Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Need To Process and Reading As Its Own Universe

It’s probably not a great idea to imitate your kids in their recreational pursuits, but after having seen my older son absorbed in the puzzle page of the Newspaper working on some number thing, I tried it myself and very quickly got hooked on Soduku. (Or is it Sudoku?) I’m a sucker for this sort of thing. There is the challenge of figuring out how to do work through the puzzles and there is very little information provided in the way to guide you on how to do that. I did find the Web site, where the one thing I read that stuck a little was at the beginning you would write things down in terms of what you knew, to help with the inferences, but eventually most of that would be done in your head.

I think my process learning to do these things might be called “effortful study” though I certainly didn’t set out to “learn” all I tried to do was “play” but in so doing I developed pattern recognition so could see how to do these things quicker and came up with something of an algorithm for how to work these puzzles. The processing leads to discovery of the algorithm and what is interesting to me, especially in light of the current fascination with Video games and trying to leverage those for enabling students to learn other things, just how little structure there is with these number puzzles. The structure is invented through the processing, not vice versa.

The way it works in the Newspaper, pretty much the same with as with the crossword puzzles, the Sudoku is easier earlier in the week and gets harder each day, with the hardest puzzle of the week on Sunday. This past Sunday, my wife caught me talking aloud as I was working through the puzzle. I was oblivious to that at the time, though I ultimately picked up her remarks about it to the effect that now we know where my younger kid gets his thinking aloud behavior. I laughed that one off and about 15 minutes later proudly displayed the completed puzzle to her. I think I’ve gotten this out of my system now, but the only way for me to do that was to successfully complete a handful of the hardest (insane) puzzles.

Among the things that you don’t know when you work through these puzzles is whether you should only fill in empty squares when a “tight inference” has been made – the logic dictates that’s the only possibility – or if you should guess. I did a Google search or two to find out about that, but I struck out. (Just because you process doesn’t mean you don’t look for “cheat codes.”) So I discovered on my own the empirical regularity that with the easier puzzles you should not guess at all – everything should be tight inference – but with the insane ones sometimes that is too demanding and if after a fashion it seems that all those inferences have been exhausted and you’ve narrowed it down to two possibilities in a certain square, then a guess can really speed things up and a lot of other things fall into place. The guess isn’t always right. One of the nice things about playing online (at least with IE as the browser) is that by opening a new browser window one can copy the game along with all the progress made to date, so if you go astray you can return to the point just before you made the guess.

The Harper’s Magazine article, Grand Theft Education, about the educational possibility of games, starts with a quote from Montaigne, to the effect.

It should be noted that children at play are not playing about; their games should be seen as their most serious-minded activity.

I’m inclined to agree (with what Montaigne said. I have some reservations about games that I hope will become clear later in this post.) My question for Montaigne, were he alive today, would be this: are children always at play? Or do they need to be led to play? I don’t know the answer to this. I’ve only got very intimate knowledge on this with my own kids and the kids of a few close friends.

In my title, “the need to process” refers to an “always on” need, like a need to keep busy, an internal urge rather than a normative recommendation. I definitely have that need. My kids seem to have the need. In one sense it is a very good thing in that creative thought is a byproduct of the processing. At least creative thought emerges if the need is bundled with Montaigne’s notion of play (or Ericsson’s notion of effortful study). In other words, the need is not satisfied by a process that is purely dissipative. The process must seem like it gets somewhere and to the extent that is driven by past success there is a feedback loop that encourages the processing.

But even with that, in another sense the need to process is vexing. The need means you can’t put less than fully formed ideas aside to simmer in the subconscious while something else commands your attention. You’ve got to keep processing on the partial idea or consciously discard it (and the latter is hard, unless it becomes known to be a dark alley). So the need implies some degree of compulsion

Recently I’ve been reading about how much in teaching is providing the right motivation for the students (for example, the Ken Bain book that I’ve mentioned before) and so much of what is written to do about student learning is actually about good approaches to teaching. But I’ve not seen anyone talk about encouraging intellectual compulsion to motivate the need to process in our students (and maybe articulated that way, perhaps not too many people would endorse the goal). This can’t be all about instructor provided motivation. A lot of this has to be students working through things on their own via thoughtful play. Sure there is a social dimension to it. But there is an individualistic piece too.

One wonders whether the overall environment is conducive to this sort of thing? For example, what about reducing the number of courses students take but encouraging those they do take to be more intensive – perhaps offered over half semesters rather than full ones? Or what about getting students out of the course environment all together and putting them into a purposeful play scenario, and then sanctioning that with course credit.

This sounds like video games, but now the part where I’d discourage that particular solution, is on the following questions. Can the purposeful play happen in non-media assisted environments as well? Do the students acquire a need to process that they can bring on their own to other situations? And can they convince outsiders of that fact? (Ultimately they will be looking for jobs and though the credentialing part of student work may not help much in the motivational domain, it surely does help with landing a good job.)

I want to switch gears now and turn to reading. I’m aware that in some of m reading I process just as if I’m writing, or working on an Econ model, or playing Sudoku. In other words, I argue with what the author has to say, agreeing with some points, disagreeing with others. I will pause for reflection to make the argument in my own head and then return to finish the piece a little later. And I do believe one can do some processing while reading as one can do some while listening or watching – trying out the ideas in some way as they are being presented. So I want to focus on a subset of reading where narrative is important where the processing doesn’t occur; something else happens instead. And I chose reading rather than, say, watching a film because the distinction may be less obvious with reading, but it is an important distinction to make.

When I read fiction, I work in the service of the author and in a very real sense I’ve surrendered myself to the author’s creation. It is true that I supply the mental images that correspond to the words in the text, and I suppose more effective writing conjures up more vivid imagery (for example, not too long ago I read A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, where there is a scene where the young Daedalus, away from home at school, gets painfully smacked on the wrist with a stick by a teacher he absolutely detested, a scene so vivid that I welled up with emotion in the reading) so certainly reading a good book can be immersive and one might be inclined to call that processing.

But there is no experimentation. No trying out different ideas. (I am focusing on the case here were I do a once through reading rather than where there might be several re-readings. The re-reading activity might in fact invite experimentation in the sense of trying to gather a different meaning or sense of what the author was up to as compared to the first time through.) My analogy is that of taking a journey, where I’m the passenger, not the driver. As the passenger, I see what I can see and try to take it all in. Indeed I want to be led someplace that is interesting. Part of the joy in reading is seeing something new and it is the freshness, depth, and texture of the narrative that makes the reading worthwhile.

I do think I process after I’ve read something and put the book down, but not while I’m reading it, although the book review of Francine Prone’s new book that I mentioned in my previous post might change that for me in the future. It may be that the professional writer does process as she reads the works of others, in good part to learn how better to write.

Even if I’m correct in this distinction what is one to make of it? Here is my point. There is a lot of loaded language these days in talking about learning – the words “active” and “passive” when used to modify the word “learning” are effectively synonymous with “good” and “bad,” respectively. Yet reading as I’ve described it, where I’m clearly being led along by the author, would by that description have to be called passive, though I think this is a wonderful thing to be doing. And doesn’t purposeful play happen outside of contexts where instructors supply the motivation? It seems to me that we as a profession are not thinking right about these issues because there is a focus more on the trappings than on the underlying behavior.

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