Monday, September 5, 2011

More thoughts on Moffett

I just finished Detecting Growth in Language, and I'm still trying to swallow his Conclusion. He gets almost religious at the end, taking his thoughts about language and language growth into the realm of spirituality (and perhaps psychology). Here is the statement that seems to capture it the most:

"In fact, the abstractive process carries within it the means to regain paradise. Pursuing differentiation and integration far enough leads out the other side, back in the the nonverbal world. The more people interrelate the things of experience by one logic or another (including metaphor) the more they are rebuilding the world within" (69).

Differentiation according to his diagram of The Forms of Thought on page 67 would be Analysis into parts and discriminating differences. This deductive form of thought is more literal, explicit and seeks to elaborate particulars. This kind of analysis is grounded in experience. Integration would be a form of Synthesis into wholes that is more figurative and implicit in nature. Generalizing similarities, this form of inductive thought is about integrating particulars. Moffett is clear that mental growth moves in both directions at once.

His diagram of the Forms of Thought closely resembles Dewey's concept of the double-movement of reflection from and to meaning. I am not sure about regaining paradise through growth in this capacity. Perhaps he is making a reference to the kind of original linguistic nature humans possessed before the fall, a kind of preternatural blessedness that Plato and then Wordsworth hallowed when we were truly in contact with the Ideas. I suppose I am more comfortable with Dewey's goal of learning proficiency in thinking rather than Moffett's spiritual goal. Dewey is more practical and civic in his rationale for becoming skilled at thinking.

It is interesting to see Moffett end by bring up concepts that so resemble what I have been dealing with related to rhetorical reflection. His Growth Sequence 26 (the last one) is labeled: "Toward increasing consciousness of oneself as a language user and of the language alternatives one has to choose from" (66). He states that the result of all the other ways of growing (all 25) is "a sort of master growth that is meta-linguistic." Since the quote is so good, I'll go ahead and include it all here:

"That is, one becomes detached from language, conscious of oneself as a language user, and able to verbalize about one's verbalization. This is inseparable from becoming meta-cognitive--able to think about one's thinking. Both are major ways that consciousness itself grows, since consciousness inevitably includes forms of self-consciousness.

"With awareness of oneself as a chooser goes greater choice. ... In other words, metalinguistic growth is a form of consciousness-raising, which depends not merely on grasping some concept but on taking personal action"(66).

Bless Moffett for his last statement. Rhetorical reflection, as a concept related to writing, moves beyond mere awareness to critical evaluation and judgment. That judgment forms the basis for personal action. Rhetorical reflection is directly related to action, to problems and choices and necessities and limitations and possibilities and finding the appropriate with the available means.

I wonder, however, is we could jump students too quickly toward this metalinguistic awareness. Moffett says it is the result of all the other growth. Could we expect this metalinguistic awareness too soon when our students have not grown into it yet?  I have to find an excellent research article I found on metalinguistic development, but I seem to recall that this kind of awareness comes late in development. So if this meta-linguistic, meta-cognitive capacity emerges late in growth, what kind of expectations can we have for seeing and prompting this level of thought?

A good question for research...

Sunday, September 4, 2011

James Moffett--Detecting Growth in Language

This past summer has been something of a Moffett summer for me. I spent time in June reading through Teaching the Universe of Discourse so I could pull together some broad statements about the development of writers. I paralleled Moffett's levels of abstraction with Bereiters and Scarmandalia's "knowledge telling" and "knowledge transforming" model with King and Kitchener's growth in reflective judgment. What I produced probably served to confuse my workshop attendees more than enlighten them, but for me these various models represent interesting perspectives on the same phenomena of growth.

Most recently, I've been reading through Moffett's thin (but very dense) book on Detecting Growth. He discusses 26 different "growth sequences," and his premise in the book is that instead of standardized tests (which provide a inadequate measure of growth) these growth sequences indicate real development. If we could get good at identifying these growth sequences (and fostering them), then we would not need these tests because we could easily demonstrate learning and growth in our students.

The problem, as I have been finding, is that Moffett's growth sequences are complex and difficult to grasp. He also has a dizzying number of these sequences, so that though he may have an overarching sense of development in writers, we would all need to be James Moffett to see them too. I have just finished his section on "chaining" and sentence combining. I was pleased to see that the sequence I have my students work though in the sentence combining  and editing exercises I typically use, fits with his notions of a growth sequence in how to relate ideas in sentences: from modifying to conjoining, to reducing, to embedding.

As I read Moffett, I experience a grasping of importance in a partial sense, but not the whole. I also desire this whole sense, so I can piece it together and translate it into curriculum that fosters development. I can't help but wonder if others have done this same thing (he does have his own textbooks), and I wonder if anyone has researched his concepts of development to see if they can be identified (and verified) empirically. Moffett speaks with a philosopher's voice, like Dewey or Aristotle, stating truths seemingly out of thin air that ring true and provide deep insight, and like these other philosophers he speaks from his own experience, intelligence, and speculation--not necessarily from research.

I know that I will continue to try to make sense of Moffett, and I wonder what others have said about his ideas of growth in writers.