You mean there's a name for that?

I was thinking about the post I made yesterday (The Highest F). It reminds me of an old trick that is sometimes used on the first day of basic news writing courses in college. The prof asks the class if they know how to write a news lead. Most students in a reporting class have done a bit of writing for the high school paper, so they raise their hands and spout something about who, what, when, where and how, the inverted pyramid, etc.

“Okay” says the prof. “Let's see your stuff. Here are some facts. I want you to put them in order from the most to the least important and write me a lead that nails the most newsworthy detail in the story." Then she walks to the board and writes down the following facts:

Who: The college faculty.

What: Attend an excellence in education conference.

Where: Chicago.

When: Monday, September 2.

Why: To improve instruction.

How: Leave by bus at 6:00 am and return at 8:00 pm.

Now the students start writing their leads, careful to get all of the facts into the first paragraph. The prof walks around the room looking at their efforts and snorting derisively. She says, “I can’t believe it. Everybody single one of you missed the story. How is that possible? I thought you said you had written for a newspaper before.” Now the students are starting to feel a bit uneasy. They look back at their leads and wonder ‘Did I miss a something? What’s she want?’

“For cryin’ out loud," she moans, "The lead is There will be no classes on Monday because the entire faculty will be in Chicago attending a conference. Any idiot with tape recorder can get the facts. It takes a reporter with a brain to get the story.”

I have never forgotten this lesson, but it was not until years later that I realized it actually demonstrated a concept from cognitive psychology called “field dependency," which is the inability to move back from a dataset to see larger patterns or the implications of the information's totality. Over the years, too, I have used all kinds of self-designed in-class exercises without realizing that what I was doing had some basis in cognitive psychology or educational theory.

Point in case: I used to teach an introduction to mass communication course, and I would ask the students on the first day if those two boys who shot up their high school in Colorado were the product of watching too much violent mass media. To a person, the students would say no. “Those kids were screwed up. Besides, I have watched all that stuff and I haven’t shot anybody.” I would wait until the next class and ask if they thought there was a connection between anorexia and all of the images of painfully thin fashion models in the media. “You bet," they would say. "Those images are the cause of anorexia and bulimia.”

“Now, wait a minute,” I’d say. “Two days ago you said mass media could not make two guys become violent, but now you are saying media can cause thousands of young women to starve themselves to death. Sounds to me like you have a problematic theory of mass media effects on behavior.” And then I would get them to refine their theories.

So a few years later I am at this conference and a guy is talking about the pedagogical uses of something called “expectation failure.” The trick, he says, is to get students to state an expectation or articulate their thinking and then allow them to discover that this expectation or mental model is problematic. And I am sitting there thinking, “You mean there’s actually a name for that thing I do in class?”

If I ever did know what I was doing, I’d be dangerous.


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