. And it did. That's the point we're trying to find. If we do something just a little bit, we may never reach that point; if we do it enough, we will.

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