four or maybe five books that enact autonomous learning techniques for #plenk2010

Drop your caution here

This week’s central question is What skills and practices does an autonomous user need in using a PLE? Set aside the technical skills for a minute to look at the literacy practices. I’m interested especially, and I want to focus on, physical techniques: those material actions we can take on material artifacts (including digital) on the way to creating new (critical) artifacts. The premise is that, yeah, we learn by making artifacts: notes, lists, maps, drawings, photos, houses, buildings, airplanes … in response to other artifacts that we see at least for the moment as prompts to learning (that’s Kress, Multimodality). Semiotics keeps coming up in the readings and background discussion in #PLENK2010, (most recently in Downes’s LOLcats) and from what I’ve seen of it so far, it makes for solid critical practice.

The typical five + one strategy for assessing sources isn’t enough for an autonomous learner, whether it’s

who, what, when, where, why, and how.

or one of the innumerable variations on

  • Who is the author?
  • What do others say about the author?
  • What are the author’s sources?
  • Can any truth claims be tested independently?
  • What sources does the author cite, and what do others say about those sources? Link

These are little more than checklists which suggest accuracy and completeness, typically used by teachers in guiding student review of sources. They are not built for the autonomous learning. The lists suggest that if you address the questions, an accurate answer will come out the other end. How to address these questions is clear t the learner only if she knows how to do it already. For instance, how would you verify whether a that “we are all individuals, and therefore will see the world differently?” (one of favorite tropes of first-year students) can be tested? Learners who are invested in the belief will be tempted to argue to themselves that it’s not testable, it’s a Higher Truth. And so on.

While I’m partial to the rag bag of Critical Thinking Skills <>, they, too, need significant guidance to use well, and the critical thinking techniques have been designed for a social space: multiple learners in multiple groups, with a facilitator who is well-skilled in the practices but outside the argument orchestrating the interaction.

A stripped down version of critical analysis (describe, analyze, interpret, evaluate, borrowed from Stoner and Perkins, Making Sense of Messages) might be appropriate here. There’s enough material manipulation built into the technique (you have to write or otherwise compose – a lot. And composition is material and leaves a trace); and there’s plenty of detail paid to metacognitive monitoring of what you’re doing. Having taught the method for six years now, I know it also requires active, hard learning to gain control of it. Lots of notes, feedback, repetition, and staged introduction of concepts. Lots of scaffolding to get it. But once students get it, they find it repeatedly useful. Makes them autonomous.

In the same vein. Lanham’s Analyzing Prose (2nd ed) enacts a method that comes of direct manipulation of the written work. Lanham enacts in this text a critical attitude towards the works he interrogates. – something Stoner and Perkins, and for that matter Critical Thinking leave out. An approach to a subject being learned is clouded if the learner is too in awe, or too sarky. Something vacillating between those poles is useful.

And two more that go way back: I A Richards, How to Read a Page (1950s, I think), and Anne Berthoff, Forming/Thinking/Writing (1978, 2nd ed 1988). Both are, in essence, how to books – books of self-reflective technique. How to Read a Page was written in response to the self-inflated critical thinking text of its day, How to Read a Book. Berthoff wrote F/T/W in response to the mechanical skills-oriented direction composition had taken in the US schools. Even the titles tell us about autonomous learning: How to … and forming is thinking is composing …

What I really admire about these texts is that they enact the learning techniques they espouse: Stoner and Perkins the least but it’s there, Richards the most – almost to tedium, and Lanham and Berthoff in the sweet-spot middle.