Thursday, June 16, 2016

When rhetoricians and pedagogues clash

I operate by the rule of three. If I see something referenced three times, I look it up. If three persons, independently of each other, ask me to do something, I give this something serious consideration. It's a simple rule that leads to interesting new avenues, and if you ever find yourself bored, try it out.

The reason you're reading this is that three persons, independently of each other, asked about the BA thesis in education (Swedish: pedagogik) I outlined in passing the other day. So here goes. The most technical document you're likely to encounter on this here blog. If you're not an educator or a rhetorician, you might find this somewhat orthogonal to your interests. It would be quite alright to skim this one.

(If you're entering from Twitter and lived through the Thesis Livetweetage, be aware that this is not the memetic fanfic online literacy MA thesis of awesome you've heard so much about. That one is still under evaluation, and will hopefully pass soon.)

My writing partner (bless 'em) and I wanted to analyze an ancient series of rhetorical exercises, the progymnasmata, and how these relate to modern educational practices. Our reasoning was that there seemed to be some very tangible skillsets taught by this series, and that it would be enlightening to see if and where these same skillsets were taught today. And, subsequently, if any insights could be brought to bear from knowing these ifs and wheres.

Which, as you might imagine, is a very broad question, in need of being brought down to earth in terms of scope and analytic feasibility. Specifically, two things needed to be operationalized: the skillsets taught by the progymnasmata, and those skillsets taught in schools today. Only by breaking these skillsets down to their basic elements (the skills that make up the set, as it were) could we compare and contrast them with sufficient detail to say anything interesting about them.

At first, we thought that simply looking at the various exercises outlined in the progymnasmata would be sufficient to get a handle on what they're supposed to teach. However, we soon found that while they certainly built up to something, this something was underarticulated. After being frustrated by lack of context, we realized we'd better get some context. This we found in the form of Quintilian, the famous Roman rhetorician and educator, who both used the progymnasmata and had a whole philosophy regarding what they're supposed to teach.

(A technical rhetorical note: it is both possible and common to apply the progymnasmata [or variants thereof] as a kind of vocational training, where those who undergo the exercises emerge afterwards with newfound abilities to give presentations and suchlike. If all you want to do is to make sure your employees/students are able to give interesting talks, then it works well towards that end. However, this is somewhat barren in terms of comparative educational insights. Thus, we brought in bad boy Quintilian.)

I'm going to skip the tedious details about how we settled upon the five key skills taught by Quintilian's version of these exercises, and get straight to them. These are as follows: critical thinking, the ability to actualize oneself as a social subject, the fast organization of information, to have a good orientation in literature, and to establish good and enduring habits early on. The first three follow from the exercises, and the last two are emphasized by Quintilian. They all point towards the same goal: to become a good orator. Or, to quote: "we are to form, then, the perfect orator, who cannot exist unless he is above all a good man".

Being able to think critically means to not take things at face value, and to see things from multiple points of view. The ability to actualize oneself as a social subject is a complex matter, but it can be summarized as knowing what to say to whom in order to get results (especially in matters of state and law, the traditional arenas of rhetoric). The fast organization of information relates to being creative in finding things to say (topoi). Having a good orientation in literature means both to have read the classics, and to constantly be on the lookout for new nuggets of insight (or turns of phrases) to use when the rhetorical need arise. The good habits - the virtues, if you will - are rather straightforward.

Together, these five skills form what Quintilian named a hexis. This is more than just the ability to do something - it's more akin to having your whole way of thinking based on or shaped by an ability to do something. Learning something - in this case rhetoric and speaking in public - is not just a "learn and forget" kind of thing. You emerge a different person from the experience of learning, and by virtue of this you apply your new insights automatically to all aspects of your life. The knowledge is integrated into your character, and thus you know it intimately.

When Quintilian says that a good rhetor must also be a good person, this is part of what he means. Simply learning some detail or aspect is not sufficient. The art of rhetoric has to become an integrated, instinctive response to new situations - only then has the educational process been effective. You are not just someone who knows rhetoric - you are a rhetor. Your whole being as a person is involved.

(Another technical rhetorical note: the other part of this - the good part - has to do with the conditions of persuasion. If you are not a good person, and use your rhetorical powers to evil ends, those you try to convince will remember this in the future, and so become less inclined to listen to you. Conversely, if you at every point try to do what's good, this too will be remembered. Being a good person means you're in good standing with your peers, and your words thus carry more weight. The counterexample, of course, being Donald Trump.)

If you've followed so far, you have probably gathered why we sought to find if anything of this remained in contemporary educational practices. Both in terms of the explicit aim of educating good/virtuous persons, and in terms of the deep kind of knowing emphasized throughout. Regardless of the subject to be taught, there might be potential advantages to this line of thinking when applied to contemporary educational institutions.

Fortunately for my writing partner and me, we didn't have to ponder the morass of actually implementing or changing anything (at least not within the context of the thesis). Instead, we moved on to the second part of our analysis: the state of our current educational institutions.

Of course, this could stand with some narrowing and specification. Examining the entirety of a school system isn't very expedient, so we had to settle for some part of some aspect of it. We chose the time honored strategy of reading the manual, so to speak: curriculum analysis. Specifically, we read those parts that relate to the subject of Swedish. (The subject is very similar to English in English-speaking contexts. However, since English is also a subject in Swedish schools, calling it "English" would confuse things.)

Since the Swedish school system recently got a brand new curriculum, we decided to compare the old version with the new version, using the framework built from reading Quintilian. I'll spare you the tedious details of how we went about this, and get right to the interesting parts.

The curriculum of '94 (aka the old version) focused on the acquisition of "skills" or "abilities" [the term "förmågor"can go either way]. The curriculum of '11 (aka the new version) focused on the successful internalization and application of strategies. This might seem a subtle difference, but it has dramatic effects when applied in educational practice. For example, the ability to utilize a library and its resources is different from applying a strategy of utilizing the library. The former implies some sort of familiarity and affinity with the library as an institution; the latter implies that libraries are one strategically viable option among many equally viable options.

Now, this is not to say that abilities are better than strategies, educationally speaking. But depending on which framework you use, you end up emphasizing different aspects of the problem at hand, and different solutions to solving it. Being aware of the strengths and weaknesses of your framework gives you the option to compensate for the weaknesses and play into the strengths.

One of the strengths of Quintilian's hexis approach is that it's comprehensive. It teaches, and it teaches well, and brings with it the potential of further deep learning based on the learner's own interests. It has a corresponding drawback of being time-intensive, and requiring a not insignificant amount of dedication from both teacher and learner. You end up immersed in the subject matter, but it takes a while to get there; being oriented in literature only happens one book at a time. (This approach also brings with it the risk of alienating you from your peers, but that's another thesis.)

The abilities approach gives you the understanding you need to act in certain situations, such as in the library example above. It gives you what you need to move along, should interest motivate you. However, if such interest doesn't motivate, you end up with a partial understanding of a particular situation, without the appropriate context to act on this understanding. Such as, say, having a library card and a mechanical understanding of how to use it, but not really knowing or caring as to why you'd want to use it. Or, indeed, why libraries exist.

The strategies approach has the advantage of being fast and efficient. It identifies the desired outcome and the way(s) to get there, and it's easy to control if the educational goal has been achieved. Particularly when the situation only requires that you teach one particular thing. It does, however, run the risk of becoming fragmentary. Clever learners can game the system by quickly identifying the desired strategies, perform them sufficiently enough to pass muster, and then forget all about it. (Interestingly, both studying AND teaching for the test follows this pattern. But, again, another thesis.)

Rhetorically speaking, this would be the place to write that we ended up advocating a particular approach over all others. But, being an exploratory thesis, we didn't arrive at fire and brimstone clear-cut solutions or conclusions. The point was to be able to think about these things in clearer and more nuanced terms. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach, and each are used in different settings depending on which learning outcome is sought. Some of them within traditional educational institutions, some without.

By sharing these findings with you (all three of you who asked), I hope you'll be able to ask better questions about education in the future. More so, I hope that it has become clearer that education isn't just one standardized thing that can be performed better or worse, and that the goal of educational policy isn't to choose the option that performs better (by any arbitrary definition of better) than the others. There are nuances to these things, and perhaps - just perhaps - bad boy Quintilian still has a thing or two to teach us.

Thank you for reading.

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