Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Attending to complex thoughts

As a college and graduate-level instructor, I’m constantly surprised by how much difficulty my students have with reading comprehension and with writing clear sentences. I place the blame, however, not on a failure to master the English language, but on difficulties sustaining attention, whether it’s in reading long, complex sentences or in keeping track of the long, complex sentences they themselves sometimes attempt to write. For various reasons that are visible, audible, and palpable (vibrating in our palms or pockets) all around us, it’s harder and harder for all of us to sustain attention in the course of our daily lives. Exacerbating matters, many young people haven’t developed the discipline necessary to sustain attention even when distractions are minimal.

This is particularly true of reading. As Anonymous points out in my last post on this subject, fewer and fewer kids are reading in their free time. As Auntie Ann points out, schools are assigning easier and easier texts with shorter and shorter sentences. Exacerbating things further, many reading assignments distract students with “text-to-self” or “text-to-world” connections rather than requiring them to immerse themselves in subtleties of the text itself.

This is also true of attention-demanding subjects like math, where Reform Math’s watered-down, concrete, “real-world,” problems require less and less focused, step-by-step reasoning. And it’s more generally true across the disciplines, where those group-centered activities that eat up so much of class time further distract rather than foster focused attention. Teachers (as a recent study reports) are quick to blame increasing attention deficits on video games; it doesn’t occur to them that current fads in classroom instruction may be equally to blame.

The potential consequences of all this are pretty alarming. As many have noted, there’s an intimate connection between reading, writing, and thinking. If you don’t read well, you miss much of the subject-specific content you need to take in in order to think clearly and critically within a particular subject. If you don’t read well and can’t sustain attention across longer, more complex sentences, you miss out on the immersion in good models of written language that helps students develop good writing skills. You can't produce, let alone revise, coherent complex sentences of your own.

When people, especially today’s education professionals, discuss the connections between thinking and writing, they tend to focus on the importance of “critical thinking.” Help students become better thinkers, and improved writing skills will come along automatically for the ride. There’s a lot of truth to this, but it’s not the end of the story. First of all, as cognitive scientist Dan Willingham pointed out, you can’t teach critical thinking in a vacuum; critical thinking is subject-specific and depends on mastering subject-specific content. Secondly, thinking clearly and critically about subject X doesn’t guarantee an absence of sentence fragments, comma splices, and dangling modifiers in your essay on subject X.

What many people, especially today’s education professionals, tend to ignore is the other direction of causality. Assuming a sufficiently challenging writing assignment (particularly one requiring multiple revisions), writing improves thinking. Having to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and write an essay on a challenging topic helps you clarify your ideas. Only then do certain gaps in your understanding come to light, inspiring you to think through them more carefully as you attempt to express things fully and coherently. Deciding how to slot things into main clauses or subordinate clauses, and how to order the phrases within a sentence, and how to connect one sentence to the next in a paragraph, and when and how to begin the next paragraph, forces you to focus on the relative importance of different concepts and all the different ways they relate to one another. In fact, as you read and revise what you’ve written, there’s a complex feedback loop at work that involves writing, reading, and thinking.

There’s also an intimate connection between ideas and written complexity. Some ideas are so complex that they can only be expressed in a series of complex sentences. Sentences beyond a certain level of complexity can only be fully digested in written form, where readers can take them in at their own pace and reread as necessary. If you aren’t able to sustain the attention it takes to parse such sentences in all their complexity, or to develop the skills it takes to write them, you are shut off from whole worlds of ideas, across all sorts of disciplines, from economics to psychology; from chemistry to literary analysis.

Combined with the distractions of today’s world, the decline in challenging, focused reading assignments, sentence-focused writing instruction, analytical essay writing, and multiple-revisions requirements may have consequences that are further reaching than any of us, even those of us who still think in complex sentences, can possibly imagine.

Addendum-- Here's one of the Ballot Questions that confronted me in the voting booth today:

Shall The Philadelphia Home Rule Charter be amended to authorize the creation by ordinance of requirements for additional information to be submitted with the annual operating budget, annual capital budget, and capital program, including, but not limited to, information about the cost of performing specific functions, the effectiveness of such functions, and the costs versus benefits of proposed expenditures, and to require the Finance Director to provide such information?


David Foster said...

Yes, I think you're right that writing (the right kind of writing) can improve complex-thought abilities.

See my related post Metaphors, Interfaces, and Thought Processes:


Anonymous said...

Have you read Nick Carr's book "Shallows"? Carr does a fantastic job of discussing recent studies that document how we read and think in an online world.

And yes, clearly there's a correlation between grammar and thinking. There's also a huge correlation between vocabulary and thinking. When we have a wider vocabulary, we can think about and express concepts and ideas in more specific, precise, and nuanced ways. Instead of just thinking about sadness, for example, I could think about the type and degree of sadness (mere dismay and disappointment or devastating depression and utter grief).

All the elements of reading and writing (vocabulary, grammar, figurative language, narrative structure etc.) influence how we think.