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
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.
#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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.