THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 28

Subject: Thinking and Writing – Montaigne’s Essays

Event:  Montaigne begins writing essays, 1571

The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words.  –William H. Gass

On this day 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 thinkers and writers.

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Portrait of Michel de Montaigne (Wikimedia Commons)

Montaigne 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 essay, 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 exploring those ideas so that the writer knows what he or she really thinks.  In this sense, the essay becomes a form of metacognition, — 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 essays 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

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What kind of essays did Montaigne write, and what can we learn from him about the power of writing?

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.

Sources:

1-”Michel de Montaigne.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

2-Montaigne, Michel de. “On the Inconstancy of Our Actions.” Quotidiana.org.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 27

Subject:  Irony – The Song “Ironic”

Event:  Alanis Morissette releases the song “Ironic,” 1996

On this day 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:

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

Cover art for the Canadian maxi-single CD “Ironic” by Alanis Morrissette (Wikipedia)

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 a 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 marriage 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%) (1)

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What are three different kinds of irony, and how is each distinctly different?

Challenge – Truly Ironic Truisms:  Often some of the most profound statements have a twinge of irony that makes the reader stop and think.  Notice the irony in the following three quotations by three philosophers:

Common sense is the most widely shared commodity in the world, for every man is convinced that he is well supplied with it. -Rene Descartes

The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be.  -Socrates

It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets. -Voltaire

Research quotations that contain irony.  Find one that you like, and quote it.  Then, explain why you like it.

ALSO ON THIS DAY:  

-February 27, 2004:  The New York Times published an article documenting that of the 3,250 walk buttons at crosswalks in the Big Apple, more than 2,500 do not function, making them, in effect, mechanical placebo buttons.

Sources:

1-”Ironic Alanis Morissette – The Song Has No Irony” Is It Ironic website.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 26

Subject:  Fallacy of the Single Cause – “Give Me One Reason”

Event:  Tracy Chapman wins Best Rock Song, 1997 

What song won the Grammy for Best Rock song on this day in 1997?  The answer to this question has a single right answer:  “Give Me One Reason” by Tracy Chapman.

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Front cover of CD “Give Me One Reason” (Wikimedia Commons)

Simple factual questions like this have a single right answer; however, life is full of questions that are much more complex, such as the following ones:

-Why did Rome fall?

-Why did a serial killer like Ted Bundy become such an evil person?

-Why has there been an increase in the number of school shootings over the past 20 years in the United States?

Despite the fact that these questions cannot be answered with a single, straightforward reason, we nevertheless instinctively tend to oversimplify our complex world by satisfying ourselves with a single root cause.  

As Tracy Chapman reminds us, we are too often fixated and satisfied with “one reason” or cause when we should realize that most “effects” come about from multiple “causes.”  In the world of logic, this error is known as the fallacy of the single cause (also known as causal reductionism or causal oversimplification).

One classic example of where the fallacy of the single cause might have come into play is the murder trial of O.J. Simpson in 1995. On September 28, 1995, Simpson’s trial was finally wrapping up after 11 months.  Of the millions of words presented to the jury, it was just seven words proclaimed on that September day that stood out.  Defense Attorney Jonny Cochran was speaking to the jury about a key piece of evidence, a pair of gloves found at the scene of the crime.  Earlier in the trial when the prosecution requested that Simpson put on the gloves, it appeared that the gloves were too small for Simpson’s hands.  Cochran was reminding the jury of this fact during his closing argument, saying “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”  A few days later, as the entire nation watched, the jury announced their verdict:  not guilty.

Jurors might have looked at the whole range of evidence and testimony that was presented to them over the eleven months of the trial; nevertheless, Cochran’s closing argument opened the door for them to acquit Simpson based on a single reason: the glove didn’t fit (1).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What does the fallacy of the single cause tell us about how our thinking can go wrong?

Challenge – When Less is Not More:  What is an example of a complex question that people might try to oversimplify by identifying a single cause?  Explain why the question is too complex to be answered with a single cause.

Sources:

1-Dobelli, Rolf.  The Art of Thinking Clearly New York:  Harper Paperback, 2014. 

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

THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 25

Subject:  Epistemology – Bunk vs. Debunk

Event:  Felix Walker from Buncombe County, North Carolina gives a speech, 1820.

On this day in 1820, Felix Walker, a congressman representing Buncombe County, North Carolina, delivered a speech that eventually led to the creation of a new 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 to 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’s specific words were:  “I shall not be speaking to the House but to Buncombe.”

Buncombe County, North Carolina (Wikimedia Commons)

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” (1).

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).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What are the origins of the noun “bunk” and the verb “debunk”?

Challenge – Debunk A Myth:  Since 1994, David and Barbara Mikkelson have been a presence on the internet, debunking false information.  At first, their work revolved mainly around debunking urban legends, but today Snopes.com fact-checks a wide range of subjects.  Visit Snopes and explore some of the topics.  What is one specific subject that Snopes has determined is bunk, and how specifically does Snopes debunk it?

Sources:

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

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

THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 24

Subject:  Distillation and Simplicity – The Two Things Game

Event:  “This Column Will Change Your Life:  The Two Things,” 2012

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

On this day in 2012, The Guardian newspaper published an article 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:

-Find out who is buying your product.

-Find more buyers like them.

The Two Things about Advertising:

– Get people’s attention

– Overwhelm them with charm.

Two Things about Trial Lawyering:

– 90% is just showing up (borrowed from Woody Allen’s philosophy of life).

– When you are winning, keep your mouth shut.

The Two Things about Neuroscience:

-Neurons strengthen or weaken signal strength between connected synapses.

-If you think you’ve found the part of the brain that controls _________, you’re probably wrong.

The Two Things about Writing:

– Include what’s necessary.

– Leave everything else out.

The Two Things about Editing:

– Know the rules.

– Pay attention. (2)

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the Two Things Game, and why do people play it?

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. 

ALSO ON THIS DAY:

February 24, 1955:  Steve Jobs was born on this day. He said, “I would trade all of my technology for an afternoon with Socrates.”

Sources:

1-Burkeman, Oliver. “This Column Will Change Your Life:  The Two Things.” The Guardian 24 February 2012.

2-The Two Things by Glen Whitman

THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 23

Subject:  Attention – TED Talk Time Limit

Event:  TED Founded, 1984

In 2005, Time magazine reported that research conducted by Microsoft Corporation concluded that the attention span of the average individual dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2005. Time also noted that the attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds (1).

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Bill Gates at TED 2009 (Wikimedia Commons)

A bit more optimistic view of the human attention span can be found at TED conferences, where the rule is no presentation may exceed 18-minutes.  It’s hard to argue with the success of TED Talks; they are streamed more than 2 million times per day.

TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) was created by Richard Saul Wurman, who hosted the first TED conference in Monterey, California, on this day, Thursday, February 23, 1984.  Attendees paid $475 to watch a variety of 18-minute presentations.  In 2009, TED began to depart from its once-a-year model by granting licenses to third parties for community-level TEDx events.  The TED.com website was launched in 2006, and today there are TED events in more than 130 countries.

As TED curator Chris Anderson explains, the time limit is no accident; instead, it is a purposeful standard that helps both the speaker communicate clearly and the audience learn more efficiently:

It is long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people’s attention. It turns out that this length also works incredibly well online. It’s the length of a coffee break. So, you watch a great talk, and forward the link to two or three people. It can go viral, very easily. The 18-minute length also works much like the way Twitter forces people to be disciplined in what they write. By forcing speakers who are used to going on for 45 minutes to bring it down to 18, you get them to really think about what they want to say. What is the key point they want to communicate? It has a clarifying effect. It brings discipline. 

Communication coach Carmine Gallo explains the logic of the 18-minute time rule based on the physiology of the brain:

The 18-minute rule also works because the brain is an energy hog. The average adult human brain only weighs about three pounds, but it consumes an inordinate amount of glucose, oxygen, and blood flow. As the brain takes in new information and is forced to process it, millions of neurons are firing at once, burning energy and leading to fatigue and exhaustion. (2)

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the rationale behind the 18-minute time limit for TED Talks?

Challenge – Under 18 But Not Minor:  Some of the most effective and memorable speeches in history come in under the 18-minute rule.  For example, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which he gave at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, was 17 minutes long.  Speaking at a normal pace, the average 18-minute speech would be approximately 2,500 words.  Do some research on great speeches, and find one that you like that is under 2,500 words.  Explain the rhetorical context of the speech and, besides the fact that it is less than 18-minutes long, explain why you feel it is effective.

Sources:

1-McSpadden, Kevin. “You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish” Time.com 14 May 2015.  

2-Gallo, Carmine. “The Science Behind TED’s 18-Minute Rule.”  Linkedin.com 13 March 2014.

THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 22

Subject:  Pessimism – The Porcupine’s Dilemma

Event:  Birthday of German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, 1788

Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom. -Arthur Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer, who was born on this day in 1788, is philosophy’s best-known curmudgeon. He was born into a wealthy German family, but tragedy struck when he was just a teen:  his father’s suicide caused him, like Buddha, to begin reflecting on life’s suffering:  “In my seventeenth year, without any earned school education, I was gripped by the misery of life as Buddha was in his youth when he saw sickness, old age, pain and death.” 

Arthur Shopengauer by Gennadij Jerszow.jpg
Sculpture of Arthur Schopenhauer by Gennady Jerszow (Wikimedia Commons)

Schopenhauer had little doubt that the glass of life was half empty; nevertheless, he still resolved as a philosopher to record and share his thoughts: “Life is an unpleasant business; I have resolved to spend it reflecting upon it.”

Just in case anyone doubted his pessimistic outlook, Schopenhauer entitled one of his works Studies in Pessimism (1851).  Here he gives a less than glowing review to life:

In early youth, as we contemplate our coming life, we are like children in a theatre before the curtain is raised, sitting there in high spirits and eagerly waiting for the play to begin. It is a blessing that we do not know what is really going to happen. Could we foresee it, there are times when children might seem like innocent prisoners, condemned, not to death, but to life, and as yet all unconscious of what their sentence means.

There are two closely related words, however, that present a ray of sunshine and hope in Schopenhauer’s otherwise gloomy world view: ascetic and aesthetic.

“Ascetic” refers to the monk-like existence of a person who lives a life of self-denial.  The ascetic overcomes bodily desires and appetites, never marries, and embraces a life of austerity and humility. Schopenhauer lived a very simple, regimented life.  He never married, and lived alone, except for a pet poodle named “Atma,” a Hindu word for the supreme universal soul.

“Aesthetic” refers to the branch of philosophy that contemplates and explores the nature of art and beauty. Attending the theater, reading poetry, or examining a painting allow us to hold a mirror up to life.  Schopenhauer advised us to respect all artistic creations:  “Treat a work of art like a prince.  Let it speak to you first.”  Of all the arts, music was especially important to Schopenhauer; he was known to play his flute every evening after dinner (1).

Schopenhauer also turned to nature as a means to reflect on life.  In his famous parable called the “Porcupine’s Dilemma,” he holds up the social habits of porcupines  as providing wisdom into the tension between intimacy and autonomy that lives in each of us.  Sigmund Freud was so inspired by Schopenhauer’s prickly metaphor that he kept a bronze porcupine figurine on his desk:

A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told—in the English phrase—to keep their distance. By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself. (2)

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What are the two areas of life that Schopenhauer turned to to find hope in what he saw as an otherwise hopeless existence?

Challenge – Fables of Flora and Fauna:  Like Schopenhauer, the philosopher Alain de Botton advised us to examine nature:  “Nature is a kind of book, and when we open our eyes to it, find its pages filled with distinctive lessons about wisdom and serenity” (3).  Do a bit of research on some specific plants or animals.  Select one that you find particularly interesting.  Explain how what you learned about his plant or animal might serve as a parable for the human species.

ALSO ON THIS DAY:  

February 22, 1930:   Today is the birthday of psychologist Walter Mischel. Mischel’s marshmallow test gives us unique insight into the role that willpower plays in individual success.  Summarizing his work, Mischel said the following:

“. . . When I am asked to summarize the fundamental message from research on self-control, I recall “Descartes’s famous dictum cogito, ergo sum—“I think, therefore I am.” What has been discovered about mind, brain, and self-control lets us move from his proposition to “I think, therefore I can change what I am.” 

Sources:

1-Warburton, Nigel.  A Little History of Philosophy. New Haven:  Yale University Press, 201.

2-Schopenhauer, Arthur. “Studies in Pessimism – A Few Parables”  (1913)   translated by Thomas Bailey Saunders.  Wikisource.

https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Studies_in_Pessimism/A_Few_Parables

3-”The Wisdom of NatureThe School of Life

THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 21

Subject:  Thinking/Learning – Bloom’s Taxonomy 

Event:  Birthday of Benjamin Bloom, 1913

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

Today is the birthday of American psychologist Benjamin Bloom.  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.

Bloom's Taxonomy.png
Bloom’s Taxonomy (Wikimedia Commons)

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.  

Knowledge – Remember/Define/Memorize: 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.

Comprehension – Understand/Explain/Paraphrase:  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.

Application – Use/Demonstrate/Sketch: 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 and more practical.  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.

Analysis – Examine/Classify/Dissect: 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 analyze it by identifying the specific causes and effects that make it happen.

Evaluation – Appraise/Argue/Judge: This is where students form and defend opinions about what they are learning.  It involves making judgments based on criteria and supporting those judgments 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 are positive or negative.

Synthesis – Create/Design/Compose:  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 different 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.

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What are six different levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, and how does the Taxonomy make learning less abstract and help push students to higher-order thinking?

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. 

ALSO ON THIS DAY:  February 21, 1962:  American author David Foster Wallis was born on this day. In 2005, Wallis presented the commencement address entitled “This Is Water”  to the graduating class at Kenyon College, a liberal arts college in Gambier, Ohio.

Wallace began his address with an anecdote:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

As Wallis continued his address, he challenged the graduates to approach their lives philosophically by thinking and reflecting consciously, paying attention to the obvious realities that, though seemingly obvious, are — like water to the fish — often the hardest to see.  The freedom provided by education, according to Wallace, is the ability to choose to pay attention and see what is hidden in plain sight.

Sources:

1-Bloom, B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc, 1956.

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 into four distinctly 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/