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Pedagogy 3.2 (2003) 285-287
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Simple, Surprising, Useful?
Three Questions for Judging Teaching Methods
All teachers have in common at least one teaching practice: we do not teach pure content. We teach students how to learn our content and how to develop positive attitudes toward it. But what methods do we use, and how can we judge them?
Jerome S. Bruner, a developmental psychologist and author of The Process of Education (1960), Toward a Theory of Instruction (1966), and On Knowing (1971), among other scholarly works, presents a constructivist theory of learning in which students discover and actively construct their own formulations of concepts. By applying Bruner's principles of discovery learning, I have formulated three short questions for judging the value of any teaching method I use: Is it simple (can it be presented so students readily understand it)? Is it surprising (does it contain anything unexpected to stir [End Page 285] wonder in them)? Is it useful (will they be able to apply it in the future)? Applying this rubric to an activity designed to teach stylistic maturity through the use of colons furnishes an apt illustration.
I begin by asking my students to write a sentence with a colon. From experience, I know that almost all of them will write one with a colon followed by a list. For example: "At the bookstore, I bought the following items: textbooks, legal pads, and LifeSavers." This sentence is fine, but I want my students to learn a new pattern, so I continue the activity by dictating sentences using colons in another way:
Writing is important: it helps you think.
One thing is clear: I am not the only watcher in the woods. (Erdrich 1995: 61)
Sometimes an outline serves best as a cage to break out of: it makes you think of ideas that won't fit inside but which otherwise wouldn't occur to you. (Elbow 1981: 49)
My students transcribe these sentences and discover for themselves that they illustrate a new way to use colons: to introduce an explanation. With some prompting (I ask what precedes each colon, and they recognize that a complete thought does), they learn the main rule for using colons: a complete thought must come before it. This rule also applies to any sentence containing a colon followed by a list.
To reinforce the lesson, I ask the students to write sentences illustrating the new colon structure, and then we share them aloud in a circle. The students may pass, but most are happy to read their work:
I don't like ice cream: it hurts the cavity in my back tooth.
It's too hot in the classroom: people are starting to sweat.
Carnival people have small hands: they use them to make cabbage stew and to tinker with buttons.
As these examples show, students tend to use the colon pattern to elaborate on an opinion. Regardless of the topic, the process of writing and sharing is fun. It appeals to hams and quiet students alike, and when a student's sentence is humorous, like the last one, the class enjoys a moment of language play.
To complete the lesson, I ask the students to revise a brief passage from a recent draft of their writing by using a colon to introduce an explanation. Most students readily do this: [End Page 286]
I was raised in an interfaith household. My mother is Jewish and my father is Christian.
I was raised in an interfaith household: my mother is Jewish and my father is Christian.
A third cause of our stereotype is derived from our music. We like it loud and obnoxious.
A third cause of our stereotype is derived from our music: we like it loud and obnoxious.
My mother already had a gloomy look on her face; she had been dreading my first day of college for the past three months.
My mother already had a gloomy look on her face: she had been dreading my first day of college for the past three months.
In the first...