Perturbing our Students

Perturbing Our Students:

Piagetian Dialectics in the First-Year Composition Classroom

Clancy Clawson

For the first-year writing instructor, surely there is nothing as frustrating as a college level student with high school-level ideas. No doubt most of us teachers have encountered papers with a polished surface of clear prose and strong topic sentences, but with an underdeveloped core of thinking. How do we, as writing instructors, help our students have better ideas? From discussions with my colleagues, it seems most of us feel apprehension when it comes to helping students generate ideas; we are fine with teaching invention and brainstorming, but beyond that, we feel like we run the risk of doing the thinking for them. And thinking for our students is something that we should be concerned with, but such concern does not help us get at the larger problem of our students’ poor ideas. Likewise, much of the discussion in our pedagogy seminars is ostensibly devoted to helping students write and think better, focusing on pressing issues like collaboration and technology. While these topics are important and deserve our attention, none of these things seems fundamental enough to get at the root of the problem—I don’t think anyone is saying that the reason students don’t have good ideas is because they don’t know how to use a blog. So, if we want students to have better ideas in their writing, where should we be aiming our pedagogical efforts?

The goals of our first-year writing course here at BYU are focused on, not surprisingly, improving students’ abilities to write and read. For example, the Supplemental Guide describes our objective as helping our students learn how to “critically read texts,” with an emphasis on “analyzing how a text functions,” “analyzing the nuances of language,” and “identifying and evaluating the elements of an argument” (McInelly and Jackson 1-2). But behind these explicit goals of teaching critical writing and critical reading is the implicit goal of teaching something else: critical thinking. After all, when we say that we wish for a student to read a text critically, what we mean is that we want the student to think critically about what he or she is reading. “Analysis” seems to be a preferred word for this type of thinking, but even this description suggests a cognitive process more extensive than breaking something down into its constitutive elements. What then do we mean when we talk about critical thinking? One simple definition might be that offered by Ellen Cotter and Carrie Talley: “the term ‘critical thinking’ encompasses skills such as evaluating sources of information, challenging assumptions, understanding context, analyzing arguments, and using metacognition” (3). While such a definition might seem frustratingly vague or circular, there are two important points that we should take away: critical thinking is a skill set and is, in part, metacognitive. These are the sorts of abilities we should hope to foster in order to help our students have better ideas.

Even though we want to encourage this sort of thinking, some of us feel that the task is overly daunting. Additionally, our discussions of college students’ cognitive abilities (or lack thereof) often tend towards neurological explanations. The popular argument seems to be that first-year students’ brains are incapable of the types of critical thinking that we wish them to do. “My students are just too young,” most of us have complained. “Their eighteen-year-old brains are just not developed yet.” As comforting as this excuse is, we are probably not justified in using it. Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist at Temple University, notes that “much of the work on adolescent cognitive development was devoted to a search for a core mechanism that could account parsimoniously for broad changes in adolescent thinking” (70). This sort of scientific inquiry reveals a desire to find a “smoking gun” since the brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex, continues to develop well into adolescence and could explain the concurrent advances in cognitive ability. But, as Steinberg notes, the implications of this neurological development on “emotional, intellectual, and behavioral development has yet to be thoroughly studied” (69). More importantly, he warns that “conclusions about the putative links between changes in cognitive performance and changes in brain structure during adolescence are suggestive, rather than conclusive” (71). In other words, we should be cautious about the links we make between the performance of our students and the stuff in their skulls.

But while there might not be any definitive answers about the neurological elements of critical thinking, cognitive development (the psychological element) can still provide us with some suggestive hypotheses, even if we don’t fully understand its biological roots. One particular idea stems from the theories of Jean Piaget, one of the pioneers of cognitive development. While there is not room here to explore all of the nuances of his life’s work, a brief summary of Piaget’s theory of dialectical development will no doubt prove useful to us as it addresses what has been characterized as the “central problem of any theory of cognitive development,” namely, specifying the “mechanisms that allow new acquisitions” of cognitive schemes (Morra et al. 11). For Piaget, the primary mechanism of dialectical development is a process that moves the subject from “a state near equilibrium to a qualitatively different state at equilibrium by way of multiple disequilibria and reequilibrations” (qtd. in Morra et al. 11). Equilibrium is characterized by a cognitive system’s ability to “assimilate external reality into its schemes” or “accommodate these schemes to external reality by already acquired compensatory mechanisms” (11). Those forces which move the cognitive system out of balance, the disequilibria or perturbations, are twofold: one is based in negative feedback and is the result of objects that resist accommodation into a subject’s schemes while the other is based in positive feedback resulting from “insufficient assimilations of reality on the part of the already activated schemes” which in turn lead the subject to “search for new information” (11). When the subject is faced with these perturbations, it can react in one of three ways, as described by Piaget. First, it could simply ignore the disturbances entirely by “deforming [its] interpretation of reality” to fit with its existing cognitive strategies (12). Second, the subject could modify its scheme by “introducing new relations that permit an integration of the perturbations into the system” (12). Finally, the subject could predict the perturbations, effectively stripping the disturbance of its status as a disequilibrium (12). It is important here to reemphasize that the equilibrium the cognitive system attains after a perturbation is not “return to the preceding equilibrium, but… the achievement of a new one” (11).

According to Piaget’s theory, the way to move our first-year students from high school schemes to college-level ones is through a series of constant disequilibria. In short, we should find ways to perturb our students out of their old ways of thinking. What follows are adjustments I suggest we make in the first-year writing course at BYU in order to facilitate this process of dialectical development of critical thinking skills. These changes are very simple and do not require an extensive understanding of cognitive development—I merely suggest introducing students to dialogic questioning, incorporating controversies more effectively, providing students with opportunities to be wrong, and making the rhetorical analysis unit the introductory assignment of the course. My implicit hope is that by improving critical thinking we will ultimately improve our students’ writing.

One of the simplest strategies we can implement in the classroom is dialogic questioning. As Robert Fisher claims in his book, Teaching Thinking, “dialogic teaching is characterized by intellectual challenge” (107). This method has been in place for a long time, the most famous practitioner in ancient times being Socrates. He and other philosophers recognized the value of perturbation and used dialogic questions as a tool to reach their higher instructional aims: “Part of the point of education for Socrates was to make us aware of our ignorance, of the conflict of ideas and of current problems, and to show us that there was a method for dealing with these” (107). In this sense, Socratic questioning creates both types of Piaget’s perturbations: it presents us with obstacles and exposes lacunas in our knowledge.

Fisher outlines some steps for performing this exercise in the classroom. First, we must adopt a stance of “scholarly ignorance,” posing as “someone who does not know in order to provoke” and “showing a self-conscious display of curiosity and puzzlement” (115). This is something akin to playing the devil’s advocate. Second, as part of our feigned ignorance, we should employ various questions to help perturb the student. Fisher lists five types of questions: ones that seek clarification, ones that probe reasons and evidence, ones that explore alternate views, ones that test implications and consequences, and ones that pertain to the question or discussion itself (122). An example from my own classroom could help illustrate how this process works. I initially asked my students, “What does it mean to be a woman?” to which a male student responded, “Women should look good.” With the five different types of questions in mind, I considered the following ways to respond: “What do you mean by ‘good’?” (clarification), “Why do you think that women should look good?”(reasons and evidence), “What would a woman think of your claim?” (alternate views), “What would happen if women and men actually believed that this is what it meant to be a woman?” (implications and consequences), and “How is your answer addressing all aspects of the question?” (question about the question). Needless to say, this young man’s classmates had plenty of their own responses as well. After weighing my options, I decided to go with the third question, the one seeking alternate views, to which he responded, “I have never thought about that before.” Rather than letting him off the hook, I forced him to think it out. This seemed to mark a moment of metacognition and critical perturbation for him.

The main challenge of this exercise was keeping students focused on using the critical questions instead of just going with their gut reactions. Many were so excited to debate and discuss controversial issues that they ignored the format of the dialogue entirely. But I suspect that had I introduced the material earlier in the course and reviewed it more frequently, that these questions would have begun to become integrated into their critical skill set. They would have made them a cognitive habit and, as a result, used these types of questions instinctively in their thinking and writing. Similarly, having the students use the questions as ways of responding to each other on a message board or blog comment might help the students stick to the form of the dialogue. But this is something that I have yet to experiment with.

Another method for perturbing students involves exposing them to and involving them in controversies. Glen McClish argues that public arguments and controversies are more beneficial to critical thinking (mainly to invention) than other classroom methods like introspection: “Although in the short run it may be more efficient and more egalitarian to accentuate self-exploration and introspection, in the long run students benefit from being encouraged to argue directly—and publicly—with one another” (392). Introspection doesn’t seem to perturb because it often leads our students to reinforce what they already know. When students participate in controversies, they have more opportunities to generate ideas and be perturbed by opposing views. But where can we find subjects for classroom debate? McClish suggests that the material can be found in the assigned reading for class. He himself places James against Freud on the subject of religion. These texts disagree enough to provide students with plenty of material to discuss.

Likewise, each of us teaching Writing 150 has a reader filled with articles on controversial subjects like the environment, globalization, and religion. While usually used as source material for rhetorical analysis, these articles could serve as the basis for debates as well. The class could, for example, be divided into two teams, each one taking an opposing article. The teams would develop their positions and then debate. In my class, I not only had students argue their positions, but midway through the exercise, I had them switch sides, arguing the position that they had previously attacked. This forced them to reassess what they had previously supported so vigorously—they had to stop and think about their thinking. The impact of such metacognition seemed to be heightened when students, in another debate, were forced to argue against something they actually believed, like modesty or gay marriage, though some simply argued as a straw man (a sign of the first type or reaction to perturbation that Piaget described). So, for debate and controversies to be effective, we need to make sure students are actually questioning their assumptions; we need to call them out when they are clinging to their old ways.

Next, students need to have the opportunity to get themselves into dead ends and work their way back out—they need to be wrong. Richard E. Miller’s article, “On Asking Impertinent Questions,” is helpful here. The central question of this article is simple and pertinent to our writing classes: “What is the essay for?” In discussing Elaine Scarry’s linking of teaching with both beauty and social responsibility, Miller laments that many approaches to writing (and even Scarry’s own writing) produce the same, formulaic essays, writing that goes down the same old path of intro, body, and conclusion. In other words, the formulaic essay doesn’t produce any critical thinking because it is so predictable. It doesn’t perturb. Miller suggests another use of the essay—following dead-end paths. Simply put, he claims, “what resides at the core of the writing process is the experience of being wrong” (151). Here he is able to recoup some of Scarry’s Clawson 50 argument, particularly her assertion that realizing our error leads to a shift in perception (153). Academia needs to provide a place for students to be wrong so that they can have these sorts of perceptual shifts. That is what the essay is for. It is the space for students to “write [themselves] to the edge of [their] own certainties” (156).

In our classrooms, this sort of exercise could take the form of short, informal essays or perhaps even rush writes. Regardless of form, the emphasis should be on forcing our students out of their comfort zone, out of their certainties. Even better would be to assign a reflective essay in conjunction with this exercise in which students explain why they were wrong as precisely as they can. This hopefully will help students not only think critically and metacognitively, but will help them back out of the dead end. But perhaps the essential element is reassuring the students that they won’t be docked for being wrong, though their faulty beliefs will still be challenged.

Finally, we need to take full advantage of the rhetorical analysis unit. Of all our assignments, the rhetorical analysis perturbs our students the most, usually because they have never encountered anything that required them to think so critically. And, lest we forget, critical thinking is what the rhetorical analysis assignment is all about. The very first line in the Supplemental Guide’s section about rhetorical analysis states that “among the most valuable skills you can take with you from college is the ability to think critically,” which includes “the ability to objectively analyze arguments and to identify and assess rhetorical strategies in a variety of mediums” (McInelly and Jackson 21). This last part, assessing rhetorical strategies, is the key element of perturbation in the assignment. The Guide explains,

Most of the time when we read we are primarily interested in what an author is trying to say; we try to understand the point he or she is putting across. When doing rhetorical analysis, however, we are more interested in how something is being said. (22)

No doubt, this information might seem like old news to us, but I would like to slow down and dwell on it a bit. For first-year students, the “what” represents the old cognitive paradigm in equilibrium. It represents the sort of thinking that they did in high school. Frankly, and many of us can attest to this, some students have not even considered that a paradigm like the “how” exists. And they struggle with this assignment because their scheme of thinking about arguments is severely challenged, as it should be. It is frustrating for them (and often for us too), but also rewarding. In their reflections on the assignment, many of my students expressed their joy with discovering a new way to think about the world. It was as if they could now see what was “really going on” in the texts that they analyzed. In reality, they had just developed new critical thinking skills. In this way, the rhetorical analysis is a valuable and indispensible element in fostering critical thinking in our classrooms. Still, its effectiveness is severely undercut by its current position in the course. We should be teaching it first, before the opinion editorial.

As it functions now, the opinion editorial is severely underutilized and many times it becomes an exercise in using the high school paradigms of thought. Yet, the Supplemental Guide states that writing a successful opinion editorial includes “understanding of the ‘rhetorical situation’,” creating a “profile of various audiences who will read [the] piece,” and “[using] rhetoric effectively” (4). Preparing students to meet these challenges already entails teaching rhetorical analysis, albeit in an abbreviated form. Many of us include days of op-ed instruction devoted to examples of effective and ineffective appeals to ethos, logos, and pathos. Some of us show advertisements or music videos and then analyze them as a class. The Supplemental Guide also places an emphasis on analysis in the op-ed unit, telling students that before they write, they Clawson 52 will want to “read and analyze other arguments and opinions on the issue” (4). What sort of analysis is this? Surely there is a lot of thinking about the “what,” but there also seems to be some awareness of the “how.” Regardless, in a sort of parallel to the structure of Bloom’s Taxonomy, analysis is emphasized before synthesis, as far as the op-ed is concerned; yet, the very structure of the course does little to provide the means of fulfilling this suggestion. And because they haven’t practiced doing a rhetorical analysis on their own, the analysis that students do leading up to the opinion editorial largely reflects their high school paradigms, not critical ones. They haven’t had a chance to get at the “how.”

Teaching the rhetorical analysis first makes the most sense, as it eliminates redundancy and provides a solid foundation of rhetoric that will better prepare students to write their opinion editorial and their argumentative research paper. More importantly, by pushing the students out of cognitive equilibrium earlier in the course, we will provide them with more time to develop a critical paradigm.

To conclude, these suggestions should be implemented in ways that support each other. Obviously, using Socratic questions can make debating controversial subjects more effective, just as teaching rhetorical analysis first can make for more critical opinion editorials. More importantly, these exercises need to support and lead up to the major writing assignments of the class. After all, we are explicitly trying to teach critical reading and writing skills. While showing how critical thinking translates into writing might be fairly easy in the case of the rhetorical analysis, students might require more instruction on how the metacognition practiced in Socratic questioning can translate into a solid idea at the heart of their opinion editorial or argumentative research paper. But perhaps, if we perturb them enough, such critical thinking will have become such a cognitive habit that our students will have been able to make this connection on their own.



Works Cited

Cotter, Ellen M., and Carrie Sacco Tally. “Do Critical Thinking Exercises Improve Critical Thinking Skills?” Educational Research Quarterly 33.2 (Dec. 2009): 3-14. EBSCO. Web. 4 Dec. 2010.

Fisher, Robert. Teaching Thinking: Philosophical Inquiry in the Classroom. 3rd Ed. New York: Continuum, 2008. Print.

McClish, Glen. “Controversy as a Mode of Invention: The Example of James and Freud.” College English 53.4 (1991): 391-402. JSTOR. Web. 1 Nov. 2010.

McInelly, Brett C., and Brian Jackson. Writing and Rhetoric: Supplemental Guide. Plymouth, MI: Hayden, 2011. Print.

Miller, Richard E. “On Asking Impertinent Questions.” College Composition and Communication 57.1 (2005): 142-59. JSTOR. Web. 1 Nov. 2010.

Morra, Sergio, et al. Cognitive Development: Neo-Piagetian Perspectives. New York: Erlbaum, 2008. Print.

Steinberg, Laurence. “Cognitive and Affective Development in Adolescence.” TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences 9.2 (Feb. 2005): 69-74. Print.