D is for Discourse Analysis

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

Discourse analysis is about understanding what is not said. Consider this conversation:

Speaker 1: Do you think we could watch a movie?
Speaker 2: Ah, yeah. That’s gonna happen. Have you practiced piano?
Speaker 1: I’ll just get a snack first?
Speaker 2: Sure. We can eat it during the movie.

If you are a native speaker of English, the conversation will strike you as easy to understand and, hopefully, humorous. But that’s because you were able to recognize a series of subtle linguistic cues. These cues are typical in any conversational exchange, but also in written discussions, such as in texts and emails. It’s worth looking at eight types of discourse-analysis cues in detail and seeing how they would apply to this short conversation.

The first cue has to do with the setting, or where the speech event is located in time and space. If you’re a native speaker, you probably realize this conversation takes place at a home in the evening because practicing the piano fits into that particular schemata (mind map of associated ideas). Although people practice piano at music schools, it’s more commonly practiced at home. This is reinforced by the idea of someone asking permission to have a snack and watch a movie, which also gives a clue about the participants.

Participants in a conversation are those who take part in the speech event, and the roles they play. In the short conversation above, the act of asking for something—a snack—helps to define roles and makes it likely that the conversation is between a child and a parent. Continue reading

C is for Collaboration

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

It’s your first day of work at a new office and, because you’re eager, you arrive early and locate your cubicle. Looking around to make sure you’re alone, you race around madly to each desk, snatching up everyone’s stapler so you can hide them all in your filing cabinet. As other workers trickle in, mystified conversations erupt about the missing staplers only to be silenced by your ominously evil “Bwahahahaha!” cry of triumph.

Seriously? No. In office environments and most other work environments, we mostly stress cooperation and collaboration, which make it all the more mystifying why our classrooms so often stress competition.

Competition is normal and healthy but it is not the only way to meet objectives or to educate students. Imagine suddenly informing your language class students that they have one minute to prepare for a long-distance foot race. What would be their reactions? Most would claim that they were not properly prepared, having worn the wrong clothes and shoes. Some would immediately eye the other students and size up the chances of success. Those who were most able might welcome the challenge, thinking their chances of winning were good; competition tends to reaffirm current abilities. Those who were least able would rebel at the task, refusing to participate, not bothering to make an effort, or adopting a tactical approach, such as by finishing the race but only just—perhaps walking instead of running. Continue reading

B is for Bell Curve

Ken BeattyDr. Ken Beatty

First, let me leave nothing to the imagination: I hate the Bell Curve. Because I teach assessment statistics to graduate students, I know I shouldn’t callously bully an innocent graph of achievement, but it isn’t the tool itself I object to, but the wicked uses to which it is put.

Bad beginnings

The Bell Curve was first called “the normal curve of error” by Abraham de Moivre in 1733. He used it to explain games of chance, but by the 19th century, the Bell Curve was being misapplied to justify differences in society such as to support Francis Galton’s theories of eugenics, a pseudo-scientific movement to breed humans to produce a master race. It was only the Nazi party’s horrific love of the idea that led to its belated rejection (Goertzel & Fashing, 1981).

In time, the Bell Curve swept into classrooms as a popular means for quantifying levels of student performance. The assumption was that among any group of students, about 10 percent of the weakest ones inhabit the low end of the curve, most linger comfortably in the middle, and 10 percent can be assumed to be highly competent.

The Bell Curve in practice

At one university, my fellow teachers and I were forced to apply the Bell Curve to the grades of each of our classes. Practically speaking, this meant 3 of 30 students would get the lowest D and E failing grades, another 3 or so would get the top A grades, and the bulk in the middle, 24 students, could expect to earn C and B grades. Through considerable protests and prayers, management might permit us to squeeze the middle of the curve and award more A grades as well as save our weakest students from expiring in an assessment train wreck, but we had to beg.

Regardless of final figure manipulations, a bad taste was left in the mouths of both students and teachers. Students felt the Bell Curve inherently made the classroom unnecessarily competitive and that success depended not so much on an individual doing well as on others doing badly. It wouldn’t matter if each and every member of my class were the secret spawn of an Einstein cloning experiment; degrees of difference would be conjured up, and otherwise brilliant students would be spread across the Bell Curve like falling blossoms on wet pavement.

At the same time, teachers felt their work was devalued because even the most highly educated, experienced, and dedicated teachers offering the most innovative lessons could not hope to have their students score higher than those of their less-inspired colleagues. Any gains in student achievement attributable to a superb teacher’s work would be washed away in the Bell Curve. Teachers who rebelled against the obvious unfairness of it all faced the subtle punishment of having to provide detailed justifications of deviations from the so-called norm. From the administrative perspective, the Bell Curve helped even out teachers’ grades and avoid grade inflation, the creeping tendency for teachers to award higher marks, in some cases to garner positive evaluations. Continue reading