Grasping the basics ...

These basic responses can be seen as things that very young children begin to do naturally. For instance, take 'assembling patterns' - children can quite quickly tell you something of what a story is about, but this is a long way from being a methodical, disciplined 'summary of the plot'. Our English B students can be expected to have something of a methodical approach to summary, but they will usually need practice in order to command the skill.

So, practising these skills is a matter of developing discipline, and of learning to use them for conscious purposes. The goal of such skills is that students should grasp the central idea(s) or key point(s) of whatever you are studying ... after all, such basic grasp is vital for whatever following activities or discussions you might wish to attempt.

The following Index (with links to the relevant pages) is arranged, more or less, as 'simpler' > 'more complex' - both as regards the main sections, and within the sections themselves. This can only be a rough categorisation, since how challenging a task is will depend on the stimulus material that you put in front of the students.

Basic response

Assembling patterns

* detect patterns ... using Gestalt

"Look at this (list of words / field of facts / set of images,etc) ... What patterns can you find? "

[See... Detecting patterns ... Lists & clouds ... Using fields ... Number fields ... Vocabulary & concepts

* gap fill (cloze) ... inference skills to complete pattern

"Now, look at this - does it make complete sense? ... No? Then, use what you do know in order to work out what you don't know - and so, complete the pattern ..."

[See... GapFilling 1 ... The Difficulty Sheet ... San Diego Serenade ... Great Nations of Europe ... Advertising, reviewed ...

* summarise ... devising patterns, accurately and at different levels

"Read the text, identify the really important ideas, and express them in as few words as possible ..."

[See... Summarising patterns ... Invention of printing ... CyberDemocracy ...

Extracting meaning

* listening comprehension ... creating conceptual pattern from speech

"Listen to this (audio recording / video) ... and I want you to pick out ..."

[See... Listening Tasks ...

* devise questions ... exploring & extending concepts

"So, you need to prepare questions for this (interview / debate / discussion) ... What do we want to find out? And what is the best way of asking ?"

[See... Using questions ... Dynamic questioning ... The Asking of Questions

Sorting out details

* rank in order ... applying hierarchy & priority

"Right, I want you to sort out these (words / facts / ideas etc) ... according to how you see their order of (importance / value / quality etc) ... Put them in ascending order ('most' first) / descending order ('least' first) ... and then I want you to explain why, justifying your selection ..."

[See... Rank Order ...

* basic compare & contrast ... handling two patterns together

"How is this different from that ? In what ways is that the same as this ? What can we learn from looking at the two together ? Now, analyse the two methodically ... "

[See ... Compare & contrast ... Advanced compare & contrast ... Two texts, compared ...

Transmitting meaning in sequences

* give instructions ... transmitting information for practical effect

"You have to give clear instructions to tell someone how to ... You have to study the situation carefully, break the task down into sensible steps, and then express those steps clearly so that the person can understand what to do ..."

[See... Instructions 1 ... Bricks ... Model instructions ... Instructions, marked ... Lists & bullet-points

* step-by-step explanation ... handling linear cause & effect sequences

"Explain to me how that happens (happened) ... Make sure that you go step by step - you have to make clear how one thing logically leads (led) to another ..."

[See... Step by step Explanation ... Explanation ... The Gaia Thermostat ...

Learning to handle ideas ...

These more complex responses are again things that older children appear to do pretty naturally, but probably in an erratic and inconsistent way. They may, for example, sort things out by category, according to what interests them ... but will be unlikely to do such sorting as a form of methodical understanding, let alone as thoughtful research, such as devising a questionnaire. Simile and metaphor may well occur spontaneously, amusingly, even wittily - but the conscious, deliberate extension of these in selected analogy or symbolism is unlikely.

The 'researching patterns' section involves common enough types of classroom tasks, but the tasks suggested in 'imposing patterns' and 'playing with patterns' appear to be less usual. My suggestion is that they all can be taught - and that they should be taught, in order to help students think more creatively and effectively.

The essence of thinking "creatively and effectively" is to think actively - to do things with ideas.

On teaching imagination

By describing this area as 'handling ideas' I am trying to avoid any term like 'imaginative' - because the poor word 'imaginative' has been so over-used that it is too run-down, threadbare, over-burdened, blurred, glamourised, caricaturised, pretentious and weary to mean anything useful any more.

The mind just does imagination all the time ... it just that we don't notice, or we don't use it when we do, or when we do use it we use it in unimaginative ways. What I would like to express by the word 'imagination' (if I could use it) is the ability to make connections by a variety of means ... and what I would like to mean by the word 'imaginative' is the ability to make such connections deliberately.

If we accept that the mind naturally plays with what it perceives using 'imagination', then if we want to make our students think in more acute, lively, 'imaginative' ways, our teaching should be about helping the mind with simple, matter-of-fact techniques. You can find further techniques for stimulating 'imaginative' thinking under Processes in the page  Methods

The following Index (with links to the relevant pages) is arranged, more or less, as 'simpler' > 'more complex' - both as regards the main sections, and within the sections themselves. This can only be a rough categorisation, since how challenging a task is will depend on the stimulus material that you put in front of the students.

Complex manipulation

researching patterns

* skim / scan ... applying filters

"...What seem to be the important / key elements of this text? How do we search to find them?..."

[See Skim & Scan ... Journalism & history ...

* devise sieves / scan categories ... constructing filters

* devise questionaires ... using exploration skills strategically

"... so we're going to study this methodically - let's construct a questionnaire. Now, how do we go about doing that?..."

[See Making a questionaire ... About SurveyMonkey ...

imposing patterns

* handling degrees of difference ... from opposites to continuum

"...There are obviously differences between all of these words/concepts. How can we make the differences clearer and more precise? How can we arrange these ideas relative to each other?..."

[See Degrees of difference ...

* Venn analysis ... controlling multiple compare & contrast

"We've got three words / concepts here ... so how do we explore similarities and differences methodically ...?"

[See Venn analysis ...

playing with patterns

* simile & analogy ... using pattern to explain

"... but how can we grasp all of this? ... What is this complex (concept / situation / process) like ? ... Can we compare it to anything ? ... And if so, how does that help ? "

[See Handling analogy 1 ... Handling analogy 2 ... Using similes ...

* metaphor ... embedding similarities for linguistic effect

"...That's an unusual phrase, isn't it? But what does it actually mean? ... Why did the author use those words and no others? ... "

[See Handling metaphors 1 ... Handling metaphors 2 ... Metaphors, similes, lies ...

* symbol & image ... identifying complex concepts by compressed labels


Five useful tricks

Simile, analogy, metaphor, image and symbol - these terms are often thought of simply as technical terms in Literary Criticism, vaguely remembered as "important in poems and things like that". I suggest that they should be seen from a reverse angle - they are important in literature because they are crucial to the way culture works, because - even more fundamentally - they are essential aspects of the way we think.

Let us be clear what each means:-

Simile ... to describe direct similarity, generally perceived through the senses (concrete > concrete)

Analogy ... to construct conceptual similarity, perceived through extended comparison of structure or process (abstract > concrete, abstract > abstract)

Metaphor ... to compress into language either of the above, usually by linking words in unexpected ways based on associations

Image ... to compress ideas into a single representation (usually visual, even if evoked through words)

Symbol ... to label or encode for efficient, rapid communication (may involve compressed versions of any of the above)

For example ...

** "He also had a very hairy nose. It looked as if there were two very small mice hiding in his nostrils"

** "Doing the Diploma is like climbing a mountain - it starts out easy enough, but then it gets steeper and more exhausting ... you think you've got to the top, but then there's another ridge and another ridge... you have to have a rest now and then ... the last bit's the most difficult - but then the view is fantastic!"

** "arrows of desire"

** "Her eyes were smiling still, but there was a tear tricking down her cheek."

** The £ weakened against the $."

Why bother?

These processes are often categorised as 'figures of speech', and seen as rather sophisticated means of communication. And so they are, but I am suggesting that they are also means of cognition, of knowing. Consider the verbs in my home-cooked definitions above - "describe ... construct ... compress ... label / encode". These all involve assimilating, formulating and handling concepts - in other words, they involve active, constructive, imaginative thinking. For instance, consider the Diploma/mountain-climbing analogy: to create that connection demands a conceptual grasp of what doing the Diploma means, plus a grasp of what climbing a mountain might involve, and then a close compare / contrast exercise relating the essential structure of both processes. That should produce new insights, if carried out carefully - for example, you need rests while you are climbing a mountain ... should there be 'rests' in the process of doing the Diploma ?

In short, studying and practising these mental processes should not only make students better readers of complex writing, but also more active, incisive and (dare I say it?) imaginative thinkers.

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