February 28: Essay Day

On this date in 1571 in Bordeaux, France, a nobleman named Michel de Montaigne sat down to write.  It was his 38th birthday, and he had just retired from public life where he held a seat in the Bordeaux parliament.  What Montaigne wrote that day and what he would write for the next twenty years influenced countless future writers of prose.

Michel de Montaigne 1.jpgMontaigne wrote essays, but he wasn’t just writing essays, he was inventing the genre.  He called his compositions “essais” from the French verb “essayer” meaning “to try.”  An essai, therefore, is an “attempt” or a “trial” where the writer attempts to address a question and figure it out (1).  Unlike the concept we have today of beginning an essay with a thesis – a statement of belief – the original idea of the essay was instead to begin with a question.  The attempt to answer this question in writing then becomes the  process by which a writer explores his or her thinking, getting ideas down on paper so that they can be examined.  The act of writing, then, becomes the act of forming ideas and the exploring those ideas so that the writer knows what he or she really thinks.  In this sense the essay becomes a form of metacognition, or thinking about your own thinking.  The abstract thoughts of a writer are transformed into visible words on paper.  This allows writers to see what they know and what they don’t know.  By further rumination, examination, and revision of those thoughts, they can crystallize their thoughts, making them more clear to themselves and to an audience.

Montaigne’s essay were intensely personal.  He wrote about sleep, smells, idleness, anger, repentance, and thumbs, but his main subject was always himself.  By expressing and exploring ideas about himself in writing, he discovered that he not only understood himself better, but also understood his own thoughts and his own thoughts about the world.

For example, in the following excerpt from his essay entitled “On the Inconstancy of Our Actions,” notice how Montaigne explores the idea of inconsistent human behavior by honestly confronting his own character and actions:

For my part, the puff of every accident not only carries me along with it according to its own proclivity, but moreover I discompose and trouble myself by the instability of my own posture; and whoever will look narrowly into his own bosom, will hardly find himself twice in the same condition. I give to my soul sometimes one face and sometimes another, according to the side I turn her to. If I speak variously of myself, it is because I consider myself variously; all the contrarieties are there to be found in one corner or another; after one fashion or another: bashful, insolent; chaste, lustful; prating, silent; laborious, delicate; ingenious, heavy; melancholic, pleasant; lying, true; knowing, ignorant; liberal, covetous, and prodigal: I find all this in myself, more or less, according as I turn myself about; and whoever will sift himself to the bottom, will find in himself, and even in his own judgment, this volubility and discordance. I have nothing to say of myself entirely, simply, and solidly without mixture and confusion. (2)

Montaigne reminds us of the power of writing not just as a way of expressing what we know, but also of discovering what we know by getting our thinking down on paper.  When we write, therefore, we aren’t just learning how to write, we are writing to learn.

Read the four quotations below, noting how each of the writers vividly illustrates the connection between thinking and writing:

Writers take thoughts from the invisible mind and make them visible on paper.  They can then contemplate this objectified thought and revise it until it becomes the best thinking of which they are capable.  -R.D. Walshe

Writing is a way of freezing our thinking, of slowing down the thoughts that pass through our consciousness at lightning speed, so that we can examine our views and alter them if appropriate.  Writing enables us to note inconsistencies, logical flaws, and areas that would benefit from additional clarity. -Dennis Sparks

Writing enables us to find out what we know — and what we don’t know — about whatever we’re trying to learn.  Putting an idea into written words is like defrosting the windshield:  the idea, so vague out there in the murk, slowly begins to gather itself into shape. -William Zinsser

Just as inviting people over forces you to clean up your apartment, writing something that other people will read forces you to think well. So it does matter to have an audience. The things I’ve written just for myself are no good. They tend to peter out. When I run into difficulties, I find I conclude with a few vague questions and then drift off to get a cup of tea.  -Paul Graham

Today’s Challenge:  Thinking in Ink

What is a question that you have about some aspect of universal human experience, such as anger, happiness, love, lying, or marriage?  Select a universal human theme and form a question about that theme that you do not have a definitive answer to.  Explore that question in a personal essay by writing about different ways the question might be answered and by answering it based on your own memory, observations, and experiences. Don’t commit yourself to supporting a single thesis; instead, try to truly explore your own ideas in writing to see what new thinking emerges.

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words.”  –William H. Gass

1-http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/montaigne/

2-http://essays.quotidiana.org/montaigne/inconstancy_of_our_actions/

 

February 27: Irony Day

On this date in 1996, singer songwriter Alanis Morissette released her song “Ironic,” a song from her album Jagged Little Pill.  Although the song was a hit, reaching number 4 on the Billboard Top 100, the song’s title “Ironic” is a misnomer.  As you can see by the lyrics of  the song’s chorus, for example, the situations described may be unfortunate, but they are not ironic:

A woman in silhouette singing and bending down with the microphone. The silhouette background is filled with red lights and shadows, and the words "Alanis", "Morissette" and "Ironic" are written in white cursive letters at the bottom half of the image.It’s like rain on your wedding day

It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid

It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take

Who would’ve thought, it figures

To understand the concept of irony, it’s necessary to understand its various forms, forms that relate to spoken language (Verbal Irony), to real life situations (Situational Irony), and to literary situations (Dramatic Irony):

Verbal Irony:  A type of figurative language where someone intentionally says one thing while meaning another thing, usually the exact opposite.  This usually involves the use of overstatement or understatement, as in “I can’t wait to get home and get to work on my 10 hours of homework” or “Yeah, Michael Jordan is pretty good basketball player.”  One specific subclass of verbal irony is sarcasm, which is irony that is used to insult or to cause harm.

Situational Irony:  Irony that involves a situation in which actions have an effect that is opposite from what was intended or when there is a discrepancy between what is expected to happen and what actually happens.  For example, rain on your wedding day is not ironic but a fire station that burns down is.

Dramatic Irony:  This type of irony occurs in fiction and involves events in a story where the audience is aware of something that the characters in the story are not.  For example, in Romeo and Juliet this occurs when Juliet’s father and mother are planning her wedding to Paris.  The audience knows that Juliet is already married to Romeo, but the Capulets are clueless.

Based on these definitions we can conclude that the only thing ironic about Morissette’s song is that a song that is entitled “Ironic” contains nothing ironic.

Probably the best thing about Morissette’s song is that it spawned a website devoted entirely to the topic of irony called IsItIronic.com.  Founded by Paul Lowton in 2006, the mission of IsItIronic.com is to provide a writer’s resource for definitions and examples of irony.  At the site, readers can submit their own questions, such as “Is it ironic that there was a hotdog eating contest to raise money for obesity awareness?”  Readers at the website are also invited to calibrate their own sense of true irony by voting on the questions submitted.  

The following are irony questions submitted by readers.  Each is followed by the percentage of readers who answered, “Yes, it is ironic.”:

Is it ironic if you have a phobia of long words you have to tell people that you have hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia?  (91%)

Is it ironic that: It takes sadness to know what happiness is.. It takes noise to appreciate silence, and absence to value presence”? (63%)

Is it ironic that a student spells every word on a spelling test wrong except for the word illiterate? (85%)

Is it ironic that I cut myself on a first aid box? (84%)

Is it ironic that a tree dedicated to George Harrison has been killed by Beetles? (65%)

Today’s Challenge:  A Tale That’s Dripping With Irony

What is a story you have heard or a personal experience you have had that involves real irony?  Tell a story that contains one of the three forms of irony.  It may be a true story based on your experiences, a story you have heard second hand, or a fictional anecdote you create.

Quotation of the Day:  The supreme irony of life is that hardly anyone gets out of it alive. -Robert A. Heinlein

1-http://www.isitironic.com/alanis-morissette.htm

February 26: Kernel Sentence Day

On this 26th day of the second month it makes sense to use the most fundamental tool of literacy, the 26 letters of the alphabet, to create the most fundamental construction of English syntax, the two-word kernel sentence.

In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King asks readers to explore this challenge by combining subjects and predicates to form the most basic simple sentences:

Take any noun, put it with any verb, and you have a sentence.  It never fails.  Rocks explode.  Jane transmits.  Mountains float.  These are all perfect sentences.  Many such thoughts make little rational sense, but even the stranger ones (Plums deify!) have a kind of poetic weight that’s nice.  Simple sentences provide a path you can follow in the tangles of rhetoric – all those restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, those modifying phrases, those appositives and compound-complex sentences.  If you start to freak out at the sight of such unmapped territory (unmapped by you, at least), just remind yourself that rocks explode, Jane transmits, mountains float, and plums deify.”

As King confirms the essential core elements of each English sentence is its kernel – the subject-noun and predicate-verb.  

Today’s Challenge:  Alliterative Abecedarian

What are some possible subjects (nouns) of sentences and some possible predicates (verbs)?   Brainstorm a list of subjects, alphabetically from A to Z.  Then, do the same thing with predicates, listing verbs from A to Z.  Finally, follow Stephen King’s advice and combine your subjects and predicates to form two-word alliterative kernel sentences, like the following examples:

Ants annihilate.

Buses bypass.

Cats caterwaul.

Dandruff defaces.

Ears eavesdrop.

Flamingos flock.

Quotation of the Day:  The way you live your day is a sentence in the story of your life. Each day you make the choice whether the sentence ends with a period, question mark, or exclamation point. -Steve Maraboli

 

February 25: Bunk Day

On this date in 1820, Felix Walker, a congressman representing Buncombe County, North Carolina, delivered a speech that eventually lead to the creation of a new English word.

The 16th Congress was debating the issue of statehood for the territory of Missouri.  The key conflict in the debate was the issue of slavery and whether or not Missouri should be admitted as a free state or a slave state.  In the midst of the debate, Congressman Walker rose to speak.  However, instead of presenting remarks that were germane to the issue of slavery, Walker instead began to ramble about topics totally unrelated to the issue at hand.  As he continued to drone on with his irrelevant speech, his colleagues attempted stifle him.  Walker resisted, saying that he had been sent to Washington to deliver a speech, and he would, therefore, continue to address the constituents who elected him in North Carolina.  Walker specific words were:  “I shall not be speaking to the House but to Buncombe.”

Walker’s speech was not forgotten — not because of its great content, but because it became synonymous with the type of insincere, bombastic nonsense that some politicians are known for.  The Americanism that emerged from the Walker incident took that name of the Congressman’s county Buncombe, spelling it as bunkum.  Today we recognize the clipped form bunk, meaning “empty, pretentious nonsense.”

Later in 1923, novelist and biographer William E. Woodward wrote a novel called Bunk.  In the novel, Woodward introduced the verb debunk, meaning “the act of exposing false claims” (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Debunk A Myth

What is a statement made by some people that you think is not true?  How would you go about debunking this myth?  Identify a statement that people sometimes make as if it is absolute truth, such as the examples below of statements that people make about language.  Research the issue, and then write a paragraph explaining why specifically that statement is not true.  Cite your sources.

-A word is only a word if it is in the dictionary.

-Lexicographers make up the words that go in the dictionary.

-English is the official language of the United States.

-The meanings of words always remains the same.

-Slang is ruining the English language.

-There is only one English language.

-You should never end a sentence with a preposition.

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Science and technology revolutionize our lives, but memory, tradition and myth frame our response. –Arthur M. Schlesinger

1-Chrysti the Wordsmith.  Verbivore’s Feast Second Course.  Helena, Montana, Farcountry Press, 2006: 43.

2- Dickson, Paul  Authorisms: Words Wrought by Writers.  New York:  Bloomsbury, 2014:  53.

 

February 24:  Two Things Day

On this date in 2012 The Guardian newspaper published a column entitled, “This Column Will Change Your Life:  The Two Things.”

The column begins with an anecdote about the economist Glen Whitman.  In 2002 Whitman was sitting in a bar and struck up a conversation with a stranger.  Upon discovering that Whitman was an economist, the stranger asked, “So, what are the Two Things about economics?”  Whitman wasn’t sure what he meant by “Two Things” so he asked for clarification.  The stranger replied:  “You know, the Two Things. For every subject, there are only two things you need to know. Everything else is the application of those two things, or just not important.”

Getting the picture, Whitman thought for a moment and replied with his Two Things about economics:  “One: incentives matter. Two: there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

That brief conversation in a bar in 2002 began Whitman’s quest for other Two Things from other fields, such as philosophy, marketing, finance, and computer science.  The idea behind the Two Things game is to distill and to simplify.  To do this experts must re-examine what they know and go back to basics.  This helps them see their field with new eyes.   Experts within a single field seldom agree on their Two Things; nevertheless, what they come up with is always interesting and illuminating, both to insiders and to outsiders.

At his website Whitman has collected numerous examples by posing the Two Things question.  Here are a few examples of the answers he’s gotten from various fields and areas of expertise:

The Two Other Things about Marketing:

  1. Find out who is buying your product.
  2. Find more buyers like them.

The Two Things about Advertising:

  1.  Get people’s attention
  2.  Overwhelm them with charm.

Two Things about Trial Lawyering:

  1.  90% is just showing up (borrowed from Woody Allen’s philosophy of life).
  2.  When you are winning, keep your mouth shut.

The Two Things about Neuroscience:

  1. Neurons strengthen or weaken signal strength between connected synapses.
  2. If you think you’ve found the part of the brain that controls _________, you’re probably wrong.

The Two Things about Writing:

  1.  Include what’s necessary.
  2.  Leave everything else out.

The Two Things about Editing:

  1.  Know the rules.
  2.  Pay attention. (2)

Today’s Challenge:  Two Things Game

What would you say is the area or field in which you have the most expertise?  What are the two things that people need to know about that area or field?  Select an academic discipline, an area of interest (such as a hobby, sport, or pastime), a profession, a specific person, place, thing, or idea that you know well.  Then determine what the Two Things are that everyone needs to know about it.  Assume that your audience knows little about your topic, and write an explanation that goes with each of your two things. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe. -Albert Einstein

1-http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2012/feb/24/two-things-to-know-oliver-burkeman

2-The Two Things by Glen Whitman

http://www.csun.edu/~dgw61315/thetwothings.html

 

February 23:  Best Two Songs Day

On this date in 1978, two songs tied for Song of the Year at the 20th Annual Grammy Awards held in Los Angeles.  The two songs were Barbra Streisand’s “Evergreen” (Love Theme from A Star Is Born) and Debby Boone’s “You Light Up My Life.”  It was the first time in Grammy history that there was a tie for Song of the Year.  Today neither song has stood the test of time as a quality song.  The best choice in retrospect would have been the Eagles “Hotel California,” which also nominated and which still receives airplay today.  Fans of the Eagles will find solace, however, in the fact that “Hotel California” did win the Grammy for Record of the Year (1).

You Light Up My Life (album).jpgThis brings up the questions of the semantic difference between Record of the Year and Song of the Year.  Record of the Year recognizes an artist’s performance of a song along with the song’s producers; Song of the Year is an award given to the writer or writers of a song.

Today’s Challenge:  Two Timeless Tunes

What are two songs that you consider timeless — two songs that you consider to be works of genius and that you can listen to over and over?  Select two songs that you would argue are timeless classics.  Make your argument for what makes each unique, while giving some of the necessary background on the artist, songwriter, and song genre. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  Putting two songs together, I’ve always loved that trick when it works.  -Paul McCartney

1-http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/its-a-tie-for-song-of-the-year-at-the-20th-annual-grammy-awards

February 22:  Homophone Day

Today is a day of triple 2s:  2/22.  It’s a day we might think of those words in English that are pronounced alike but that are spelled differently, such as two, to, and too.  Homophones are a double edged sword.  On one side they add an enormous level of difficulty to English spelling.  For example, even if you have the spelling of a word “write,” you still have to check to make sure you have the “right” homophone.  On the other side, however, they also allot writers a lot of opportunities to create puns.  For example, you might have heard the old joke:

Why did the father who willed his three boys his cattle ranch demand that they name it “Focus”?

Because it was where the “sons raise meat” (sun’s rays meet).

Most homophones come in pairs (as in knew and new), but like to, two, and too, there are several triple homophones.  Here is a sample list:

aisle, I’ll, isle

aye, eye, I

bole, boll, bowl

cent, scent, sent

cite, sight, site

dew, do, due

for, fore, four

gnu, knew, new

idle, idol, idyll

meat, meet, mete

pare, pair, pear

peak, peek, pique

poor, pore, pour

raise, rays, raze

their, there, they’re

vane, vain, vein

way, weigh, whey

write, right, rite

Today’s Challenge:  Triple Word Play

What are some examples of triple homophones that vex writers, and how can you explain the correct usage of each word?  Select a trio of homophones and research the correct usages of each.  Then, write a clear explanation that explains clearly how each different spelling matches up with the correct meaning and usage of each word.  Below is an example that explains the homophones to, too, and two.

To:  To is a preposition, as in “Today I went to the store.”  It is also frequently used before a verb to form the infinitive, as in Today I hope to buy some new shoes.

Too:  Too can be used as a synonym for “also” as in I’m planning to go to college, too.  Too is also used to indicate excessiveness, as in My teacher gave me too much homework last night.

Two:  Two is used to spell out the number 2, as in, We bought two lobsters for dinner last night.

Use each of the three words correctly in a single sentence looks like this:

I wanted to eat two peppers, but I couldn’t because they were too spicy.

Quotation of the Day: I’m the Whether Man, not the Weather Man, for after all it’s more important to know whether there will be weather than what the weather will be. -Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

 

February 21:  Boom’s Taxonomy Day

Today is the birthday of American psychologist Benjamin Bloom who was born in 1913.  In 1956 Bloom created what has become the most influential model of how people learn and how people think.  Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, which was created over sixty years ago, remains one of the most useful tools for teachers and students to articulate the ways in which the brain processes learning, beginning with foundational learning and moving to higher levels of critical thinking.

The idea behind Bloom’s Taxonomy is to help teachers and students advance their thinking and learning beyond superficial levels.  By classifying thinking into six categories, the model makes the thinking and learning process less abstract, showing how students can process their learning in different ways and at different levels.  

  1. Knowledge – Remember: This is the most fundamental level of learning something.  It is the recall level where students memorize a fact, a definition, or a concept.  If, for example, you were studying the concept of cognitive dissonance, you might write down and memorize the definition.
  1. Comprehension – Understand:  This is where students move beyond just memorization by explaining what they know in their own words, by summarizing main ideas, and by illustrating what they know with examples.  This also involves comparing, contrasting, classifying, inferring, and predicting.  Engaging with the learning in this way, moves the learning from short term memory to long term memory, making it more likely that the learner will be able to master what they are learning.  If, for example, you were studying cognitive dissonance, you might demonstrate your understanding of the term by explaining what cognitive dissonance is in your own words and by giving a specific example to illustrate it.
  1. Application – Apply: This where students use what they have learned by applying it to a new situation or context.  Using the knowledge takes it from the theoretical level to the practical application level, making the learning both more meaningful.  If, for example, you were studying cognitive dissonance, you might apply your knowledge of it by explaining how cognitive dissonance might relate to a situation in which a person buys a new car.
  1. Analysis – Analyze: This is where students examine and break information into parts or classifications.  It involves looking at causes and effects, making inferences, and supporting generalizations with evidence.   If, for example, you were studying cognitive dissonance, you might analyse it by identifying the specific causes and effects that make it happen.
  1. Evaluation – Evaluate: This is where students form and defend opinions about what they are learning.  It involves making judgements based on criteria and supporting those judgements with valid evidence.   If, for example, you were studying cognitive dissonance, you might evaluate it by discussing whether or not the overall effects of cognitive dissonance on individuals is positive or negative.
  1. Synthesis – Create:  This is where students use their knowledge and learning to create something new and original.  It involves combining elements into new patterns or generating alternative ideas or solutions.  For example, if you were studying cognitive dissonance, you might write a research report on the term where you use evidence from two or three difference sources to explain your position on why it is an important concept.  You might also develop your own graphic to illustrate the cause and effect relationships related to the idea.

Notice that each of the six different levels of the taxonomy requires the learner to engage at deeper and deeper levels with the learning, integrating that knowledge in different ways, ways that are successively more  challenging, ways that require more and more cognitive engagement which then leads to higher order thinking and higher levels of mastery.

Today’s Challenge:  Learning in Bloom

How might you create a lesson that teaches a basic abstract concept in a way that students truly learn it?  Take an abstract concept that you know well, such as capitalism, photosynthesis, or rhetoric, and write a lesson plan that involves six different activities that students will do — at each of the six levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  The goal is to help students move from basic understanding to higher order thinking. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Creativity follows mastery, so mastery of skills is the first priority for young talent. -Benjamin Bloom

 

February 20: Four Freedoms Day

On this date in 1943, American artist Norman Rockwell published the first of his four prints depicting “The Four Freedoms.”  The prints were designed to illustrate “The Four Freedoms” that President Franklin D. Roosevelt articulated in his January 6, 1941 State of the Union address:  freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

At the time of Roosevelt’s speech the United States had not yet entered World War II, but Roosevelt saw the dark clouds of war approaching.  His speech was a call for preparedness for war and a call to provide aid to allies fighting against anti-democratic forces around the world. For Roosevelt, the four freedoms were not just American values, they were values that needed to be preserved everywhere in the world:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world. (1)

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, 12 months after Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, the United States ended its isolationism and entered the war.

After hearing Roosevelt’s speech and after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Norman Rockwell was inspired to do his part by trying to capture and illustrate the abstract ideas of the Four Freedoms in concrete, human terms.  The first print, for example, depicts a scene of a local town meeting where a man wearing a plaid shirt and suede jacket stands among his fellow citizens to express his position.  Rockwell based the scene on an actual town meeting that he had attended where citizens gathered to discuss plans to build a new school in their town.  At the meeting, a lone dissenter named Jim Edgerton, a young blue-collar worker, stood to voice his opposition.  Rockwell remembered the scene vividly because although no one at the meeting agreed with Edgerton, they still listened to him respectfully.  

Each of Rockwell’s four prints appeared in the weekly magazine The Saturday Evening Post.  The prints proved so popular that the United States Department of the Treasury used them to promote the sale of war bonds.  The Four Freedoms Tour, which displayed the paintings around the country, raised over $130,000,000 (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Your Four

What is an abstract idea that you could classify into four types or four varieties?  Just as Roosevelt wrote about four types of freedoms, take an idea that you know something about and classify the idea in four distinct different types, such as four types of crime, shoppers, success, study habits, leaders, or bosses.  Make sure to use a single ruling principle for classification.  For example, if your topic was “English Classes” and you classified them as hard, challenging, and easy, your ruling principle for classification would be “level of difficulty.”  Based on this ruling principle, it would be illogical to add a classification called “homework.”  Instead create another category that fits the “level of difficulty” principle, such as “impossible.”  Once you have created your four classifications based on a single ruling principle, write a definition of each one, along with specific illustrating examples that show what makes each type distinctive from the others. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  The past is what you remember, imagine you remember, convince yourself you remember, or pretend to remember. -George Orwell

1-http://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/fdr-the-four-freedoms-speech-text/

2-http://www.americainwwii.com/articles/norman-rockwell-and-the-four-freedoms/

 

February 19: Metacognition Day

Today is the birthday of Nicolaus Copernicus, a man who not only changed the world as we know it, but also the universe.  

Nikolaus Kopernikus.jpgBorn in Poland in 1473, Copernicus was both a polyglot and a polymath.  He spoke Latin, German, Polish, Greek, and Italian.  In addition to holding a doctorate in canon law, he was also a physician, mathematician, classics scholar, translator, governor, diplomat, and economist.  Today, we know him best as the astronomer who challenged the orthodox belief that Earth was the center of the universe.  Fifteen-hundred years after the ancient Greek astronomer Ptolemy established his theory that the planets, the sun, and the stars revolved around a stationary Earth, Copernicus presented his revolutionary theory.  He claimed that not only did the Earth rotate on its axis, but also that Earth and the other planets revolved around the sun.  Copernicus’ work in astronomy was the quintessential achievement of the Renaissance, totally transforming mankind’s view of the universe and paving the way for future work by Galileo, Kepler, and Newton.

A true man of science and of learning, Copernicus embodied the Renaissance ideals of searching for knowledge and challenging conventional wisdom. His opus On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres was published in 1543, the same year he died (1).

One quotation that typifies Copernicus’ scientific approach is one that uses simple terms to express a profound insight:

To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.

Today cognitive psychologists sum up Copernicus’ insight using a single term: metacognition.  Meta is Greek for “about,” and cognition is Latin for “to know.” Metacognition, therefore, is “thinking about thinking.”  More than just being aware that we think, metacognition is the process of monitoring our own thinking.

As Copernicus reminds us, metacognition is not just what we know, it is also being aware of what we don’t know, as well as being aware of the ways we sometimes delude ourselves.  To understand the ways we think best and the ways we fall short of sound thinking, we should always keep in mind the relationship between both knowledge and ignorance.  

Notice, for example, how the following wise voices from the past express this relationship:

-Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.  –Confucius

-The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge. –Daniel J. Boorstin

-The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance. — Socrates

-The recipe for perpetual ignorance is: Be satisfied with your opinions and content with your knowledge. — Elbert Hubbard

-To be conscious that you are ignorant is a great step to knowledge. — Benjamin Disraeli

-The beginning of knowledge is the discovery of something we do not understand. — Frank Herbert

In the book Make It Stick, the authors discuss one specific learning strategy that employs metacognition to help learners be more productive and more efficient in their study.  The strategy is called retrieval practice, and recent studies have documented that this strategy is much more effective than rereading a text, highlighting a text, or even reviewing notes.

The key aspect of retrieval practice is self-quizzing or testing.  When reading a text or listening to a lecture, therefore, the student should generate questions for self-testing.  Once the student has finished reading or listening, he or she should use the questions to recall and recite out loud the facts, concepts, or events from memory, without using the book or notes for reference.  The basic premise of retrieval practice is that learning that sticks is learning that is effortful.  Furthermore, the effortful act of retrieving knowledge from memory strengthens the memory, increasing the likelihood that knowledge will stay in long term memory.  Like walking an unfamiliar path through the woods, the more you travel the path, the more confidence you have in remembering your way without getting lost.  Retrieval practice also decreases the likelihood that students will delude themselves into believing they know what they don’t know. Since the strategy requires that student recite answers aloud, they are able to exercise good metacognition by clearly determining what they know and what they don’t quite know yet (2).

Today’s Challenge:   What Do You Know?

How can you apply retrieval practice to increase your metacognition?  Select an article or short story that you have not read before.  As you read the passage, write down three questions based on the key ideas you’re reading.  When you finish the reading, put the passage away, and attempt to answer each of your questions by reciting the answers out loud.  As you answer each question, rate your level of confidence with your answer on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being you feel highly confident; 1 being you need to look back at the passage to answer).  Once you have finished, take a moment to reflect on the strategy.  How did it feel to answer out loud?  Do you feel like this strategy will work for you in the future? (Common Core Reading 1 – Key Ideas and Details)

Quotation of the Day:  When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it – this is knowledge. — Confucius

1-http://www.nmspacemuseum.org/halloffame/detail.php?id=123

2-Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel.  Make It Stick:  The Science of Successful Learning.  Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 2014.