Vague verbs: a curricular problem

This is slightly complex post on an issue on which I have not fully reached my own conclusions. I do however think that it outlines a deep problem in curriculum theory, and one which has significant consequences for our teaching. Let’s start with some definitions. I am calling a ‘vague verb’ one that could be meaningfully interpreted in a variety of different ways by different people. Takes words such as the following:

  • thinking
  • understanding
  • explaining
  • analysing

Each of these verbs is associated with a myriad of definitions in the OED, and they are used in the field of education to mean different things by different people in different contexts. We see the impact of this most clearly in the formation of educational objectives. I remember struggling to find the ‘right verb’ to put into a learning objective: did I want them to ‘explain’ or to ‘evaluate’? Did I want them to ‘think critically’ or did I want them to ‘analyse’? I was fortunate enough to work in a school that did not insist on writing objectives on the board, but on the occasion that I did the pupils (who always seem most astute on this sort of thing) would want me to be clear about what the difference was between ‘explain’ and ‘evaluate’, and inevitably I found myself tied up in knots. Vague verbs as curricular constructs undermine our ability to define our educational aims.

Unfortunately, curriculum designers have tended to compound this problem in how they use these verbs in the process of curriculum construction. One thing that happens is that curriculum theorists attempt to create ‘hierarchies’ of verbs, raising some above others in terms of difficulty and challenge. Perhaps you want to make ‘analysing’ a subset of ‘thinking’. Perhaps you want to raise ‘explaining’ over ‘analysing’. In its most terrible form we end up with judgements about pupils such as ‘in this essay he was explaining but he was not analysing’, which is both a proxy for and a rationalisation of the judgement ‘this essay is not as good as I wanted’. Another curriculum confusion is created when these verbs get turned into nouns, so that a process becomes a product. Thus ‘thinking’ as a verb becomes ‘thinking’ as a noun. The important consequence of this is that it shifts the focus away from the object of the verb, and instead makes the process itself the thing that matters. And then we add the final structure built on this pyramid of sand: adjectives get put in front of these nominalised verbs. So ‘thinking’ becomes ‘critical thinking’; ‘understanding’ becomes ‘chronological understanding’. This is a noble attempt at specificity, but it is hamstrung from the outset in that the nominalised verb being modified is not properly defined. When it comes to specificity in language, you cannot polish a turd: if the initial concept is vague, then any modification of it can be only more vague.

All of this leads me to suggest, somewhat tentatively, something that runs contrary to what is normally assumed in the world of education.

Perhaps the verb just does not matter that much.

All of these verbs refer to something that is going on biologically in our bodies, and mostly refers to cognitive activity of some description in our brains. We are learning more and more about the cognitive architecture of our brains, but there is no cognitive basis on which to distinguish between ‘thinking’, or ‘understanding’ or ‘explaining’. Humans think, and rather than trying to invent multiple categories of human thought, a more parsimonious solution is to leave ‘thinking’ as it is, and rather to focus ourselves on what we are thinking about.

This has the neat effect of shifting the emphasis from process to product.

Rather than talk in a fairly vague way about a mysterious phenomenon in our heads called ‘chronological understanding’, perhaps we should talk of ‘understanding chronology’. It is from there a sensible if not easy step to start defining the sorts of chronology we might want pupils to understand (and, for reasons I have explained elsewhere, I think the verbs ‘understand’, ‘know’ and ‘learn’ can be used interchangeably here). The point is that the verb begins to take a back seat: what I can really focus on as a teacher is the thing I want them to learn about / know / understand / think about.

And so, rather than nod sagely about the importance of teaching critical thinking, perhaps we should instead say ‘we want pupils to think about critique’. We can then begin to specify the sorts of critique we want pupils to think about. Our curricular focus becomes ‘critique’ and not ‘thinking’. Again, we can probably then avoid running down intellectual rabbit holes, such as distinguishing between ‘critical’ and ‘normal’ thinking. Instead, we can spend our time determine what critiques we want our pupils to learn. If the cognitive psychologists are right and what we learn about is what we think about, then it makes no sense to talk of ‘learning critical thinking’ – instead we can say “I want pupils to learn Critique X, and so I shall get them to spend some time thinking about it, so that they might then learn it.”

At some point about twenty years ago, it became popular to stop talking of ‘learning subjects’ and instead to talk of particular ‘types’ of understanding. Thus we ended up with curricular objects such as ‘historical understanding’, ‘mathematical understanding’ or ‘scientific understanding’. But, if we follow my argument here, we have no basis on which to believe that ‘understanding’ as a form of human thought can be categorised in such ways. We have not evolved to do ‘scientific thinking’: instead we have evolved to think. One of the things we think about are the academic disciplines that our culture has created. We can think about history, or science, or mathematics, and by thinking about these disciplines in all their complexity we can come to learn about them. It is simply not necessary to invent a phenomenon called ‘historical understanding’ to describe this. To use a terrible analogy, I do not think we as teachers need to install into our pupils a separate processor for ‘history’, ‘chemistry’ or ‘critical’, any more than we install a separate processor to run different programmes on our computer at home. Rather, these programmes are installed in our pupils’ memories: they learn their disciplines (history, chemistry, a variety of forms of criticism) and then they use their processor to think about those memories.

This is complex territory and I do not have fully-formed conclusions concerning it. I am however increasingly convinced that verbs such as ‘knowing’, ‘understanding’ and ‘thinking’ need to be left to the psychologists. If it emerges empirically that humans do have specific mental processes that can be called ‘critical thinking’ or ‘historical thinking’, then I shall happily bow in humble recognition of reality and begin using these terms, no doubt somewhat satisfied in knowing what is meant by particular mental process called ‘critical thinking’ or ‘historical thinking’.

Instead, I would want to focus our curricular language on what we want pupils to think about. Let us take the discipline of history. Over time, historians have developed (for example) a number of causal models that can be used to construct arguments about why things happened in the past. I want pupils to study those models – explicitly – and to commit them to memory. I want them to recall these models and to use them to construct arguments about the different periods they study. I want them to think about how those models can be used to construct arguments, and I want them to recall these models from their memory in order to criticise the arguments created by others.

None of this runs counter to what most involved in the field of history education want to a achieve. But, importantly, we do not have to invent a new type of human cognition called ‘historical thinking’ to allow that we aim to achieve these things as educational ends.

Picture: The author, Brunetto Latini, reading, France, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 15th century, 405 x 280 mm. Royal 17 E. i, f. 2v, detail. http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/TourBestiaryStudies.asp

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6 Comments on Vague verbs: a curricular problem

  1. Thanks for this. I was discussing “critical thinking” with a philosophy prof on another board and he pointed me to this from the University of Hong Kong: http://philosophy.hku.hk/think/
    There, critical thinking is domain general, closely aligned with the study of logic. Personally, I disagree with this assessment, but respect where they are coming from.

    As far as the term “thinking” in general, I am making my way through Arendt’s The Life of the Mind. I always appreciate her work, as she is very grounded in her writing, yet pulls from a broad array of Western philosophy. For her, thinking is the two-in-one, where we have the internal dialogue with ourselves and which is best found in the state of solitude. She places the origin of the moral person here (following Kant) and that evil happens when we don’t think (going back to her discussion of Eichmann).

    I’m not sure if this is something cognitive psychology will ever prove, but it is a rather disturbing thought that in our age of constant distractions whether we are entering an age of unthinkingness and hence are more susceptible to causing great evil again….

  2. Lindsay Gibson // 22 December 2016 at 00:13 // Reply

    Michael,
    Thanks as ever for the thought-provoking post. I couldn’t agree more with you about the problem of “vague verbs”, especially the creation of complexity hierarchies using vague verbs (i.e. Bloom).

    At the same time, I am not sure if I agree with your critique of the curriculum confusion caused when verbs are turned into nouns and adjectives are placed in front of nominalized verbs. You claim that “When it comes to specificity in language, you cannot polish a turd: if the initial concept is vague, then any modification of it can be only more vague.” I would argue that theorists in history education and many other fields have done a very thorough job conceptualizing what historical thinking, critical thinking and chronological understanding is and what it includes. I have yet to see a curriculum document in Canada that includes critical thinking as a goal, but does not provide a conceptual outline or map of what critical thinking is, and what students will need to know and do to be able to exhibit critical thinking.

    Additionally, I wholeheartedly disagree with your categorization of critical thinking as getting students to “think about critique.” While critique may be one aspect of critical thinking, researchers in this area would strongly disagree with the notion that critical thinking merely involved the critique of an idea, argument, or belief. In my estimation you have confused vague verbs as included in Bloom’s Taxonomy, with larger conceptual categories such as critical thinking, historical thinking, or chronological understanding.

    I also disagree with your critique of different types of disciplinary thinking (historical thinking, understanding, etc…). You assume that historical thinking, mathematical thinking, etc…are all separate ways of thinking that are exclusive from each other and require separate processors. There are aspects of critical thinking that are generic and aspects that are specific to different disciplines, which is why critical thinking might be considered an umbrella term that has several branches underneath it for different subject-specific ways of thinking. After using a critical thinking approach to teach history early in my career, I realized that there were certain epistemological and disciplinary ways of thinking that were specific to history that weren’t quite addressed by the CT model I had adapted. We want our students to understand that different disciplinary ways of thinking have many commonalities, but also differences that are unique to that discipline.

    At the end of the post you said that if it emerges that humans have specific mental processes that can be called critical thinking or historical thinking then you will happily bow in humble recognition of reality and begin using these terms. It seems to me that one of the foundational studies in historical thinking (Wineburg, 1991) did just that. His research showed how Grade 12 AP US history students read and thought differently about primary and secondary sources than historians. This seems to provide some empirical evidence that thinking historically is different than plain old thinking.

    Best,
    Lindsay

    • A great deal hangs here on what you mean by the word ‘thinking’. People interpret the word in different ways, and this is the problem, and indeed the point of the blog.

      For example, if ‘historical thinking’ means ‘recalling from long-term memory how to construct a causal analysis and then applying this model to question’ or ‘recalling from long-term memory the sorts of questions to be asked of a medieval manuscript and then asking those questions’, then I do not really have a problem with this. This would also fit with cognitive model that employs concepts such as ‘retrieval’, ‘long-term memory’, ‘working memory’ and so on.

      As for Wineburg, it’s a classic expert-novice study, and these have been conducted for many types of activity (chess seems a favourite amongst psychologists). Where I think Wineburg needed to be clearer – and what his study did not (indeed perhaps could not) show – was what *caused* his participants to respond in a different way. For example, his findings could be explained by saying that the historians had more knowledge about the discipline of history, more knowledge of cases of how historians use source material, more substantive knowledge about 18th-century society, and so on. This would fit with what other novice-expert studies have found (e.g. knowledge of thousands of game positions cause grand masters to play in different ways), and all without having to modify a word (‘thinking’) that has itself not been defined.

      So that’s where I’m coming from here.

  3. Lindsay Gibson // 22 December 2016 at 19:08 // Reply

    I don’t know too many teachers who ask students to generically “think historically.” If they want them to recall how to construct a causal analysis and then apply a causal model to a question then they would ask them to do this particular task. While this is included under the conceptual category of historical thinking, it is a specific aspect of historical thinking.

    In regards to Wineburg’s classic expert-novice study, he concludes that experts’ knowledge in how to read historical texts and their disciplinary training meant that they interacted with source materials much different than the AP students. None of the historians were experts in American history or the time period they were focusing on.

    • I think the last point reveals one of the misunderstandings that persist about substantive knowledge. A range of the substantive ideas that emerge in American history of that periods also occur elsewhere: this is Counsell’s point about knowledge being transferable. An experienced historian (whatever their particular specialism) will have a much richer understanding of the substantive concepts. It’s quite an oversight in Wineburg’s study.

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