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ARTICLE:The Care and Teaching of Hamsters and Gerbils

A discussion of current educational teaching theory: the various methods of teaching have repercussions beyond the obvious.

The Care and Teaching of Hamsters and Gerbils


While attending Indiana Univeristy of Pennsylvania, I was given handouts by Dr. Patrick Hartwell labeled "Hamster Talk" and "Gerbil Talk." In the first, a teacher tries to get some children to learn vocabulary with the use of a hamster. In the second, some children turn a remark by a visitor into a discussion of the gerbil's quarters. The purpose of the handouts was to show that the natural process method is superior, a conclusion I did not accept.

According to Webster's dictionary, a hamster is "a small rodent with a short tail often used as a pet" and a gerbil is "a small rodent with a long furry tail often used as a pet." An exhaustive search of ERIC reveals no further information. Evidently, the difference between hamsters and gerbils, or between hamster and gerbil talk, is a new field, open only to those who study sociolinguistics at IUP. And yet no one can be a good teacher unless he or she understands the differences between these two small rodents.

Hamsters are very knowledgeable creatures who have studied for many years at major universities. A typical Hamster can program a computer to write erotic poetry in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Hamsters are particularly literate when it comes to language use, reading, writing, and research. With just a cursory glance at a paper that took a graduate student many weeks of hard labor, a Hamster can decide if it should be published in CCC or consigned to the ash-heap of history.

Gerbils, on the other hand, are real dumb bunnies. For instance, they actually believe that Hamsters know how to program a computer to write erotic poetry in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Gerbils are particularly illiterate when it comes to language use, reading, writing, and research. Gerbils lack the ability to understand any paper that could ever be published in CCC.

Usually the Hamster is the teacher and the Gerbil the student although, sometimes, I could swear that it was the other way around. The problem is, how can the Hamster transmit all of his great knowledge to the Gerbil?

The most common technique is method #1, called the traditional or presentational mode. Employing this method, the Hamster struts into the classroom and really tries to make the Gerbils feel inferior. The Hamster is convinced that if he can show the Gerbils the enormous gap that lies between him and them, the Gerbils will want to be Hamsters. Of course, sometimes the Hamster is so busy showing how much more he knows that he fails to notice that the Gerbils quit paying attention a long time ago. Sometimes the Hamster is genuinely interested in reaching the Gerbils, and then they leave the room in awe of the great knowledge they have been exposed to. Later, they can remember little of what was said.

When teaching writing with method #1, the Hamster reads great writings to the Gerbils, pointing out all their nuances. He also puts sentences on the board, diagraming all their grammatical intricacies. He then asks the Gerbils to produce essays using each of the nuances and intricacies that he has demonstrated. When he gets the papers, he sadly reads them, smearing all the errors with Gerbil blood. Then in class, he sarcastically points out just how dumb those papers are before giving them back for the Gerbils to throw away.

Some Gerbils became so fed up with this treatment that they found ways to become Hamsters on their own. As Hamsters, they are convinced that all Gerbils must also learn as they did, so they have invented method #2, called the natural process mode. Using this method, the Hamster puts all the Gerbils in a cage that is slowly descending into a boiling pot of oil and refuses to let them out unless they can determine the standard deviation of the square root of a carrot. There are several possible outcomes: 1) The Gerbils all die. This does not create any fuss because they die apologetically. 2) Because some of the Gerbils are actually Hamsters, they quickly solve the problem, and then the Hamster proudly points out that his method works. 3) Because some of the Gerbils had been given the same problem before by another Hamster, they are eventually able to remember the solution, and again the Hamster is proud. 4) The Hamster cheats by giving them a very, very easy problem to solve, saying, "Oh, I am a great Hamster." 5) The Hamster asks them if they solved the problem and lets them out after they say "yes" even though they are as confused as ever.

In teaching writing, the Hamster's method is to just ask each Gerbil to write 60 pages of notes which the Hamster throws away without reading. Or he asks the Gerbils to get into groups and talk with each other and to decide what they want to write and how they want to do it. And then he throws away whatever they did. Of course, the Gerbils do as little as possible, with as little effort as possible, unless they are being held over a boiling kettle of oil.

Both method #1 and #2 fail to recognize that it is impossible for a Gerbil to change to a Hamster in one easy step. No matter how long the Hamster talks to the Gerbils or no matter how long he leaves them to talk alone, they will never become Hamsters. Nor will they learn to be better Gerbils.

One frequent outcome of all of this is that the Hamster decides that Hamsters are Hamsters and Gerbils are Gerbils and never the twain shall meet. The Hamster then refuses to have anything to do with any creature that is not another Hamster. Another common outcome is that the Gerbils decide that they hate Hamsters and vote to cut educational funding and spend the money on bombs instead.

Because neither #1 nor #2 work, some Hamsters began creating method #3, the environmental mode. Using this method, the Hamster begins to think like a Gerbil. He asks himself, "If I was a Gerbil, what would I need to learn before I could understand this?" Then the Hamster begins to construct materials and to plan activities that will help the Gerbils bridge the gap step by step. An amazing change takes place: the Gerbils begin to learn. Not only do they become better Gerbils, but many become Hamsters.

In teaching writing using method #3, the Hamster helps the Gerbils by breaking the writing process into steps and by providing instruction, practice, and/or help with each step. In addition, the Hamster provides directions for the Gerbils to rewrite their papers. At the end, many happy Gerbils are proud of their progress.

However, most Hamsters are not happy about method #3. They say that spoon-feeding the Gerbils causes the poor Hamster to work too hard. Also, if the Hamster helps the Gerbils, then they really haven't learned anything anyway. Finally, this method makes it too hard to separate the Hamsters from the Gerbils.

On the other hand, a few Hamsters have decided that method #3 is not good enough. They don't want the best Gerbils to do well; they want every Gerbil to be successful. With method #4, called mastery learning, the Hamster uses tests and papers for diagnostic information. Each time a Gerbil has trouble, the Hamster provides further help. Unfortunately, this method really does take time.

In teaching writing using method #4, the goal of the Hamster is to assure that every paper reaches a clear standard. The Hamster will sit down with the Gerbils time and again until their papers demonstrate the required performance. As the Gerbil learns techniques and masters writing skills, he needs less and less attention until he produces effective papers without help.

Now, of course, everything said so far is likely to raise disagreement -- especially since we are not really talking about rodents but about people. Although I have been more sarcastic about methods #1 and #2 because I have experienced their shortcomings, I am sure that students exist that could tell me horror stories about #3 and #4.

While the difference between Hamsters and Gerbils above seems to be thinking skills and/or maturity, there are other important dimensions. Hamsters have power and thus tend to be judgmental and authoritarian; Gerbils are powerless and therefore are forced to be passive and adaptable. Hamsters at some schools are analytical and precise and thus torture all global Gerbils; Hamsters at other schools are imaginative and creative and thus torture all practical Gerbils. The mistreatment of Gerbils by Hamsters is so universal that Gerbils seldom show visible reaction even when suffering from headaches and depression. On the other hand, they show genuine astonishment when they discover a Hamster who wants to help them reach their objectives.

All four methods (really philosophies) of instruction have their supporters, and I think the reason is that they all work at times, but they work with different purposes and/or for different people and/or for different learning situations. To say that all of these methods are effective at one time or another is not the same thing as saying they are all equally good. Each one has major handicaps. Using one of them in the wrong situation is disastrous. Being aware of their characteristics is especially important because many teachers mix these methods and may not recognize how fundamentally different they really are.

Although the interpretation of these methods is my own, the information comes from analysis, research, and meta-analysis. George Hillocks' analysis and meta-analysis is the source for information about the first three methods (1981, 1984, 1986) while information about the fourth method comes from Bloom (1984) and from Keller (1968), with meta-research of studies by Kulik and Kulik (1990). Stern (1984) talks about Bloom's research and provides some criticisms of methods #1 to #3 of Hillocks, saying that he has not allowed for all possible combinations and has combined characteristics that would not be always found together. She provides some nice terms for Hillocks' three methods: explicit instruction, discovery learning, and guided instruction.

Method #1, the presentational mode, is teacher-centered, based on the idea of transferring information from an authority to a learner. Classes are taught by lecture or guided discussion. The teacher's opinions are considered correct. Provided the teacher is a careful planner, this method can result in the transfer of a great deal of information in a short period of time. For this method to work well, the teacher needs visuals and handouts, and the teacher needs to pre-think some of the problems that the learners will have. This is the only effective method for TV teaching and auditorium audiences. Even when not really learning from a presentation class, students may like it because they are under less strain and only need to recall what the teacher said.

The presentational mode has the inherent weaknesses of 1) not providing the teacher with information about the learners, 2) requiring the learners to be careful listeners and note takers only (passive learners), and 3) not allowing the learners a chance to test what they have just learned. This method of teaching is poor for learners who need positive engagement in the learning process. It may also be poor for visual learners if audio-visuals and handouts are not used.

In teaching writing using this mode, the teacher is likely to stress the elements of writing that can be discussed easily, such as models of good writing, organization, grammar, and elements of style.

Looking at the teaching of composition, Hillocks (1984) discovered a very low improvement for students in presentational classes over the controls, about .02 standard deviations. This small difference may have been influenced by the teaching of grammar in these classes (which had a negative effect) and the use of models (mild positive effect). On the other hand, since this is the standard method, perhaps we should expect a .00 result. Hillocks found in another study (1981) that student interest and student perception of teacher preparation most influenced their attitudes towards the class: this method received moderate scores on both items.

Method #2, the natural process mode, is student-centered, based on the idea that students will find their own answers and do not need an authority to guide them. With this method, the students' opinions are considered correct. In the typical class, the students will work together in small groups without much direction from the teacher. This method can work very well 1) if the information or technique they need to know can be inferred, 2) if the students will take responsibility for their own learning, 3) if they see this process as valuable, and 4) if classroom dynamics work well.

The natural process mode has the inherent weaknesses of 1) not giving the teacher sufficient knowledge of the students, 2) not providing any real role for the teacher, 3) leaving a great deal to chance, and 4) often creating frustration for the students.

In teaching writing, the teacher is likely to ask for journals or other free-written assignments, that is, spontaneous writing with no requested focus or style. Alternatively, the teacher may tell the students to write conventional essays on whatever topics they prefer. Students get feedback in most classes from the other students although the teacher will sometimes provide positive statements.

Hillocks (1981) discovered that the students were least satisfied with this method of teaching composition, giving the lowest scores for interest in the class and for teacher preparation. However, their progress was better than with method #1 as this mode scored .18 standard deviations over the controls. These results are undoubtedly influenced by the use of free writing which had a similar weak positive effect (1984).

Method #3, the environmental mode, is learning-centered, based on the idea that students can discover truths if they have an authority to guide them. This method can be seen as a combination of methods #1 and 2 (not as an extension of #2 as some have said), and an attempt to provide the best characteristics of both. In this classroom, the teacher provides the students with materials to help them through the various steps of the learning process. Both teachers and students generate opinions, but neither is considered to be always correct. While the steps of method #3 are reminiscent of primary school, they work well at all levels if appropriate, even in graduate school. Methods similar to the environmental mode are also used in TESL where all materials and teacher talk are designed to be just ahead, but within reach, of the student ("L + 1"). This method works well if 1) the activities are appropriate for the students, and 2) the class moves at a suitable pace.

The environment mode is less effective at creating good listeners and in adapting students to dealing with stress. It also requires the teacher to be very knowledgeable, to spend a great deal of time in preparation, and to be willing to accept student opinion. Classroom materials must be adapted for the learners; if great differences exist between the students, some will find the steps too great and others too small. Finding helpful steps is the quest of the environmental teacher.

In teaching writing, the environmental teacher will use materials and small assignments that get the students involved (usually in small groups) in interpreting their assignment or papers. Hillocks found two common types of tasks: "scales" (the students evaluate writing samples), and "inquiry" (the students focus on discovering better writing strategies).

In Hillocks' study (1981), the students thought that the composition classes using this mode were the most interesting and that the teachers were the best prepared, giving top scores for both. The improvement in learning was .44 standard deviations. The higher score for this method was undoubtedly influenced by the higher scores for the use of "scales" and "inquiry." "Inquiry" shows the highest gain of any focus or mode in Hillocks' meta-analysis -- .56 standard deviations above the controls (1984).

Method #4, mastery learning, learner-centered, is based on the idea that all students can and should be successful learners. Mastery learning can be part of a presentational or environmental class but is philosophically almost the opposite of the natural process mode because the student is required to reach the goals of the teacher. In addition, mastery learning works very well without any classroom at all. With this method, the student is constantly being tested (or writing papers) to ensure that the student masters each step of the process. This method requires both an expert teacher, extremely clear objectives (students must rise to the standard to pass), and careful pacing to make sure the student covers the material within the time limit.

Mastery-learning is more effective with weak students than with strong although both improve (Kulik and Kulik 1990). It also requires kinds of learning that can be measured and that authorities will agree about. Suhor (1983) almost seems to equate mastery learning to learning by rote; certainly this would be a fatal shortcoming; however, Bloom (1984) states that any or all items of his taxonomy (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation) can be used for evaluation. One unavoidable problem is that mastery learning takes much of the initiative from the student.

Bloom (1984) claims for mastery learning a gain of 2.00 standard deviations (98%) over the controls when students are tutored privately or in small groups and a gain of 1.00 standard deviations (84%) when the students are taught in regular classes. Kulik and Kulik (1990), however, found a much smaller gain in their meta-analysis: classes using Keller's system averaged .48 standard deviations of growth over the control, and classes using Bloom's system averaged .59. These smaller growth changes may be due to the method of determining growth; Kulik and Kulik used only the final test for their determination. None of these studies were of composition classes, so the data is only semi-comparable with Hillocks'.

Although many articles discuss mastery learning, few deal with composition, and only one discusses but does not describe a mastery-learning composition class (Wallace, 1980). In particular, no studies have been made of mastery learning composition classes since 1992. However, two methods of instruction seem to be closely related. In a portfolio class, students are asked to continually rewrite their papers until further improvement is impossible. In the writing center, students are given unlimited help until they are satisfied.

My own experiences suppport Hillocks' and Kuliks and Kuliks' findings.

As a student thirty-odd years ago, I found the traditional classes a poor environment in which to learn. I could remember every word that was said, and I could interpret the text readily; however, I needed more opportunities to perform (two or three tests and an occasional term paper were typical), and I needed some feedback about my work (the only comment was the grade). Recently, teaching English 102 (which I haven't taught in years) on a part-time job, I found myself drifting towards the presentational method. The students, used to that method, also pushed me in that direction, not wanting to discuss or prepare, and not coming for help with their papers. The results were poor, not because the students lacked sufficient ability, but because they did not apply what I taught.

In my own experience, I have discovered that my students like least those methods associated with the natural process method. They are bored with sentence combining and think free writing is a waste of time. If I don't read their papers, they just write junk. If they are asked to write collaborately, one student does most of the work. If asked to evaluate each other's papers, they gossip instead. If I don't correct drafts, they fail to revise them. In a portfolio class, they wait until the last week to begin working. However, I have seen two cases when natural process classes worked well. In the late 60's, I had some students who wanted to take over a literature class, and I let them. I did not think the class was superior or inferior in any way except that the students enjoyed it more. When I was taking a class on syllabus design at the University of Alabama in 1991, Dr. David Crookall divided us into groups to have us create syllabusses and materials for each other. Since this was a task we were all interested in and since our natural competitiveness provided ample fuel, this was a class that really took off.

On the other hand, my students have reacted favorably to methods that are the opposite of the natural process mode. They like being pretested for grammar/mechanics, and they don't resent such instruction. They expect careful directions and explanations for papers. They like to work in a computer lab on assigned topics. On their drafts, they want me to mark all of their errors and to give thorough evaluations. They want grades with every assignment and an opportunity to redo any unsatisfactory work.

My best learners are not satisfied with classroom learning and business as usual. They come to me in the evenings, and we go over every paper and discuss every detail until they have learned everything I can teach them. I can tell that this instruction is working by the tremendous improvements in their drafts and on their final exams. Some, who were weak writers when they began, later reported making "A's" on all their papers after leaving my class.

My interest in mastery learning, then, has come from my students. Many of my most persistent learners have been Asian students. One class of these students scored so low on the Michigan Test of English Language Proficiency that the chart recommended that they not take any non-ESL classes, and yet they wrote better papers than most of my American students. Stevenson and Stiger (1992) point out that the weakest fifth-grade classes in Sendai, Taipei, and Beijing score above the strongest American classes in Minneapolis and Chicago on matched tests. One characteristic of Asian schools is the belief that all students can and will master every subject.

Going to IUP certainly helped me understand why my students don't like natural process methods. I find I hate writing journals, I am bored with classes with no object except free discussion, I dislike group papers, and I miss receiving grades. I am often angry, depressed, or frustrated, and I don't feel I am learning anything. Instead of feeling lost, I would like my professors to understand what I need to learn, I would like to see clear objectives for each class, I would like my professors to teach me things I don't know, and I would like to have my papers carefully marked, so I can improve them.

Why do educators promote natural process methods if those methods don't generally work as well as environmental and mastery methods? I can suggest several reasons. First, democratic methods appeal to highly social students, such as those I taught in the 60's when the free speech movement was strong. Second, the lack of instruction may create no problems for students who were carefully taught in high school. Third, the lack of focus creates opportunities for liberal instructors with social agendas. Fourth, the lack of objectives appeals to intuitive, thinking, perceptive teachers who reject the concrete, emotional, and closure-seeking goals of many students. While stretching students' capabilities is desirable, making them suffer is not; we neither can nor should all be alike. Fifth, the natural process mode requires the least amount of teacher preparation. Finally, everyone wants to be part of the main stream. Papers that comform to current understanding get published; teachers that use the right terms get jobs.

Nonetheless, practical teaching has strong supporters as well. Practical articles and books still get published. In the field of composition, computers and writing centers have become popular because they are effective at helping students reach their own goals. So, I don't think it's suicide to seek practical goals, nor do I think, as one IUP R&L student advised, that it is necessary to get a degree in business in order to teach writing.

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