Cognitive tools: Extremes and limits

Extremes of experience and limits of reality

It is a commonly recommended principle that when introducing something new to students that you should start with what is already familiar to them, and work out to the new material from that secured basis. That works some of the time, of course, and can be a useful stimulant to students’ engagement; it is useful as a “hook.” But, perhaps counter-intuitively, and perhaps even more engaging over a longer term, is the opposite principle—that is, begin with what is most strange, exotic, weird, and distant from students’ everyday experience; start with the extremes of experience and the limits of reality.

Put as a general principle like that, this might seem itself strange, exotic and extreme. But once literacy begins to take hold we do tend to focus energetically on the extremes, on the most exotic and bizarre features of reality, on the most terrible and courageous events. Consider for just a moment the favourite reading of students around ages eight to eleven or so: sensational news items, TV shows, YouTube videos, viral website attractions, etc. and publications like The Guinness Book of Records.

The reason literacy encourages a new conception of reality and a fascination with its extreme and odd features is not hard to understand.  If, with unusual generosity, we were to include with reading this website a prize of a visit to a north Italian hill-town with an invitation to explore it at your leisure. You would be a bit foolish to pull out a magnifying  glass and start examining the details of your hotel carpet and wall paper, before working gradually down the corridor and into the street.  You’d be smarter to set about locating the main square and the cathedral, discovering where the town walls were, and examining the more unusual buildings. Your attention would also be drawn to behaviors, clothing, artifacts, customs, etc. that were most unfamiliar to you. That is, in any new environment we strive to orient ourselves by establishing the limits of the environment and its most outstanding features.  It is a sensible strategy, and we see it vividly at work when literacy stimulates a new conception of reality.  As Jerome Bruner puts it, “literacy comes into its full power as a goad to the redefinition of reality” (1988, p. 205). (Why literacy should stimulate this new sense of reality is explored in Egan’s The Educated Mind.)

In the imaginative classroom we will commonly include some features of literacy whose strangeness or extreme exposes something about how language and literacy work and that also engage students’ imaginations in the process.

Give me a couple of quick example of how I might easily teach about, and help students practice using, metaphors in literacy classes.

1.    Teachers can, of course, constantly throw in simple questions that explore some of the limits, extremes, exotica, or records of written language itself.  As students learn the difference between vowels and consonants, and see how the two are distributed in words, one can ask what word has most vowels together, or most consonants together, or what word has most consonants with only a single vowel or most vowels with only a single consonant, or what word has most double letters.  (One cannot suggest such questions without providing the answers, even though one can find them in a number of those “Play with Words” books. For the most vowels, the word ‘queueing’ contains five together (some spoilsport dictionaries give it only as “queuing”, but most, including the Oxford English Dictionary, allow both).  ‘Queue’ is an odd word in that it would be pronounced the same even if you lop off its last four letters one by one.  Most consonants together are found in ‘latchstring’—not exactly an everyday word!  Most consonants with only a single vowel—’strengths’.  Most vowels with a single consonant—there are a number, perhaps the most commonly used is ‘Eerie’.  Word with most double letters—’bookkeeper’.  Richard Lederer, from whom I’ve taken these examples, suggests that a bookkeeper’s assistant could set a new record as a ‘subbookkeeper’ ( Lederer, 1989)).

Such items may seem trivial but they are mildly engaging to most people who become literate because they set some limits to what is possible with English writing.  They assist, that is, in distancing the user of literacy to a point where the user can see language, in some sense, as an object, as a tool.  Even odd items—like the words whose letters have the most continuous dots (Beijing, Fiji), or those made up of letter sounds (essay-SA; enemy-NME; expediency-XPDNC)—contribute to this process of externalizing language from our bodies and examining the means by which we perform this strange magic.  We sometimes call its product meta-linguistic awareness.  It is useful to recognize that such a serious-sounding condition can be brought about in part by examining peculiar and quite accidental features of written language.

2.    We can move from simple activities that help students identify a combination of letters and the sound they make to exploring what other letters can make the same sound. Take the sound made by the digraph “ch” in “church.” We can ask students first to identify the “ch” sound in: chilly  chat  teacher change  kitchen    champion   search   watchdog   March   chalk  pitcher hatch  beach   child cheeseburger   charity chance catcher   channel, and so on. We can further encourage awareness of written language as an imprecise code for mapping sound by then asking students what other combination of letters can make the same sounds as ‘ch.’  (This reinforces knowledge of the ‘ch’ combination while also making a small game for the students. Answers can include “tch” as in “patch;” in many accents, “ti” as in “question;” “cz” as in “Czechoslovakia;” and so on.)  A more complex form of this kind of puzzle would use Bernard Shaw’s example of the illogic of English orthography:  ‘ghoti’ is one way of writing what is more commonly written as ‘fish’—’gh’ as in ‘enough’; ‘o’ as in ‘women’; ‘ti’ as in ‘nation’.  Students might be invited to take any common word and invent an imaginative spelling for it.  Some might think that such a game would run the danger of reinforcing bad spelling, but in nearly all cases the reverse is likely the case. A further exercise can be to identify how many different sounds are commonly indicated by “ch” in English and why there are such differences (first, there is the pronunciation as in “church;” second, those from Greek-derived words, like “character,” “school;” “Christmas;” “ache;” “chemist;” “echo;” “chorus;”  etc., and, third, those derived from French, as in “chef;” “chaperone;” “machine;” “chauffeur;” “moustache;” “parachute;” and so on. (One might also learn some social history in the process.)

3.    More generally the sense of reality comes from first exploring the extremes of the natural, social, and historical worlds within which we live.  Exercises, then, might prove more engaging and meaningful if we occasionally use them to convey exotic information.  A common writing assignment for more advanced students is to convert a text from one format to another.  The following conveys a piece of information that might be found to be exotic and surprising to a person in the U.S.A.  It does so in a dialogue form; the assignment is to convert it into straight reportage:

Jean:    “Do you know what state in the U.S. is named for Julius Caesar?” Tom:    “None of them.” Jean:    “No.  One is.  I’ll give you a clue.  In 55 BCE Julius Caesar invaded Britain.  After a summer of battles, he withdrew his army for the winter to some islands off the coast of Gaul—what we now call France.” Tom:    “That’s the clue?” Jean:    “Yes.  The clue is the name of the islands.  They were called ‘Insulae Caesareae,’ (pronounced Kaizerieye) or Caesar’s Islands.” Tom:    “Never heard of them.” Jean:    “Yes, you have.  On those islands a particular breed of cow was developed which was also as a result called after Julius Caesar.” Tom:    “A cow?  I give up.” Jean:    “Well, over the centuries “Caesareae” changed from Caesareae to Caeseri to Chesery to Chersy to Jersey.  So New Jersey is really New Caesar.” Tom:    “Wow.  Is that true?” Jean:    “Sure is.” Tom:    “Hey, my uncle lives in New Caesar.  Bet he doesn’t know it.” Jean:    “When did you last see a Caesar cow?”

More generally again, one could build many of the usual contextless exercises on such information as fills The Guinness Book of Records or other collections of the strange and extreme.  The literacy teacher might usefully keep such texts to hand and draw on appropriate examples when designing exercises for students.

How else can we employ extremes and limits in teaching?

Here we will give a series of examples of how a teacher can use and develop students’ literacy capacities in everyday classrooms, associating “extremes and limits” with many of the other cognitive tools in lesson plans you can use. Click here to link to a variety of lesson ideas.

You can read more about extremes and limits here.

Some concluding words about extremes and limits

Perhaps we should add a qualifier to the point about focusing on the limits of reality.  In part, this common fascination we see in newly literate students with, say, the subject matter of The Guinness Book of Records (Who was the biggest, or smallest, or hairiest person?  Who had the longest fingernails?  Who has pulled the heaviest weight with their teeth, and so on?) is a search for a kind of intellectual security about their own life and circumstances.  They are not fascinated by who had the longest fingernails for that person’s sake, but because it tells them something about proper scale and about norms, by limiting the possible.  That is, in a roundabout way they are seeking knowledge about themselves.  So when we suggest that teaching will be more effective by occasionally engaging students with the limits of the real world and human experience, we don’t mean that this will thereby remove any focus on their everyday world.  We want knowledge to empower them to deal better with precisely that.  The everyday world around them can become more meaningful, and meaningful in a new way, if we can help to orient the learners to it through attention to the limits or context within which it exists.  So emphasis on the extremes and limits of reality does not remove students’ attention from everyday experience, but rather it enables them to see it in a new light and a wider context—a light that should give them greater security and confidence in dealing with it.