25 April 2008

Culture and comprehension

Americans report sport scores in the wrong way. If a person from almost any other nation looks at the score of an American game in progress they will assume that the visiting team is the home team and will be wrong in their assumptions regarding the stadium and city they are seeing. I have seen this create difficulties and misconceptions. It's a tiny thing but it begins to explain the enormous problems faced by educators who refuse to embrace the idea of differentiated instruction and instruction based in, or at least accepting of, the culture of the individual learner.

Ever watch the faces of confused learners - or a confused audience? Ever notice that, at first, all of their cognitive effort is being expended on jamming that square peg into that round hole? Maybe you are more familiar with what happens next - they give up, seek distraction, or check out.

A few months ago I threw a statement out to a list-serve of international students during a debate on precision and language in academic discourse. I had been arguing for writing which might best be understood by multiple audiences, and others had been arguing for the perfect precision of subject-specific and audience-specific academic language. So I said, "That lad's got the sliotar just exploding off the hurley."

I said that this statement was absolutely precise. Just about anyone in Ireland - or many New York neighborhoods - would understand immediately, and that the precision "was important," that a sliotar is not a baseball or a lacrosse ball and a hurley is not a tennis racquet or a lacrosse stick. But, I wondered, if I had a room of students, half well versed in Gaelic games and half not, that if it would not be a good idea to make the information reasonably available to both groups, and maybe to the subset of students who know nothing of sports at all.

Because, if we don't do that, some students become unfairly privileged, some will waste much of the cognitive effort we want them to use on "the learning" simply trying to handle our language, and others will give up.

How technology can help

So what if - almost effortlessly - you could solve this? What if fans could choose to see their football scores either on USA Today - home teams listed last (the American tradition that comes from baseball's structure of innings) - or on Guardian.com - home teams listed first? What if any student in the sliotar discussion could instantly type sliotar into Wikipedia and link to "Hurling" and quickly access enough information to understand my sentance? What if a student could even hear "sliotar" being pronounced during the radio broadcast of a match? What if students trying to figure this out could dig through their choice of information sources, such as the GAA site, or a YouTube glimpse of the sport?

Or what if students, faced with the question of "what is normal?" had a quick chance to look at global newspaper websites to determine whether most people followed the "home team first" or "home team last" principle?

Cognitive load, and engagement

The role of the technologies - as used above - is twofold. First, it becomes a seamless accommodation, allowing learners with "lesser" levels of access to the curriculum to rapidly "catch up." Don't know those Hurling terms? Not sure which team is home? You can, if you are brave enough, stop the class and ask, but with contemporary technologies you can find it out yourself, and you can make those connections in the way that best serves your own needs. Second, it offers personal engagement, allowing the student to interact with the information in a personally-directed way as the group interaction runs in parallel.

This not some distraction via multi-tasking. This is human learning. It can only be seen as a distraction if you perceive education as a one-way transmission system. It can only be understood as "multi-tasking" (in some bad way) if you think that, while driving, one should only be looking continually straight ahead out through the windshield. (Of course we all know teachers and drivers who do believe these things.)

If, on the other hand, you understand that learning is something which occurs individually, and that it happens best when new data can be linked effectively with the learner's own brain, and if you understand (or admit) that outside of school the human brain handles a flood of different inputs on a continuous basis (we can be both cold and hungry, we can know both that we are walking toward home and that the billboard up ahead has changed, we can understand both that it is about to rain and consider the range of places of shelter up ahead which we can run to and still be concerned with finding the right present for that girl's birthday), you will immediately see the advantages of using technology to expand how students interact with incoming information.


This is not about "disability," at least not if you define "disability" as narrowly as schools define "learning." "Disability" in school terms is a line in the sand which separates the "normal" from the "pathological."

Eyeglasses are fine in any classroom, and books are rarely set in 4 point type, because up to a certain point schools understand that not everyone sees perfectly. But if you are one step out of that "normal" range then schools call you "disabled" and getting help gets much harder. You need not be able to 'speedread' in school, but below a certain rate and you are off to the 'resource room.' You need not be from a wealthy family, but if your parents have not given you the proper white, middle-class social skills, you will be unwelcome in most classrooms.

But I can disable anyone, anytime. I can talk about things which they have no background knowledge of, and act as if they should know. I can put them in a place where they do not understand the language. I can schedule class on the 20th floor and turn off the elevator. I can whisper rather than speak in a normal voice. I could apply British spelling rules (and grade spelling) with American students or apply American spelling rules (and grade spelling) with British students. I could offer a required course only from 2:00 am to 3:30 am, or I could require all students to stand up through the whole class, or class could be held out on the street in a neighborhood that might make every middle class student feel completely uncomfortable. I could even, socratically, refuse to allow books or written notes and demand memory only.

Does that sound ridiculous to you? Maybe, but none of those are any more ridiculous than the typical rules of the classroom feel to any of us who are "different" in dozens of different ways. Your rules mess with our cognitive processes by forcing us to waste energy catching up physically, or culturally, or in terms of communications systems.

Let's go back to the start. Americans report sports scores in a reverse format from the rest of the world. We can either stress out all American sports fans by forcing them to change (or we could, I suppose, force everyone else to change under threat of Bush invasion or Clintonian "obliteration"), or we can explain the difference and allow each group to see these scores their own way via flexible technology. We can expect every student to understand what we are talking about as if they were clones of the teacher, or we can stop and condescendingly explain every thing in our own way (or spoon feed it if we think the student is disabled), or we can use and teach the technologies of differentiated instruction in ways which build engagement and independence.

- Ira Socol

great blog comment of the week: On Inside Higher Ed - On Texts, Tech and Teens: "Come to think of it, what is so wrong with emoticons in writing? In a way, they are simply invented punctuation marks. In another way, they are visual additions to writing. Writing (in the Western world)has had many visual additions through the ages, such as ornate capitals in medieval manuscripts, modern typefaces (which convey meaning!) and poems that take a certain shape. I don’t use them because I think they are hokey, but maybe that’s because my vocabulary of emoticons is limited." - Grocheio, Asst VP Planning and Institutional Effectiveness at Shorter College. What a great statement! Are emoticons more or less annoying than e.e. cummings lack of upper case letters? I think of Robert Ferlinghetti's poem Fortune (actually "7" from A Coney Island of the Mind) - one of the first modern American poems I discovered, and think of how the arrangement of words on the page added meaning beyond the words alone. Aren't emoticons the same thing?

great blog post of the day: Technoshock of the Digital Immigrant at Paragraph City. I think it's a wonderful parallel tale of what I have told above - just more coherently written.

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Tim Lacy said...


This in no way addresses the substance of your fine post on cultural dispositions, technology, and "dis"-abilities, but I hate emoticons.

My mother uses them to excess in her e-mail correspondence. I think I prefer zero graphics or pictures in my e-mail, unless it's a really special occasion.

Happy Friday---and have a great weekend!

- TL

irasocol said...


I, of course, didn't say I like them either - though I will admit to using them on occasion with certain email "audiences," but I think "Grocheio" is right. They are just extra-alphabetic textual additions - to coin a ridiculous academic sounding phrase - and the world is full of those. And pre-Gutenberg they were far more common. One more way in which our trip to the future might be suggesting a return to earlier human communication styles.

- Ira

HomerTheBrave said...

Some pictographic languages are basically all emoticons.

I learned a new one, too, coming out of Asia, with animé flavor: ^^ It's two smiling eyes, without a mouth. Yes, regional dialects of emoticons.

I want to say something positive about the meat of this post, but it never sounds like more than a 'What he said.'

Glad to have found your writing again. ^^

radicalgeek said...

I'm actually a big fan of emoticons. They've certainly acquired a bad rep - something immature or "hokey" as Grocheio described it, but they definitely have their uses in writing that might need an emotional context to be properly understood, like many chats and emails. Text is a really limited form of communication in terms of expressiveness and emoticons can really help in avoiding (sometimes grave) misunderstandings.

Of course, I'd be open to other solutions as well! I've been toying with the idea of adding a first-person narrator to my emails:

"Please send me the report asap," I ask with eager anticipation.


"Please send me the report asap," I demand with a frustrated glare.

What do you think, could it catch on? :-p

@siibo said...

I work in a 'virtual team'. We communicate a lot by text message.

One colleague uses emoticons and when we speak on the phone, it's for pleasure.

One colleague hates emoticons. When we speak on the phone it's to defuse the tension created by our texts.

The one who uses emoticons is a 'native speaker' of emoticons - she's young, basically. And can't imagine NOT using them.

Non-native emoticon users feel that using them is artificial. And they conflate this with insincerity. They're the same as the guy in the Spanish class who's too self-conscious to roll his r's for fear of being considered pretentious.

"Emoticon haters are just old," he said with a warm smile that almost, but not quite, reached his eyes. :)

Unknown said...

I ♥ emoticons:-) I guess it's from the days when gopherspace was new and fresh:-o

But, Ira, this is not why I'm writing. No, I'm writing because of this sentence:

"Ever notice that, at first, all of their cognitive effort is being expended on jamming that square peg into that round hole?"

Let's think this through. Easy to make square peg? Yes. Easy to make round hole? Yes. Easy to make round peg? No. Easy to make square hole? Next to impossible.

Therefore, square peg into round hole is good. I lived in a wood post and beam house for a while and I can tell you that the thing was held together by square pegs... in round holes:-)