January 31, 2006

Summary of Langer's "Speaking of Knowing ..."

Langer initially studied writing in the disciplines (WID). She discovered that writing itself, as an activity, does not necessarily promote the reflective assimilation into new ways of thinking that theorists of WID advocate. If students are asked only to “summarize information and points of view that had been presented to them by the teacher or the textbook� (234), they do not develop the particular skills of interpretation and argument prized in each discipline.

Realizing this, Langer turned her attention to “what students are asked to learn� and “what teachers look for as evidence of learning� (234). She contends that instructors must “conceptualize student learning in terms of [how] students think about and discuss the subjects� (234), rather than merely as the acquisition of content knowledge. Further, instructors must communicate discipline-specific ways of knowing to their students, a process that can be facilitated by writing. In Langer’s view, classrooms are training grounds for apprentice scholars, who find models in the instructor and the texts for how the discipline generates and communicates its knowledge. Writing is a way to practice those methods.

Studies by Langer and others have found that there is great debate among scholars (as evidenced by professional writings) about how to think in their fields, and even how students should be taught to think in their fields, but this concern for evaluating methodology is rarely transmitted to students in high school and college classes. Despite some pedagogical calls for greater emphasis on critical inquiry, instruction focuses on content. Interviews with teachers revealed an implicit belief that learning content would lead to higher order understanding of the discipline (238).

Unsurprisingly, researchers noted significant differences across disciplines in how instructors talked about their work and what they expected from their students. But to varying degrees across all disciplines, instructors spoke only in general terms about the kinds of analysis and interpretation they sought from their students. Their comments on student papers were similarly general and content-related.

Langer concludes that professionals need to clarify for themselves what constitutes sound practice in their disciplines (241). (Apparently the methodological disputes have left scholars feeling less confident about situating themselves in and teaching a particular approach.) There needs to be greater articulation in pedagogical literature of how to incorporate disciplinary ways of thinking into courses and how to communicate them clearly and specifically to students.