Sunday, February 6, 2011

Once you go car shopping you notice everything: Osmosis vs. Explicit Teaching

By Sam Intrator

What does shopping for a car have to do with Project Coach, William James, John Dewey, and high schoolers giving a minispeech to elementary students?

This morning I read a 2003 NY Times article profiling Lucy Calkins-- who is a professor of education at Teachers College at Columbia University. Her highly influential work focuses on writing instruction and preparing teachers to teach writing in their classrooms. She is quoted in this piece about what happens when children believe they are active and serious players in a writing community. She says,

''My husband and I are going to buy a car soon,'' Mrs. Calkins says. ''Whenever I drive now, I find myself noticing the differences between Toyotas and Subarus, Pintos and Chevettes. All my life I have been surrounded by cars, yet until now I have not taken note of the different makes.'' And so it is with children, she adds, who, once they view themselves as members of the writers' club, suddenly notice the conventions of the written language everywhere. Teaching writing skills through writing and editing works infinitely better than the use of drill and workbooks
Calkins describes an assumption that sometimes pervades our work in Project Coach and all educational ventures: we over-champion the idea of learning through osmosis. Osmosis implies that merely being buffeted by the culture one will forge an active schema that can guide thinking and decision making. In other words, because we grow up with cars streaming all around us-- we are car experts, or we attend schools and sit in English class we know how to write and give speeches, or we teach coaches how resolve conflict on their teams in Project Coach and the implication is that they can deploy that skill in another setting.

I'm thinking about this because I am preparing a lesson on communications for tomorrow's session at Project Coach. I want to focus on an element of speaking that coaches use all the time. Maybe we can call it a mini-speech. I want the coaches to think about how they need to develop a quick outline that provides them with three talking points. In our program, we have found that we need to teach and reteach basic fundamentals all the time. At the outset we had assumptions: they played on sport teams so they should know now to give feedback to coaches or their school teaches oral communication so they will know the fundamentals of speech making. Unfortunately, it's a flawed assumption.

There is a difference between osmosis and explicit connections. So here is my takeaway from thinking about cars and Project Coach:

 We can surround youth with stimulus just as we are all surrounded by cars of every conceivable make. Merely being the soup is not sufficient. In relationship to Project Coach, just because some of our teen coaches were in the sport soup as players-- that does not mean that they have the 'skills and techniques of coaching." Just because our coaches all articulate the desire to go to college doesn't mean they have developed and refined the skills necessary to make that happen. Legendary psychologist William James talked about the "booming buzzing confusion" of experience. The father of American progressive education, John Dewey, wrote about the unceasing stream of experience that flows past us at all time. Both make the point that merely being exposed to experience is not enough. Meaning must be actively composed and made sense in an explicit fashion. Dewey, who is the master of the compelling image describes random experience as "dispersive, centrifugal, dissipating." In other words experiences stream  past us and, for the most part, we don't notice. What must happen for meaning to be achieved is reflection and focus. How we get youth to focus and attend to the elements that we want them to improve up on is the pedagogical dilemma of programs like Project Coach. Ms. Caulkins makes an essential point: youth need to believe that noticing the skills, practicing the skills, talking about the skills has direct relevance to their own life. There is more that needs to happen, but it's a beginning.

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