Sloppy thinking is common but not helpful

The Wall Street Journal asked a bunch of “experts” why they thought businesses had such a hard time finding employees with the skills that companies want. Among those providing answers was a man who put the focus on writing skills (something close to my interests). He offered several hypotheses about why students were such poor writers, which he defined mostly in terms of grammar and punctuation:

We can posit several hypotheses for the deficiencies:

— Students do not read very much in their leisure time.

— They spend more time playing videogames and watching TV.

— Their skills are eroded by texting and social media formats.

— Their communication habits are reinforced by peer groups.

— For some students, English is not their native language.

However, I believe the root cause of the problem is that our schools are not placing sufficient emphasis on writing and grammar. We need to change our priorities.

What struck me about this list was the total lack of testing or investigation about any of the claims. He dismissed some and embraced others — complete with a call to action — with no real effort to explore the plausibility of any of them.

I see a lot of this kind of thinking in the church. We leap from “here is a problem” to “here is a possible reason for the problem” to “we must do this! now!”

It is sloppy thinking and not likely to solve our problems — in writing or the church — except by accident.

What are they learning?

What exactly are students learning when they take a business writing course?

By learning, I mean a persistent change within an individual that can be observed in the behavior of the individual. That may not be the best definition of learning — and I know the scholarly debate about the meaning of the term has a long pedigree — but I hope this is sufficient for a blog entry today.

The educational psychology literature includes important distinctions between terms such as knowledge, aptitude, ability, skill, talent, and trait. Each of these terms gets debated, but they also contain important differences that imply or entail not only different theoretical understandings of human learning but also different pedagogical practices and expectations. So the question becomes: What is the correct theoretical construct for the thing we teach in business writing? Is it a skill? Is it a talent? Is it an ability? Or is it not a single construct but rather a set of them that combine to produce the behavior we see when we give a student an assignment? (I think here of the Flower-Hayes cognitive models of 30 years ago.)

Another important question has to do with the degree to which the things learned in our classes generalize to different contexts. If a student learns to produce work that we regard as high quality, does that mean they will produce similar high quality work in new settings and in response to new situations? Or is the learning context-dependent to the degree that the learning is not portable.

These are extensively debated topics in educational psychology. I’m only slightly familiar with the literature. But it seems that we in business communication would be well served to address such questions in a more explicit way.

Within business communication — and other communication scholarship — there is a long-standing and unresolved conversation about central questions and methods of advancing knowledge. Indeed, the notion that we are trying to advance knowledge is itself deeply contested. But to the degree that outsiders look at us and ask what we are doing, it would be helpful to be able to articulate, in a thoughtful way, what kind of learning we are trying to foster in our students. And by articulate, I mean on a deeper level than “I know it when I see it” kinds of talk. That works internally but is largely unpersuasive externally.

I see two primary areas worth further consideration. First, we could explore and engage the scholarship on writing and literate practices to come to grips with the range of theoretical and methodological discourse across multiple disciplines. Second, we should do the foundational work in educational psychology to be able to speak consistently and intelligibly about what it is we are trying to accomplish with our pedagogical practices.

This may be happening in many places in our field, but if it is the work is largely local.

That ‘aha’ moment

Every semester and summer session I teach, the same thing happens. The moment comes when students realize that writing for real audiences is different than writing for school.

They are used to writing to prove to the teacher that they have read the material or have done enough research. They have mastered the five-paragraph essay and want to force every writing task into that well-known form, even if it means hacking off a few limbs to get the body to fit in box.

Then a light starts to flicker. It usually sounds something like this:

This is really different than what I’m used to. In my other classes …

Aha! There she blows! Now we can start making some real progress. I always love when that moment comes.